Interview Tales – The Most Awkward Question

I’ve held thousands of interviews, and don’t have nearly the great stories that most recruiters can tell you, but I do have a few. Some of them are from the interviewee perspective.

I have only interviewed for a handful of jobs. In many cases I was asked to take on assignments over the years, and in the time since our company has moved to an open posting process, I’ve been pretty busy doing what I love to do, so I haven’t taken advantage of it yet.

There have been a few times when I felt it was time to move on, and I considered new opportunities. Once this took me to a small town in western Ohio where I spent the better part of a day with one interviewer. This man who I would have worked for had me from mid-morning until mid afternoon, including a swing into town for lunch.

I like this guy, and could see myself working for him. When we went to lunch, we got into his ten-year-old chevy and drove to the local diner. He told me that he’d lived there most of his life, married his high school sweetheart, had a couple of kids, but then divorced his wife. Then he told me about his second failed marriage of three years. I learned about his kids and how proud he was of them. They were in the big city now – Toledo.

Then, in the middle of lunch, when I had talked about my interests which included sailing, photography, and community theatre, he asked me the only question I hadn’t prepared for.

How come you’re not married yet?

At this time I was a twenty-eight-year-old engineer who knew little about HR, but I knew that the question had nothing to do with the job I was interviewing for. It’s amazing to me, in retrospect, how quickly my view about working with him changed. I didn’t care about the question itself, only why he would ask it. What kind of question is that to ask of a job candidate, and in particular, what insight would it give him to make an informed hiring decision?

This man was likely 30 years older than I was, and I was taught to respect my elders. I don’t know where it came from, but instead of answering the question, I posed a question back to him.

How come you’ve failed at marriage twice?

It was a strange moment. I knew I was not going to get the job offer, or that I wouldn’t accept it even if it came through. I watched him search for the answer, his eyes going to various corners of his mind looking for that answer. He forgot, I think, that he asked the first question.

It was probably 10 seconds – but seemed much longer – before he broke the silence. He told me that he had decided he wasn’t very good at sharing, and not good by any measure at compromising. “I guess,” he told me, “that it has taken me two marriages to learn that.”

I didn’t offer any answer to his question, and one of us shifted the conversation back to the work I was interviewing for. I did get the job offer, which was a big surprise, but I didn’t take it.

Funniest part of this whole story – when I met my wife about two years later, she eventually asked me the same question – and I think that was part of my interview with her, too. But at least the question had something to do with the eventual selection process!

Interview Tales are inspired by one of the first HR blogs I discovered, written by Kerry Scott. Kerry blogs at Clue Wagon, which is now a blog about genealogy and not Human Resources, because she finds dead people more interesting.

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