Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I'm getting so discouraged and wondering if I am missing some essential job hunting and interviewing skill. I have had three interviews in the past month (so I feel pretty good about the fact that my cover letter, résumé, and networking are in good shape) but no job offer. The first interview I felt was not a great fit, the second one I was told they found someone with more similar experience (fair enough), but this last one really shook me up.
It was with a faith-based organization and the faith is the one that I practice, and I was completely and totally qualified for the position. In fact, when I read the job description, I thought to myself: "That's it!" I went in for an interview and I thought it went really well. I felt comfortable and confident and qualified. The way the culture and values were described to me, in some detail, really got me jazzed. I really thought I had it in the bag.
The day after the interview, the recruiter called to say they were not going to offer me a job or pursue me as a candidate because I did not show enough interest in their mission. They felt I could have been interviewing for any old job, that I just wanted a job and that I wasn't excited about or interested in their mission.
OK, so -- is it my burning desire to work on their particular mission? No. It is my burning desire to use my skills to help an organization that does good, however, and this one seemed like a perfectly good cause, and in my faith tradition, which I made perfectly clear in the interview. I talked about how lovely it would be to work for a place with a spiritual focus and faith-based values, how I know the culture and the language. But, no, I did not say, "I am totally psyched about your mission! I've been waiting my whole life to do this!"
I've been mulling this over, and I can't figure out if they are just a bit out there and asking too much, or if this is excellent feedback for me and something I really need to look at, especially since I am looking for a job in the nonprofit field. I am in communications, by the way. I always say, I'm not a doctor or a nurse or a social worker, but I want to use my communications skills to do good. I have 25 years of experience in health care and nonprofit. It's what I do. But do I need to go to each interview as if that particular organization's mission is central to my search? Isn't it enough to present my skills?
Alison Green responds:
You don't need to fake passion when you don't feel it, but when you're applying at cause-based or faith-based organizations, you often do need to show a strong interest in their mission. You don't need to act as if it's your life's mission if it's not, but you do want to appear particularly enthusiastic about what they do -- more so than in other sectors. If they get the sense that you'd be just as happy working at a bank or a zoo as working with them, you're signaling to them that you might not quite fit in with what they're all about. Because what they're all about is working toward some kind of change, and they want people on their team who are pumped about that.
It's not just about passion, of course. Passion is no substitute for talent and a track record of results, and nonprofits run into serious trouble when they hire highly passionate candidates who aren't actually well suited for the job. But it's reasonable that they want people who think the work they're doing is awesome. (And that's especially true for positions that will be dealing directly with their mission, like communications. It's less true for, say, I.T. jobs or accounting.)
So, how does all that affect you? Well, it's possible that you displayed a completely appropriate amount of enthusiasm and excitement and these people are just unusual in how much of it they want to see. It's also possible that you didn't seem all that moved by what they're doing. There's a difference between "it would be nice to work here" and "what you're doing is fantastic, and I'd be thrilled to be a part of it."
I don't know which it was, so I'd reflect on whether their feedback rings true to you at all. Is it consistent with other things you know about yourself, like that you're very low key, for instance, or that people often can't tell how you're feeling? Can you talk it over with friends who might have a more objective perspective on you than you have on yourself? Can you experiment with being more openly enthusiastic in your next interview and see if it goes differently?
But beyond that, while you should certainly consider feedback with an open mind and not immediately disregard it as wrong, it's also true if the feedback is only coming from one source and just doesn't ring true to you, it's possible that it's just not on the mark.
And it's also OK to decide that employers who require unusually intense displays of enthusiasm aren't the right fit for you -- no matter how good other aspects of the job sound -- because that kind of thing doesn't usually end at the interview and will be an expectation once you're on the job, too.
Last, you might consider this perspective sent to me by a reader, which I think is a fantastic way to approach this: "I'm very low key, and it's been an issue before at work. I'm in a nonprofit field, and we're generally expected to have PASSION for the work. I get a little bit of slack because I'm in finance, but I've still had to try to compensate. I haven't had much success displaying more enthusiasm. Day to day, I'm fairly serious and focused, not giddy with excitement over our opportunity to Help People. What actually seems to work is to get more serious and stern. At the end of an interview, for example, when given the chance to ask questions, I'll pause, take a deep breath, and ask very seriously if I can talk a little bit about what my work means to me. Then I'll give a little speech about my work -- the difference we've made in our clients' lives; how hard and how rewarding it is at the same time; the way I feel called to this work through my life experience -- and blow their socks off not with how excited I am about the work but how seriously I take our mission. I've developed a reputation for being serious and reserved, but in a way where my reserve is just a cover for the intense emotion I must be feeling all the time. I never need to fake 'perky' or 'bubbly,' but no one questions my commitment."
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