Possible inappropriate job interview question?
April 22, 2013 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Had a job interview over a week ago and can't get a couple of the questions out of my head

The job was for a telephone crisis counsellor. It was with a prominent mental illness organisation in Australia.

Questions at hand:
1) Have you been exposed to or experienced mental illness in the past? (Opened ended question where a response other than yes/no was required)
2) What is the hardest mental experience you have faced? (Opened ended question that was followed up with more questions about the experience after I answered it)

-I don't take much issue with question one - I understanding their reasoning for this question, I just would have preferred it to be a yes/no answer, but I do understand it's value.

- I do take issue with question two. I didn't want to answer it, but because I was in an interview setting I felt pressure to answer the question. I lost a friend to suicide six months ago - I don't talk about it regularly, but when I do it's because I want to - not because I have been forced to discuss it. Once I answered the question the interviewer asked three more questions about my friend and how I coped afterwards.

I don't think my reluctance to answer the question makes me any less capable of performing the job. I believe that I have a right to keep my personal life personal. If anything, I believe a distinction between personal information and work information is highly valued in this field of work. I think the reason why I feel so uncomfortable about it, is because I felt like my personal (and painful) experiences are being used as some form of commodity - I know that may sound irrational, but that's what it felt like.

1) Were these questions OK? (particularly the second question)
2) Are these questions something I will face on a regular basis (working in mental health)?
3) If so, is there a way I can answer these questions without getting too personal and without limiting my performance in the interview?

It may be important to note - I am very new in the field - I completed my psychology degree at the end of last year and have only been doing interviews for the last three months or so. Although I have been asked by other organisations about my dealings with mental health they have been yes/no answers and even more general than the ones asked in this interview. The point is, I don't know whether this was appropriate, I didn't feel good about it after the interview, and I need to know if I need to suck it up and get used to it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Given the context of the job - telephone crisis counselor - the questions seem extremely relevant and appropriate. You're going to be in a position to offering mental health support to people in crisis - your prospective employer needs to get a sense of how you have dealt with mental health issues in the past.

I would be surprised if they -didn't- ask questions such as these.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:14 AM on April 22, 2013 [19 favorites]

Regarding your third question, could you prepare an alternative response, which cites a mental experience that was difficult for different reasons?

For example, a time when you have had to counsel a friend and give them advice they did not want to hear. Or, a time when you have had to mediate between family members.

They won't know whether or not what you are telling them is the apex of your experience of mental trauma - all that matters is that it is genuine and you can demonstrate that you handled it ok.
posted by greenish at 6:19 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know about crisis counseling as a field, but in interviews several things are customary:

1. The question tests your judgment as well as probes for an answer - that is, can you come up with an appropriate answer that tells the interviewer the "hidden" part of what they want to know. In another field, for example, you might be asked about a time you had a conflict with a supervisor. You should never describe an actual conflict with a supervisor - the "hidden" part of the question is to test whether you are bad at figuring out unwritten rules, have a negative attitude, are likely to be in conflict a lot. The correct answer is always to say that you don't have any conflicts with a supervisor and then describe how you handled a miscommunication or some similar challenge - "I've never really had a conflict with a supervisor - everyone I've worked with has always been great. In the job before last (never your last job!) we did have a bad communication process, which I resolved by [happy proactive self-blaming solution]". So it's quite possible that the interviewer does not in fact want to know about [tragic situation in your life]; they really want to know about [challenging-yet-work-appropriate] situation in your life. Probably a situation that would apply to the job at hand.

2. So this is what you prepare - not your actual most challenging situation, but a challenging situation which is relevant to the job at hand and which you can talk about calmly, in productive terms. So not this recent tragedy, but perhaps something like "I helped my best friend with [serious problem]" or "I had [volunteer experience] with wrenching aspect".

