Disorganized Pre-Interview Process - How to probe further?
November 22, 2016 6:42 AM   Subscribe

I have an interview tomorrow with a government agency that I suspect might not be a good fit for me. I'm looking for professional/polite ways to investigate this during my interview.

My interview with this agency has been rescheduled three times at the last minute, which worries me as I don't want to work for indecisive people who frequently make changes at the last minute. They know that I am employed, but are not apologetic and do not acknowledge that their constant rescheduling could pose problems for me. I'm also concerned due to other issues that have come up, like an HR contact who insists on calling me despite my request that she only e-mail me as I can't take personal calls at my current job. I just tried to print some required forms for my interview at a copy shop (I don't have a printer at home), and they won't print because of the security settings the agency placed on them. I notified the agency and was told it was a "very common" problem and here's a Word document to use instead.

I might be reading too much into these incidents, but they do indicate a level of unprofessionalism and disorganization that I'm not comfortable with. How can I ask about this appropriately tomorrow? It could be that only one or two employees are creating the issues I've been dealing with.
posted by Stonkle to Work & Money (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been with a federal agency for seven years. Nothing that you've said here surprises me. It varies by group, but this is not unheard of. Getting hired into the government is a strange, fickle process.

I would ask the general age demographics of the group you're interviewing for, because these sorts of problems tend to be more common with the older generation of federal employees. The younger set tends to be more in line with how you believe things should operate. Ask what a typical day is like - are there high-priority projects that pop up at the last minute without warning? Do employees spend a lot of days in meetings?

The time between the mid-November to the new year is particularly challenging in regards to scheduling - so this could just also be a factor of the time period and not necessarily how they operate the rest of the year.
posted by umwhat at 6:52 AM on November 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's not clear who "they" is. Especially in large agencies, the hiring manager may have to cede control of the hiring process to the HR department or the department administrators. It's obviously a bit annoying to work at a place with a lousy HR office or admin staff, but it's not necessarily reflective of the environment that you'll actually be working in daily.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

One thing I would note is that HR tends to be a completely separate department from the specific division of the agency you're seeking to work with and shouldn't be representative of the organization as a whole. In my experience, gov't HR has typically been not-great and oftentimes a bigger hindrance to the hiring process (getting in the way of what the hiring division wants, misunderstanding what the hiring division needs, being completely unresponsive to potentially great candidates).

It's an introduction to some of the frustrations of the government hiring process. I'm ambivalent about whether you should bring it up in the interview - you'll have to read the room and see whether they would be receptive to hearing about your poor experience, and i wouldn't be surprised if you did tell them they nod in sympathy.
posted by Karaage at 6:59 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

What umwhat said, with the additional point that the last couple of weeks have been particularly... let's say "unexpectedly interesting" at many, many government agencies at all levels.

As for how to deal with it, ask your interviewers "What does a typical day look like for you?" Their reaction to that question will tell you a lot. Even someone who doesn't really have a typical day can answer that question well if they at least have a comfortable (to them) structure around them. But if everyone just laughs nervously and throws up their hands, yeah, that place might not be a good fit for you.
posted by Etrigan at 6:59 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hi. I should have clarified that I'm not interested in speculation over what happened and why. I'd like some questions for the interview to determine if disorganization is normal at this agency. I'd rather not bring up the problems pre-interview. The HR department is part of the agency.

Please stick to the question, thanks!

I am not in America.
posted by Stonkle at 7:08 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

What do you plan to ask? When they get to the point where they say 'do you have any questions for us you say "Are you guys always this disorganized?" There's really no up side to this. You had some scheduling problems, seems pretty typical, a .pdf you couldn't print and someone who ignored your wishes about phone calls (bummer, but it doesn't mean it's complete chaos there). I'd let it go, the HR department may not be reflective of the rest of the organization.
posted by fixedgear at 7:16 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

"You had to reschedule this interview X times. Has this been an atypically busy period, or is this the type of environment where unexpected priorities tend to demand immediate attention?"
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:21 AM on November 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Given your location, something to think about is whether this agency actually does a lot of external hiring. Some crown/arms-length agencies in particular only very rarely hire so it's not surprising that their process is kind of chaotic.

