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A Series of Unfortunate Events

A common issue among us is how to get a job – period – let alone find meaningful employment to match our skills, interests and intelligence. Some autistics admit to botching interviews again and again. Why is this?  The most common reasons are social awkwardness, anxiety and issues making eye contact. As a result, autistic people can be limited to menial jobs, like dishwashing, when they know they are intelligent and capable of so much more. I must have done a hundred or so interviews during my lifetime. I’ve got plenty of advice to help my fellow autistics, so – to quote “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – GET ON WITH IT!

YOU are in Demand!

I always tell people that a job interview is a two-way street: they are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. You have skills, education and experience that they need to be successful. You are the one preparing, organizing and making a major change to your daily routine – possibly driving hours out of your way to meet with them; all they have to do is book a room (OK – maybe make the coffee)! You’d be surprised how many people haven’t taken this into consideration. If you do, it greatly boosts confidence and can prevent you from taking a job that just isn’t right for you; that wouldn’t be good for you or the employer!

Know When to Walk Away

As a wise man with a white beard once said:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

Keeping in mind that you are in the driver’s seat, don’t feel obligated to continue with an interview if you decide early on that the job isn’t right for you. You can politely and diplomatically ask that it come to an end; thank them for seeing you and explain that the position does not seem like a good fit. This is better for you and the employer; it’s best not to waste their time, if you’re certain the position is not for you. Keep things in perspective; remember that you aren’t getting paid to attend the interview – in fact, it costs you money – but the interviewer is; it’s part of their job. So cut your losses and gracefully move on.

By the way, I joked earlier about how little a potential employer has to do to prepare for your interview. On the face of it, it does seem like most of the burden (and the stress!) is on you, however – depending how they go about it – it can be expensive and time consuming to advertise for new employees; the larger the company, the more complicated it becomes. So, you might want to keep that in mind and act with due diligence; try not to get TOO confident!

If you’re the patient type, even though you’ve decided that a role is not a good fit, you may stay to the end out of politeness, informing them later that the role is not right for you. But why on Earth would you want to do that? Isn’t it a waste of everyone’s time? Not really. ALWAYS remain polite, attentive and diplomatic – thanking them for their time. If you don’t, word may get around your sector that you’re a “difficult” candidate. Also, keep in mind that whoever is interviewing you may have a future position open that is a better match; having already been interviewed at that workplace, and met the staff, you have a crucial advantage over other candidates. Maybe your interviewer moves to another company that you want to apply to; leaving a good impression could open doors for you there.

Warning Signs

How can you tell if it is a bad interview experience? Sometimes, within five minutes of walking into a building, you can tell there are problems. Keep your eyes and ears open – you’re there to collect information and make a logical decision. Remember, if you get the job, you’ll be there at least 40 hours a week; so make sure you like the place! Here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • Rude, indifferent receptionist
  • The interview is late to start (nothing worse than spending all that time preparing and traveling, then being made to sit and wait for more than 10 minutes after the agreed start time)
  • Poor customer service (you or other people in your vicinity)
  • Unfriendly, unhappy staff
  • Lack of workplace diversity
  • Disorganization (e.g. messy, unsafe environment, staff uncertainty, room changes, time changes, lack of appropriate equipment)
  • Interviewer fails to answer your questions
  • No time given for your questions (remember – it’s a two-way street!)
  • Interviewer focuses on negatives
  • Probing questions that have nothing to do with job as advertised
  • Mentioning skills, qualifications and duties that weren’t in the original job advertisement
  • Interviewers have not read your CV and/or cover letter
  • Mundane working environment (especially those motivational posters!)

Asking for Accommodations

If you struggled with interviews in the past, you should consider disclosing that you are autistic and ask for accommodations. For example, more think time and possibly something to write notes / thoughts on. Maybe ask for questions to be sent in advance of the interview, so you can prepare and get comfortable; verbal communication and social cues (eye contact) can be an issue for some.