Never assume that a job interview is about getting you to tell the strict truth (about subjective things rather than employment history, etc) or reveal deep personal secrets. It is always about how you negotiate those kinds of questions. Think of a job interview as a performance rather than the provision of information.
posted by Frowner at 6:20 AM on April 22, 2013 [15 favorites]

1) These questions were absolutely okay. These are things they need to know before you work as a crisis counsellor.

2) Yes, you will be asked these again. Possibly by the people on the other end of the telephone.

3) Yes. As you've identified, you don't need to do full self-disclosure every time, with everyone. You can be clinically detached; this is probably part of what they're looking for. You need to be emotionally invested to some extent, but you have to be a little bit removed. You seem to have identified that aspect, which is great. At the same time, you have to be able to show why you care. I'm in nursing school, and I keep being told "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

What makes you want to be a telephone crisis counsellor? Was there a specific moment where you thought of this career choice? That could be your answer to these questions.
posted by RainyJay at 6:27 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

They honestly sound pretty standard to me. I understand why they made you uncomfortable, but it's an uncomfortable job. They didn't cross any barriers in terms of being discriminatory, and they need to know how you are going to be effected by the type of things you'll be coping with on the phone.
posted by windykites at 6:53 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

That second question is important because you will be dealing with suicide regularly in your job. The fact that you've had such recent and personal experience with it is going to affect how you deal with it in the course of your work every day. They need to know you won't choke up and start crying on the phone when you're talking to a client about *their* situation. Great question. As mentioned above, maybe get an alternate answer sorted out in your head, because you will certainly be asked similar questions in future interviews.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:05 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

They seem like perfectly reasonable questions to me. I work for a mental health charity and we regularly ask similar questions.

As Frowner has said it's not just about the strict truth - it's about the way you answer the question.

I don't know the specific counselling context - but in my work you could expect to be asked these questions by clients and I expect that part of what is being textyed is your understanding of mental health, and your ability to manage personal and potentially stressful questions in an appropriate manner.

They are likely also look for a reasonable ability to reflect on your experiences and show you've learnt from them.
posted by Gilgongo at 7:45 AM on April 22, 2013

Want to nth that the questions are uncomfortable because it's an uncomfortable job. I was a telephone crisis counselor and hospital advocate as a volunteer for awhile and was asked that sort of thing when I interviewed. Then we went through a training program that was definitely very uncomfortable at times, but it was to prepare us and basically to let us experience our feelings of discomfort in a lower-stakes environment so that when we were actually dealing with clients we could react in a calm manner. The training program was pretty much anything goes, so you might want to think about that when considering if you want to take this job since you will likely do something similar.

That said, with the questions you were asked you could always use examples that are not directly about you, especially for the second one, and answer in a clinically detached way. The questions aren't really about you - for example they're not asking whether or not you've been hospitalized or anything like that.

I think that type of question is also asked to gauge your reaction and see if you would be a good fit for the position.
posted by fromageball at 7:57 AM on April 22, 2013

Concur in that these would be inappropriate questions for most jobs, but not in the very narrow context of an interview to be a telephone crisis counsellor.
posted by modernnomad at 9:37 AM on April 22, 2013

Yes, these seem appropriate to me given the context of the job.

For reference, a friend of mine was hired at an organization that provides mental health services to adults. One of the interview questions was "If a client started masturbating in front of you, what would you do?" I think the fact that she didn't balk at the question and gave a good answer contributed to her being hired.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:25 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

They need to know you are emotionally resilient enough to do the job. You will be exposed to many difficult things. Is this something you can deal with?

From your perspective, an important part of this work is the care of yourself. You are going to encounter many things that make you uncomfortable. You will need to be able to deal with these otherwise you will burn out and potentially wind up in a crisis situation yourself.

I know that telephone crisis counselling is considered the-thing-that-you-do when you finish your pscyh degree, but it's not necessarily the best thing for you to do if you're still dealing with someone's death.

