my interview was great — but they hired no one instead of me — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a restaurant industry professional, in the field of wine and beverage management. My experience in this area is fairly competitive and accomplished for my city (I have about seven years in management level wine/beverage director roles, and more junior but still relevant experience prior to that). COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on the restaurant industry, and I have been temporarily laid off since March, but my employer continues to stay in touch and tell me that my job will be back. However, I have continued to look for other work during this time, as it’s really not certain what will happen.

Recently I was contacted by a recruiter about a position suited to my experience that seemed like it would be a great fit. I am familiar with this employer and their different restaurant concepts, I know many people who have worked for them in the past with positive experiences and I am vaguely acquainted with the woman with whom I would be working directly. I would love to work there, feel I could contribute a lot to their success, and see the potential for longevity with them.

I went through three interviews over the phone and Zoom with members of their management team and received positive feedback at every step from the recruiter. She praised me and said she was excited to see me moving so quickly and successfully through the process At every turn, I sent the appropriate thank-you notes and follow-up emails.

A few days after the last step, I was disappointed to hear from the recruiter that they had selected another candidate. Her feedback to me was that “they decided to choose a more junior candidate for whom the position would perhaps represent a greater challenge and step up in their career.”

Looking back on the experience, I feel that the only things I could have done to lead them to a decision like this were: when asked where I saw myself in five years, I answered that I would like to be in a corporate beverage manager role overseeing multiple concepts, and am looking for a company with growth potential where that is possible (this is the case for them), and when asked about my salary requirements, I said I’d request an entry salary of no less than $65,000. (This is $10,000 less than I made in my previous job, but we are in a pandemic where the job market is poor, so of course I understand I must make concessions. I did not, of course, expressly say this to them. The job was listed with a salary range of $60-65,000 depending on experience.)

I have now learned through multiple sources that they in fact have not hired anyone, and have reposted the position to the recruiter’s website and other industry job boards. I am having trouble understanding why they would prefer to continue their search, why the recruiter would be dishonest (I think), and why my perception of the situation was so positive and then this was the outcome. I am looking for any insight you can provide to help me reconcile this situation and move on with a positive attitude.

Trying to figure out from the outside what went on in a hiring process is a recipe for frustration and resentment. You’re far better off not trying! You don’t have all the information, so you’re making judgments based on assumptions and those assumptions will often be wrong.

First, it’s entirely possible that the recruiter didn’t lie to you when she said they decided to hire a more junior candidate. They may indeed have decided to hire a more junior candidate! That candidate might have turned down the offer, or it might have fallen apart for some other reason. It’s also possible the recruiter had outdated info — that she’d been told “we think we want to offer it to Valentina Warbucks” and then later they decided not to.

Or it’s possible that she meant something different than what you heard. When she said they wanted to go with a more junior candidate, that doesn’t necessarily mean they had a specific one in mind. It could mean they felt you were overqualified for the position so they were planning to continue looking for someone at the career level they thought was a better match.

Or sure, maybe she lied. But that’s the least likely of the possibilities. Recruiters are very used to rejecting candidates; they don’t usually make up random tales just to avoid doing it.

Ultimately, all you know for sure is: They decided not to hire you and they are continuing their search. And that’s normal! Employers interview tons of capable, competent people who just aren’t the right match for what they’re seeking for a specific role. It doesn’t mean you suck or you bombed the interview or you said anything wrong. It means they weren’t convinced that you were what they’re looking for for this particular role. I have rejected hundreds of delightful people over the years — not because they messed up or were inept in some way but because they just didn’t match the specific slate of needs that I had for a very specific position. It’s no reflection on them.

And the thing is, it’s easy to think from the outside that you’re a perfect fit for a job. But there’s no way you can have enough insight to know that. You see what’s listed in the job description, yes, but there’s nearly always a lot more nuance to it … and often that nuance is about things the employer might not even be able to articulate until they interview candidates and realize things like this person wouldn’t get along with Bob, and this one’s ambitions for X are so strong that she’ll be underwhelmed by how little X the job really involves, and this one’s skills in Y would be good for an environment that’s more Z but not ours, and on and on.

So seeing that you’re well matched with the job description an employer advertises is just part of it. It’s the starting point, but it’s a long way from being the whole story.

You’re playing back what you said in your interviews to try to figure out what went wrong. But the stuff you’re focusing on (your answer about your goals five years out and your salary range, which was perfectly in line with what they listed) probably aren’t the explanation. The explanation is about things you’ll probably never know because it’s specific to this particular role on this particular team in this particular company, and you just don’t have access to that nuanced information like they do.

It’s frustrating when an interview feels like it goes well and then you don’t get the job. But it’s a really normal thing! It doesn’t mean you messed up or they messed up, and you will drive yourself crazy if you try to find The Explanation.

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