Lessons From Behind the Hiring Desk
Another graduation season is in the rearview mirror, and high school and college seniors have been out in the “real world” for several months now. I hope they’re adjusting well; my own transition to the working world was a bumpy ride. I knew how to be a star pupil, but the same lessons that helped me succeed in the ivory tower didn’t help very much outside of it. From the time I graduated until the time I was hired at my first full-time position 10 months later, I applied and interviewed for jobs almost constantly. My resume and network were impressive, so I got a lot of interviews—but I was always runner-up. With each polite rejection, my mentor told me to loosen up. “Relax, Hatch,” he’d say. “Show them who you really are.”
Instead of listening, I clenched. Seized up. I resorted to methods that had worked for me in college. (Namely, exhaustive research.) In typical perfectionist fashion, I studied and then committed to memory the template for the STAR behavioral method of interviewing. This might have been a great move if I were in a field that rigorously interviews its candidates, like investment banking, but I wasn’t.
I was vying for jobs in publishing, and editors and agents were looking for an assistant who could write a decent reader’s report, who could be helpful (and possibly even fun to have in the office). Instead, I was sitting there, reciting a play-by-play of a time I’d corrected a wrong I’d done. I appeared as a frantic, halting mess who I wouldn’t have wanted to hire, either!
It would take me several years and several experiences on the other side of the hiring desk to understand what I hadn’t back then. I learned as I watched others, and I discovered that my early work experiences were not unlike those of other women. For this article, I spoke with women across age, race and industries about the lessons they wish they’d known when they were fresh-faced, entry-level employees. Below are a few of their suggestions:
1. Mentorship and advocacy are key
Many women stressed the importance of finding a good mentor, one who can advocate for you. “Wherever you are,” says Meg Bodemer, an accounting consultant based in Washington, D.C., “You need to find a man or woman [as a role model] who has the job and the life you want.” Bodemer emphasizes that this holistic approach has helped her determine her personal definition of work-life balance.
If you think having a mentor is too touchy-feely, Kat Adams of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America says that picking a good advocate is your best bet for workplace advancement: “Life isn’t fair and you’re going to be judged and probably mistreated as a young female professional whose expertise will be questioned,” Adams asserts. “Even if it’s only by a couple men in a female-dominated team ... find colleagues who will advocate like hell for you.”
I love the suggestion that supportive female colleagues can help fight against workplace misogyny. Often in school settings, female students are socialized to see each other as competition, so reaching out to friends and mentors in the workplace might go against the instincts of an entry-level employee. Instead, Adams argues, this should be seen as a lifeline for career advancement.
2. Find a brand of assertiveness that works for you
Bodemer also spoke to striking a balance between being aggressive and being assertive, a lesson she learned while working at consulting firm Deloitte: “No matter what anyone says, you don’t have to be loud to be heard. Being aggressive is not the same as being assertive.”
In high school, Bodemer was captain of her debate team, and an aggressive debater at that. “I often got points taken off of my [scoring] ballot for behaviors they rewarded in the guys,” she said. In a move that runs eerily parallel to our current political state, she was once referred to as being “bitchy” for calling out an opponent after they stated a false fact.
Over time, though, the former gunner learned what did and didn’t work in an office setting. “My spine is steel,” she says, “but everything else is wrapped in marshmallow coating.” This quieter assertion paid off. Before long, from Deloitte to her most recent employer, clients started requesting her by name.
3. Don’t take criticism personally
Faith Hall, a bartender and former bar owner, agreed with Bodemer’s spine o’ steel commentary. “Understand that, for the most part, nothing is about you directly,” Hall said. “Continue to do your work well, improve as much as possible, and know that your hard work will, in fact, pay off.”
4. Align college and career moves with your goals
Even (and maybe especially) if you didn’t attend a four-year college or university, the working world can be a stressful place. Natasha Solae, founder of GirlCEO Universe questions the importance we place on all students attending university. Solae, who had a graphic design business by the time she was sixteen, knew college wasn’t completely right for her, but her parents had given her an ultimatum: go to college or move out of the house. “I chose to go,” she says, “but I wish I would’ve moved out of the house. I’m a really passionate person who is obsessed with human connection, so while I loved what I studied in school, it was a major detour for me. I have always been an entrepreneur.”
At the age of 25, Solae quit her job, sold her house and moved across the country to launch her business. Within a year, she was making six figures as a personal branding and business coach exclusively for women. “When you’re 18,” Solae says, “school feels like it’s the only option. But if you know you’re destined for more, make your dream nonnegotiable and create a success story that feels aligned with you.” Perhaps, according to Solae’s advisement, those who are unsure of college would do well to take a gap year.
A few years after my last panicky job interview, I sat across a long, glass conference table from a hopeful young woman. It was after my move from New York but before I’d decided to work for myself, and I was helping the marketing department of a doctor’s office hire its summer intern. Looking across the table was like hopping into a time machine for me. The young woman meant well, but the way her eyes darted around the room—looking everywhere but me—and the way she fidgeted with her resume made me nervous.
School prepares women to be competitive perfectionists, to feel confident only when we feel that we know everything. These are all qualities that make us good worker drones, but so much of school does not prepare us for the nuances of the working world. I think my editing client, the full-time author and former journalist Kay Dew Shostak, says it best: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” With that in mind, maybe we need to encourage our girls, to tell them—just as much as we tell the boys—that it’s OK to not be right all the time.
Until that happens on a widespread basis, we women in the workplace need to be good advocates for our fellow women, especially the younger ones. Let’s encourage them to be open to learning new things and to accepting they may not have made the right choice the first time. That way, I hope, as they enter the workforce, more of them can feel more comfortable in their own skin from day one.
In the doctor’s office, I leaned across the conference table and smiled in a way I hoped was warm. “Take a deep breath,” I said. “It’s going to be alright.”
Jessica Hatch is a professional editor and publicist who got her start at such New York literary establishments as St. Martin’s Press and Writers House. Her words have been published on LearnVest, Fast Company, and Money.com. Jessica lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she enjoys providing story consultation services to aspiring and established writers alike, through the use of a prescriptive, practical editing system. Say hello at www.hatch-books.com