The difficulty you are having with question 2 could be that it's too soon for you to be doing this kind of work. Question 2 was not asking you whether you have lost someone to suicide - and it was not forcing you to talk about it. Question 2 is actually far less personal, or can be made to be far less personal, than Question 1 - it is actually very open and deliberately vague.

You will encounter many situations where you will be forced to deal with your own feelings around your friend's death - I really suggest counselling for yourself as well.
posted by heyjude at 2:01 PM on April 22, 2013

It is absolutely crucial in jobs like this to weed out people who will not be appropriate in the provision of clinical services. They *must* get to know you on these levels, and I can see why it would feel invasive. While behavior-based interviewing is really useful for any environment or career, it's absolutely necessary to delve deeper for this kind of work. I've done both phone and in-person work like this, and if you find this triggering, well, get ready.

I do agree with you, and don't think you're wrong, about where and how you're setting your boundaries, however. That being said, if your program had been geared to becoming a psychologist or therapist, instead of being a psychology degree, part of your process would have been therapeutic supervision, in which you would be relating your personal responses to your work. This can be an incredibly useful process, and while it's much more of a "safe space" than a job interview, I think this agency is indicating to you that they may believe in the merits of that. My experience working with case managers and crisis counselors is that, even in group supervision, there were times when it was useful for us to at least acknowledge our own helpful or unhelpful responses and biases to the situations at hand. People bring a lot to this work, not all of it good.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:44 PM on April 22, 2013

I interview candidates for volunteer crisis line positions in the UK and I would agree with the posters above who say that these questions are completely appropriate for the role. And I'll also say that answering them less than honestly is not in their, or your, best interests.

These questions are not really about seeing whether you will be able to support the callers (the recruiters will get that from other questions). They are about whether you will be able to cope with the nature of the calls.

In this kind of role, you will need to, and be expected to, offload to fellow workers - most of whom will not be your close friends. If you don't offload, you will take your calls home with you, and over time, that will build up in your head. Confidentiality rules will prevent you talking to your partner / family / friends about the traumatic calls you take. Offloading (aka Supervision) is the way that people stay sane in these jobs. If you're not able to talk about your feelings and emotions to people who are virtual strangers (albeit very supportive ones who understand what you're going through), then you're not going to be able to do this job for very long. These questions are about showing that you will be able to offload effectively and won't be overwhelmed and emotionally drained and quit within a couple of months. If you can't do this in an interview situation, they'll assume that you won't be able to do this once you're in the job.

We prep potential volunteers before the interview about what they're going to be asked about and explain that we want them to be open with us, and why. We try and provide a supportive environment (as much as an interview can be). And we usually reject people who aren't willing to share their feelings with us, because we know from experience that if you can't talk about your feelings, you're going to find the role very difficult to cope with as the weeks and months go on. And we have a responsibility to not put people in that situation. (Also, we don't want to waste our time training someone who is going to bail after a couple of months...)

You're going into a job where you're expecting strangers to share their deepest and darkest feelings with you. But it sounds like you're not willing to do that yourself (to your colleagues, not to the callers, obviously!). My advice is to put your money where your mouth is and be open and honest in interviews. If you prepare "good" answers, you're defeating the purpose. Yes, you may get the job, but you're putting your own mental health at risk in the medium-long term.

Personal note - I ended up in tears in my own interview for this volunteer role after disclosing the fact that I was bipolar and then talking about a friend's multiple suicide attempts. Immediately after the interview, I thought I'd blown it. I later found out (over a beer at the pub 2 years later with one of the volunteers who interviewed me) that before my interview, I had been rated as a "maybe" because I had come across as too reserved and closed earlier on in the selection process, and they were worried about my ability to cope with the calls I'd be taking. By sharing some very personal stuff in my interview, I proved that I was going to be able to share my feelings about difficult calls, and allow others to help me get through them. Best thing I ever did.

Good luck with the interviews!
posted by finding.perdita at 3:21 PM on April 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

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