For more involved interviews, it is a good idea to request an agenda well in advance, if one is not provided. Some interviews have many stages, including activities to be completed in various rooms. Lastly, try to do the interview when there are other employees present; you get a better idea what it is really like working there. If you have a chance, talk to some of them about their workplace. Try to find out as much as you can.

Information Interviews & Cold Calling

You may want to do an “information interview”, in advance of an actual interview. You make an appointment to visit the potential employer, get to know the working environment and meet some staff. Simple and effective! I have done it before and it was very helpful. Having already visited the employer, you have an advantage over other candidates.

Information interviews are part of a strategy called “cold calling”, where you take initiative and contact an employer before they have advertised a position, indicating your interest in working for them. Contact management and explain that you are interested in working for them; ask if you can make an appointment for an information interview, to learn more about their workplace. Another advantage of cold calling, besides getting yourself noticed by management, is that – as I mentioned before – it can cost an employer a lot of time and money to advertise for new employees. If you come to them before they have to spend all that time and money that makes you a very attractive candidate indeed.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before the interview, practice being interviewed with friends or family. Give them a copy of your CV and encourage them to ask tough questions. There are plenty of interview questions online, if you are stuck for ideas. You could also join a job hunting club. When I was on employment benefits, I joined one; it was free – funded by the federal government. During the club, we did some mock interviews. I really enjoyed role-playing the tough, no-nonsense interviewer! I interviewed an engineer who had just arrived in Canada. He told me afterwards that he felt he was in a real interview situation and now felt better prepared, knowing what to expect. It was a great experience and I learnt plenty.

After the Interview

Request feedback! You’ll have to call to do this. It may be difficult to listen to someone review your interview, but it will put your mind to rest, if you’re dwelling on why you didn’t get the job. You may get some helpful advice and tips for future interviews. If you don’t agree with their feedback, consider it a positive; it indicates that they are not currently the right employer for you.

Always send a thank you note (or email), even if you weren’t interested in the position. There are plenty of examples online. Remember – some careers operate in small circles, so maintaining a good reputation will serve you well in future interviews.

NEVER take a job by default

Lastly, and this is a personal opinion that you may not agree with (or be financially able to follow): NEVER take a job by default! If you don’t get the job, and someone else is hired, then the employer calls you a week later saying “there’s been a change of plans” and/or you were “a close second” (they always use those excuses!) then don’t accept the position.  Why not?

Well, based on my past experiences, taking such a “second-hand” position will wear away at your confidence and self respect. You’ll be constantly wondering how they got offered the position and not you. When other employees mention that candidate, even innocuously, you could end up feeling guilty, inadequate and judged. You’ve just been hired and you’re already being compared to someone else, trying to live up to their reputation. Are you sure you could continue working there?

THE WORST is discovering that the original “preferred candidate” had far less education, skills and experience than you. Would you be able to stay in that job then?  Frankly, this issue lead me to leave two jobs. Initially, I took the jobs because I needed employment (of course!), I’m hard working, dedicated and don’t want to disappoint; but it was clear that my extensive skills, education and experience were ignored in favour of a much lesser candidate. How could such a decision be reached? Convenience? Nepotism? Lack of money? Maybe all three! Yet, if you don’t have the funding to hire good quality employees, then you shouldn’t be advertising for them; it makes your planning, budgeting and organizational skills look unattractive to quality employees. When I used to work in the environmental sector, I lost track of how many interviews I did for tentative positions that failed to materialise due to lack of funding. It was so disheartening – especially since biology was my special interest and I was so passionate about science and the environment. When you think about it, hiring employees is a primary task for any manager. What is more important than hiring an employee? If management can’t make the right decision to begin with, will they ever be able to make the right decision? If an employer can’t get recruitment right then what can they get right?

We autistic people need to watch out for this sort of thing. Generally, we are quiet, thoughtful, hard working, avoid conflict – so we are often taken advantage of; it’s not just me. “Assertive” is the operative term – we need to be more assertive. I couldn’t remain in a position – giving it my usual 125 % – year after year knowing that I was “second best”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t forget things like that. Sorry – I’m autistic!

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