HR: Do you speak it?
July 24, 2018 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I am interviewing for admin assistant work in Washington, DC. Help me understand qualities recruiters say they are looking for.

In interviews, I typically ask what qualities would make someone a good fit/successful in the position. Twice I have been told they were looking for humility, or someone who was humble. I've never heard that response before and I am not sure what it means.

What does that mean in the context of an interview, when you're trying to present your best self?

I feel like this is HR code for something and I am missing the nuance.

Can HR folks/recruiters help clarify? Thanks!
posted by Space Kitty to Work & Money (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not in HR but I'm an executive assistant, and I think what they're looking for with that descriptor is someone who doesn't take offense when you're asked to get coffee.

In my career I've run across a lot of people who seem apologetic when they ask me to do menial tasks, apparently expecting that I'll take offense. But the truth is that if anybody in the office is going to do menial tasks, it's going to be me. That's why I'm here, to lighten the load on people who make more money than I do. I think my attitude about this - that being asked to do something a monkey could do doesn't mean anybody thinks I'm a monkey - is a big reason why I quickly ended up the Executive Assistant to CEOs of large companies and have stayed there for my entire career.
posted by something something at 9:26 AM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

Hmm - I spent 12 years in HR (mostly recruiting) and never had that come up.

Maybe an attitude of 'can do', even for tasks that aren't in line with the position? Are you interviewing for larger or smaller companies?

Perhaps a sign that there's not a ton of room for advancement or that titles don't (or shouldn't) mean a lot?

Just spit-balling here - hopefully others can weigh in.
posted by Twicketface at 9:26 AM on July 24, 2018

They're telling you that you're going to be an administrative assistant for your entire tenure with the company, there is no growth for you, don't expect it and don't ask.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on July 24, 2018 [28 favorites]

(And also that you will be getting people's coffee and loading the dishwasher.)
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on July 24, 2018 [15 favorites]

I would ask them! "Humility - that's interesting! Can you give some examples of how a humble person would succeed here, and how their humbleness would enhance their performance?"

It probably means one or more of the things mentioned above, or it could also mean that the last person in this role thought of themself as one step below God Almighty and everyone else got sick of them lording over everyone.
posted by mskyle at 9:31 AM on July 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

In DC in particular, I would assume that means the Big Boss and maybe some of the Big Boss Direct Underlings are very ego-driven and will be insufferable.

Humility is essential because you're going to spend all day supporting somebody who thinks s/he is God's Gift and is so important to the professional circle that you should feel lucky to be allowed to fetch coffee.

Not sure what industry you're considering, but if it's political or a national-level non-profit, please beware of egos. Think carefully about your tolerance for such before you sign on the dotted line.
posted by mccxxiii at 9:41 AM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I haven't heard the word "humility" used, but I did have jobs where I was told I'd have to "put any ego or pride aside", which turned out to be code in the first instance for the fact that I'd be performing tasks that some people might find humiliating (mostly related to janitorial work, which is not humiliating imo), and in the second instance that I'd be dealing with extremely difficult personalities and it was *absolutely vital to the goals of the project* that no matter how badly they treated me (and they would treat me badly) I was never to respond with anger or even irritation unless they did something actually illegal. (In that second job my ability to do this turned out to be hugely beneficial for the project and *in the long run* to me personally, although in the short term it was hell and I do not recommend it for most people.)
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:42 AM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

So far, it's been medical/front office where the understanding was there would be multitasking/reception, and temp EA at a pharma company.

I am positioning myself as a career admin so following your responses with interest.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:44 AM on July 24, 2018

In my job assessing job candidates for private equity firms and other companies, the term humility comes up a lot as a desirable characteristic. What my clients are looking for is someone who is receptive to constructive criticism and sincere about improving rather than getting defensive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Also, someone who listens and responds appropriately to good ideas rather than assuming they know best. In some cases, it also means a preference for asking permission rather than forgiveness. But I second the notion of asking the interviewer for clarification when the term arises.
posted by DrGail at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

To add to DrGail, I think one of the best qualities of an admin is being driven to find answers and figure things out. So being able to admit that you don't know the answer right away but that you're going to work hard and figure it out so the requesting party can be confident that the task or request will be handled. The humility part would be a willingness to admit that you don't know the answer. I think sometimes people think its best to pretend to know things or to be unwilling to admit to weaknesses, when in fact the ability to overcome those deficits in an efficient way is really the most important thing.
posted by LKWorking at 10:29 AM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think that there is probably a “humility as a code for acceptance of menial tasks” thing but I also think admins who know where all the metaphorical bodies are buried and the processes to get things done can be quite powerful in organizations and offices. I have come across a some people - admins included - who seem to take particular, palpable pleasure in being a gatekeeper, relishing that proximity to management and lording power to say no, so for me I think there’s that aspect of “humility” to consider as well.
posted by sestaaak at 10:49 AM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think the DC location is a relevant detail here. So many people move to DC with dreams of a career in politics. It sounds to me like they're trying to weed out people who are taking the job as a means of paying bills while they pursue their "real" dreams. I.e., you're going to be a full-time admin assistant, not an aspiring congressional staffer.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:54 AM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dr Gail's answer is exactly what I think of as humility on the job. It includes not only listening to others and accepting you aren't the only smart person, but also owning up to your mistakes and working to fix them.
posted by soelo at 11:34 AM on July 24, 2018

Given your update, I'd say someone being asked to be humble while working front office/reception at a medical clinic would be being asked to be prepared to be deal with potentially unpleasant, uncooperative, and/or unknowledgeable people who were sick, confused, and/or elderly.

For the temp EA position in pharma, I think you would be being asked to prepare to work for a very busy jerk with an ego the size of Texas without taking offense.
posted by erst at 4:26 PM on July 24, 2018

I'm not sure if this is relevant, but in science and engineering "humility" means approximately what DrGail said. it's common for people to spend most of their day in a state of mild uncertainty. Every job is a little different, and most of the time you're only employed because nobody's done this before. In this context, "humility" means being appropriately uncertain, checking your assumptions, consulting with others, testing your proposals, and being willing to admit that your first idea was wrong,
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:50 PM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

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