Recognizing Employer “Red Flags” During Interviews


Now that the job search season is in full swing with both NASPA’s Placement Exchange (TPE) and ACPA’s Career Central at the Convention (C3), I thought it would be helpful to provide a perspective that is infrequently discussed. What qualities should candidates look for in potential employers during job interviews? While new professionals and “soon-to-be” graduates are eager to land that new job, I challenge them to thoroughly analyze and assess the people that are doing the interviewing rather than simply doing and saying anything in order to get a job. A career in student affairs is a lifestyle so take time to make sure that you will be working for and with people that can and will provide you with a healthy working environment.

Here are some questions to consider when interviewing:

  • HOW ARE YOU TREATED? This I feel is a snapshot of the climate of how it may be working with these folks (and their department) so it is important to take note of this. Ideally, interviewers should be respectful, positive, and take an interest in what you have to say considering that they invited you to interview. If they do not, this can be an indicator of other issues surrounding these particular staffers and /or the department and institution itself. During one of my first professional interviews at my first ACPA conference many years ago, I had two administrators hassle me when they found out that I was an ice hockey fan. They started making disparaging comments about the sport and placed me in a very awkward and uncomfortable situation even before the actual interview began! As I am sure you would agree, this was an inappropriate way for them to “break the ice” and start the conversation. Interviews should be professional and not glorified hazing rituals. Steer clear of those who treat you poorly.
  • HOW DO THEY TREAT EACH OTHER? Likewise, how do your interviewers treat one another. You can get a better sense of this when on an actual campus interview as there are normally multiple individuals rather than a conference interview that may only have one or two people present. The dynamics of these relationships are a gauge of colleagiality or a lack thereof. Does it appear that they have fun together? Or is there a stiff and regimented type of feel? Or do you see overt instances of a lack of respect among these staffers? I have been on a handful of campus interviews in which individuals bad-mouthed their colleagues and / or supervisors outside of the interview room. Take mental notes of how each of the staffers treat and interact with one another. Also be sure to take notice of those on the search committee who are not interacting with their colleagues and what that may signify.
  • WHO IS DOING THE INTERVIEWING? While there can be a wide variation as to the institutional role of the staffers performing the interview, it is important to note what role these individuals have with the position you are applying for. Even though you would assume that you should be interviewing with the person who would be your future supervisor, this may not be the case. You could be interviewed by an executive (i.e., dean, assistant VP, etc.) someone from human resources, or even someone in the same type of position for which you are interviewing. It should make institutional sense as to why this particular person in their particular role is interviewing you. If not, this could be a clue that something is amiss. Some institutions may simply be interviewing as a formality to meet a paperwork quota when they already have someone in mind for the position. So be on the lookout for this and do not be discouraged if you do not get a second interview.
  • ARE THEY PREPARED? I am empathetic to the fact that job interviewing can be tiring on top of all of the other tasks administrators have to do, but I strongly feel that if candidates should be on their “A-game” so should the interviewers. Poor preparation, off-the-cuff questions, and a semblance of scrambling can be symptoms of larger problems with their department and / or leadership.
  • DO THEY STRAY FROM THE INTERVIEW? While interviewing at a NASPA conference years ago, I had two interviewers at a table who became distracted by maintenance workers attending to a lighting issue on the interview floor. They focused their attention on what was happening with the lighting fix rather than my responses to their questions. By that time, unfortunately, I knew that my interview was essentially over. Needless to say, I did not get a second interview and found that someone from their own institution was offered and accepted the position. At this point in my career, I probably would send a formalized “Thanks, but no thanks” card after having an interview like that. Furthermore, keep an eye out for those who turn the conversation from interview mode to social mode. If they veer way off course from a typical interview protocol, try your best to steer it back to what you have to offer them. If it becomes obvious that they are not interested in what you are selling, feel free to tactfully wrap up the coversation, politely thank them for their time, and dismiss yourself. Do not needlessly waste your time, particularly when there are other potential interviews to schedule.
  • DO THEY OFFER THE JOB? While getting a job offer is the goal of interviewing, being offered a job too early may be a sign of desperation and poor decision-making on their part. You could be walking into a departmental mess rather than a well-oiled machine. While I personally have not heard of any of my colleagues getting an offer at a conference interview prior to a campus visit, I do know folks in other professions who have had offers during the first interview much to their dismay. Be weary of over-eager employers. As the adage goes, fire fast, hire slow.

When it comes to feeling out a potential employer, go with your gut because you are probably correct. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t a good fit. Most student lifers are not formally trained in how to interview and hire a candidate, and this can be very telling during interviews. While I am not suggesting that you completely dismiss an institution in which you got a bad vibe during your initial interview, I recommend that you choose wisely when offered second interviews at multiple colleges or universities as your time, financial resources, and emotional well-being are precious.

Just as much as they are interviewing you, you should be interviewing them as well. Good luck to you in your search!

What are some other “red flags” to look out for when interviewing? Do you have any personal “red flag” interviewing stories that you can share with our readers? Please share your comments below.

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3 Responses to Recognizing Employer “Red Flags” During Interviews

  1. This was really helpful! I’m about to go through TPE again and its been 5 years since I last did this!

    It was a helpful reminder of what to keep an eye out for!

  2. Donna Schaeffer says:

    Be thoughtful and purposeful with the questions that you ask your interviewers. Use your time for asking questions wisely! Try to tailor your questions to the position at a particular institution, so do your research! You will gain a great deal of insight into an institution’s culture by the responses and body language of your interviewers when asking direct and specific questions. Good Luck!

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