I wouldn't reference this in the interview, though. You're probably going to have a set of structured interview questions to answer, and it's difficult to make one's personality shine through the STAR method, so any question you ask at the end needs to put you in the best light possible.
posted by blerghamot at 7:28 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think in the interview stage you can ask the aforementioned "what is your typical day like?" and "what is most challenging / most rewarding about [the position] / [working for Agency X] / [working for The Government]?" That gives the interviewer or panel an opportunity to share the upsides and downsides with a very neutral prompt.

At the offer stage, it would be more appropriate to say something like, "I noticed the hiring process was very bureaucratic, is that reflective of the culture in Department?" There's still some risk of ruffling feathers but if you get to the offer phase it might be a risk you're willing to take to ensure a good fit.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:29 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've found that the simple question of inquiring about organizational culture is open ended enough to reveal some very telling things.
posted by nathaole at 7:43 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

My experience selling to government agencies at all levels is that this sort of disorganization is business as usual. Appointments being cancelled and deadlines being missed are just part of my job. I can't see why the hiring function would run any differently.
posted by COD at 8:01 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I really can't see any variant on "Why are you guys so disorganized?" as going over well, especially prior to the offer stage. They're certainly not going to tell you, "Oh, well, Bob here who keeps calling you is a total screwup, but we swear, the rest of us are fine!"

You're clearly offended by the rescheduling, which is your right as it is legitimately annoying, but don't let it metastasize into a Dealbreaking Concern About the Job. If you're used to being more courted and cosseted in the interview process, you're not going to get that in the public sector. If that's really important to you--that's the sign I'd be looking for that the public sector is not for you. It's generally an all-cog-all-the-time experience.
posted by praemunire at 8:43 AM on November 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just wanted to mention that this level of disorganization characterized the interview and selection process a young person I know just went through - for entry to the (non-US but Western Anglo country) army.

I don't think you can use answers to any questions asked at interview as an indication of too much beyond HR's people's views. And it'll hurt you. Better to get insider info from people involved or do deep and precise Google searches to pick up any griping you think might matter. (Unless this government agency has reviews on Glassdoor or Indeed.)

The *army* is like this...
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:50 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I asked a somewhat different but maybe similar- enough- to- be- helpful question a few years ago: http://ask.metafilter.com/258829/So-uh-would-you-consider-your-organization-a-terrible-place-to-work
posted by geegollygosh at 9:22 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

FWIW if I were hiring someone, and we rescheduled three times at the last minute, someone asking directly and politely about it would establish that they can communicate clearly even when the topic may invite conflict (which is a valuable professional skill), and also give me a chance to apologize and explain it's not how I expect people in my group to act. So I'd probably think better of you.

Obviously others may respond differently and on some level the question is how much you want the job and how off-putting you'd find a boss who would hold a question like that against you (or perhaps thought treating employees like that was fine.) The direct question could establish this but might indeed count against you, though I'd hope not. Also it's not the only way to get the info--if you are interviewing with your future peers you can probably ask one of them in a way that invites them to blame HR and see which way they go.

*Some variation on "I'm here because I'm excited about the opportunity but obviously the rescheduling was extremely inconvenient and a bit off putting to be honest" as intro I suppose.
posted by mark k at 10:56 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

My sister once asked "how would you describe the morale in your team?" at an interview in a local govt agency. The interviewers looked sheepishly at each other, and after a pause, one of them said "so I guess you've heard about our recent difficulties..." and launched into a whole story about their recently-former senior manager who was a bully and the protracted semi-public process by which they'd eventually got rid of that person. Of course my sister had no clue about any of that, she was just asking an open question. She didn't take the job.

For me - "morale" is maybe a bit too pointed or leading. But open questions about the culture of their organisation might lead in the direction you want to go.
posted by rd45 at 10:49 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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