Some Thoughts on Interviews: Insights for Applicants

Background

Roger Meyer is one of the leading authorities on Asperger and the workplace. As well as his book Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook he has also assisted numerous people with AS on how to find emloyment.

In this Question & Answer session, I speak to Roger about one of the hardest parts of the job search process for those with Asperger syndrome: the job interview

Interview

MJ: Everyone finds job interviews difficult, but for a person with Asperger Syndrome they can present special issues. What ones do you feel present particular challenges?

RNM: I agree that interviews are never much fun. That’s why I favour other ways of dealing with what an interview is designed to accomplish. I mention a couple of them below. If an interview is unavoidable, I encourage applicants to look for early opportunities in the interview to open up meaningful exchanges of information.

Assuming for the time being that one is being interviewed for a position involving substantial responsibility and use of complex skill sets, there are ways to level the playing field. As information is power, early, significant exchanges of information between applicants and interviewers create openings to make the power differential between an employer and an applicant a less salient characteristic of the interview.

Today, applicants are expected to gather information about prospective employers. Some of that information is what an employer looks for in their questions of you. More than the employer’s “street reputation” is involved here. Discrete questions asked of others doing work in the same field may reveal much about the workplace culture of a prospective employer. The way employees — past and present — consider an employer may constitute a very small part of the way that employer is considered in the community. Is the employer known as a socially conscious and responsible community actor? Does the employer encourage community involvement of its employees? Are the employer’s business practices on a par with those of others in the same field, or do they stand out as exceptional, and if they do, for what reason? Is the employer part of best and emerging practices in the field, or is the employer viewed for its problems in the field? [Every sector has its problems — it never hurts a job seeker to know what they are.]

By having done your research about a prospective employer, you can make informed decisions about whether or not to apply for a position. Failing to take a prospective employer’s standing in the community and in its business sector opens you up to judgment by others that you are naive about the employer, your field and the career structure of your field.

Information gathering about a prospective employer gives you the tools to formulate not only your answers to them, but also your questions of them. If after having done your research you decide to apply, you have gained important knowledge about the employer that works toward levelling the informational exchange playing field that is the interview. While there are certain questions you should expect an employer to ask of you, based on your knowledge you can take charge of questions you ask of the interviewers, and you can do this quite early in the interview. End-of-interview question-asking opportunities can be moved forward much earlier in an interview if you demonstrate knowledge of your field and a particular employer. Being able to even a playing field through intelligent manipulation of the interview timing dynamic will make the interview less daunting and help you feel less like a victim and more like a guest.

For example, if you find information about a unique product or process produced or utilized by a prospective employer, you can demonstrate your knowledge of the employer by mentioning this information early in your interview. You can ask informed but benign questions about what you already know about the employer’s product or processes with some assurance that they will respond in kind to your question. In having demonstrated your knowledge of the employer in this way, you do, indeed, turn the tables and respectfully establish a degree of control over the subject matter of the interview. In addition to complementing the employer about their product or process, you have an opportunity to engage the employer in a brief discussion about matters of importance or pride to them. It may come as a surprise to most job applicants that, given the chance, employers will enjoy “permission to brag” in a setting that ordinarily does not call for self-promotion. Interviewers are far more likely to think more favourably of you if you’ve given them an opportunity to feel good about themselves and their firm.

MJ: What about “first impressions?”

RNM: First impressions are critical for every job applicant, so there’s nothing special about being Asperger to make them any different. Rather than letting myself worry over how well I did at the beginning of an interview — something that can affect my behaviour throughout the entire interview — I look for opportunities to change what may have started out awkwardly or badly as the interview proceeds.

Employment interviews are very much like one act plays. One act plays aren’t supposed to be snapshots or depictions of figures frozen in time; they are dynamic experiences. They have openings, plot and character development, the passage of time, and endings…all things common to interviews. Good actors can make or break the theatre experience. The interviewee (you) can’t be passive or unresponsive, and how well you act isn’t just a matter of rote delivery of your lines or just “getting through it.” It’s in appreciating the weight of what you have to say and when and how to say your lines that contributes to a memorable experience for all participants.

Many employers, even ones with relatively unskilled openings, have adopted behavioral interview approaches. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_interview. For many of us who may have worked for years with the same employer, these interviews come as a shock. Because these are the kinds of interviews we’re more likely to “blow” than non-autistic individuals, the best way through them is to practice, practice, practice. We should seek training to handle ourselves in them. Some career counselling centers offer mock interviews and behavioural interview coaching. We can ask for additional training because the stress these interviews put us through relate to the fact that many of us are poor actors at keeping our cool and acting as if we expect these questions known to be components of behavioural interviews.

MJ: From an AS perspective, do you have any suggestions how anxiety in the interview can be overcome and/or mitigated so that the interview can be got back on track?

RNM: I look at “back on track” slightly differently. Some of the best interviews I’ve experienced as a job seeker, as well as those in which I’ve participated as part of an interview team, have been interviews where “getting off track” has led to a decision to hire. Many interviews I’ve either participated in or reviewed have been of this character, because what the interview team is looking for is someone exceptional who demonstrates a degree of equanimity –even comfort — in awkward moments.

For example, if you are interviewing for a position that requires using special skills, you can illustrate how you would use those skills by posing a problem or scenario in which you set the scene, describe the actors or the conditions and demonstrate how you’d resolve the problem or manage a challenging situation. If you have known strengths, you can demonstrate them by reciting a real anecdote from your past illustrating where and how you used them. Such examples are particularly poignant if you are interviewing for a position that requires substantial independent thinking or illustrations of calm responses in crisis situations where others about you are quite unhinged.

MJ: Would you recommend divulging ones condition [AS] before any interview?

RNM: Simply put, no. One of the problems I’ve heard job seekers describe time after time is their tendency to pre-judge situations and then “put their foot in it” without thinking of the consequences. Interviews are conducted by the employer to address an employer’s needs, not stroke the vanity or be a stage for newfound highly personal information of job seekers. Blurting out unexpected, unanticipated information about yourself before an interview is about as smart as posting an “I’m not Serious!” sticky note in the middle of your forehead.

I am not sure what the situation is exactly in the UK, but US employment law doesn’t require disclosure of a disability prior to offer of a position let alone the earlier scheduling of an interview. I do not recommend anyone “priming the pump” for what could be highly damaging, prejudicial conditions at the interview. Some employers may go so far as not respond any further with the interview invitation process because of a well justified concern that you have just “set them up.”

MJ: Do you have any views on what you may feel personally comfortable with and what would be necessary for you to do or say to fit into the environment for which you applying?

RNM: Let’s take dress codes as an example. While I was working in the building trades, I wore protective clothing and equipment that served readily identifiable safety and health job conditions. Under-dressing or not having the proper clothing would have presented the employer with a legitimate reason to send me home to change clothes or fire me. Such clothing, or uniforms intimately connected with a job’s public perception — as in the case of a security guard’s uniform — cannot be objected to by a serious job seeker.

That being said, many of us don’t work under environmental conditions where the connection between one’s dress and one’s job are so obvious. I’ve run into many instances where non-Asperger individuals are uncomfortable with the rigidity of a workplace dress code, or who have felt so uncomfortable with the casual attire of others in the work environment that they’ve ultimately quit. What’s involved in their decisions about staying or leaving rarely has much to do with the formality or informality of a dress code.

Instead, the dress code represents an unacceptable workplace culture. Many AS individuals lack the sophistication to describe exactly what it is that bothers them about a workplace whose culture they do not understand. Given that level of inarticulateness, it’s easy to focus on rules as obvious as a dress code. Surface appearance issues are no substitute for understanding the more subtle aspects of a workplace culture that lead job seekers to reject work offers or leave employment because of uncomfortable settings.

MJ: Let’s look at other concrete factors in play in the interview. How about eye contact, visual and auditory processing issues and other sensory differences affecting persons with AS? To what extent do they play a role in decisions to hire?

RNM: They play an enormous role. For persons affected by sensory deficit or sensitivity issues, I suggest they approach the job search differently. If they are discriminating and careful in how they respond to an advertisement, they may be able to avoid interviews with managers or panels of persons who aren’t likely to be their supervisors or co-workers. In some instances, I’ve arranged “blind interviews” where a person’s in-person sensory issues, while present, have little to do with what is required to accomplish the essential functions of the position. Telephone technical support work and customer service is one occupational area in which I’ve been able to arrange actual performance-testing sessions rather than face-to-face interviews. I’ve been able to arrange these real-life assessment sessions using the example of blind telephone support persons, and convince employers that “what” they’re hiring for is good performance in a particularly restricted setting that has little to do with eye contact with a customer or one’s fellow workers.

Ultimately, I ask the individual to be honest and realistic about the extent to which their sensory issues can affect their work performance. In some instances, it’s been possible to trade tasks, or arrange for special environmental conditions, but only if the individual is otherwise able to perform the essential tasks of the job.

Interviews form too much of the employment culture to ask that they be abandoned. Employers cannot be asked to dispense with the employment interview, as doing so may impose an undue burden on them. If there’s no way of working around the requirement of an interview, I’ve advised individuals to practice with occupational therapists, personal or acting coaches (where available), family members or friends who throw increasingly challenging situations at them to test their tolerance for sensory stress. On other occasions, we’ve been able to dispense with the interview with portfolios or “test trials” of the kind I mention above.

On rare occasions, highly talented individuals have gone into business for themselves, so the issue of trotting themselves out before others in a typical interview is bypassed. However, self-employment does not dispense with interview-like situations. If entrepreneurs have a product or service to sell, they must do just that or find others to raise capital or hawk their wares.

Furthermore, when the individual continually bombs under test conditions, I usually advise them to either reconsider their career choice or conduct a thorough investigation of the field they’ve stated an interest in exploring.

Two excellent resource guides for this process are found in Developing Talents, a book co-authored by Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy, and a critical guide written by Gail Hawkins for job developers helping individuals through the career choice process: How to find Work that Works for People with Asperger Syndrome.

MJ: If I haven’t been hired, are there ways I can find out why?

RNM: Yes, but you must be absolutely impeccable with your timing, clear about your agenda, and be ready to accept no response and move on. Nothing gives you any right to press an employer to justify a decision not to hire you unless there’s been a violation of the law. In that instance, you don’t investigate. Others do.

There are other ways of getting feedback other than returning to the employer. One way is to repeat your version of the interview experience before a coach or a trusted friend. Just as with the rehearsals, a repeat performance can be a learning experience. In fact, with such a scenario, you have multiple opportunities to “Play it again, Sam.” Second, you can rely on scuttlebutt, or best guesses from people who would be in position to know why you weren’t hired. If you ask such persons, be prepared for everything from a feel-good answer to the truth. Don’t badger your reporters or your witnesses. Take the information in, thank them for it, and deal with your emotional response in a separate setting.

A third way of looking at your need for information is to recognize that your dogged determination to know may very well be a manifestation of your AS persistence and endless rumination that disaffects others. If this is the case, consider not asking as one means of moving on towards more productive modes of thinking and acting. In other words, determine to resist your own self-indulgent tendencies.

By demanding less room for yourself, you allow more room in your head and your day-to-day activities for other’s and since work invariably involves relationship’s that’s a good thing.

MJ: Roger, thank you very much.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome