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Getting Personal in a Job Interview

In the recent New York Times Workologist column “Mentioning Tragedy in a Job Interview,” Rob Walker frames discussing a tragedy as a possible liability in an interview. The experts quoted in the column suggest you soft-pedal around the core issues that may have caused your career to lose momentum.

In my experience, however, this guidance may only add to your troubles. The wisdom you gain from overcoming tragedy can be an asset to a potential employer. Gerard Walsh, founder of an executive search and coaching firm, is quoted as saying, “If you go that route [of mentioning a tragedy in your life], be straightforward and get it out of the way early.” However, context and timing are critical to telling your story in an impactful and positive way—it’s impossible to prescribe when in a conversation to mention a personal tragedy. A job interview is a test of your ability to initiate a relationship and tell your story in an engaging and positive light. You need to decide exactly when and if it’s appropriate based on the flow of the conversation.

Walker’s specific guidance for a job seeker recovering from the loss of a child is to “perhaps mention that because of your son’s unexpected death, you didn’t want too much change in your life . . . But pivot to the present, and your readiness to move forward in your career.” In my experience (my wife died and my daughter was seriously ill while I was raising funds for my start-up), there is no reason to state the obvious consequences of a tragedy; you can just focus on your readiness from the start.

Additional insight from Camille DeBell, a professor in the division of counseling and family therapy at Regis University, is to “keep the nonwork details vague.” But I would be very wary of making vague references to tragedy as opposed to speaking candidly. In my experience as both an interviewer and an interviewee, your ability to speak with conviction and frame both the context of a tragedy or handicap and the direction your life has taken as a result can signal your readiness to move forward. When you communicate your tragedy in this manner, it can be a powerful way to make deep connections—and the type of relationships that get you hired or allow you to find a committed lead investor.

My most memorable interview was with a sales manager who revealed a personal vulnerability not generally considered positive. I asked him what one thing he wished he were better at, and he replied that he wished he didn’t have a stutter. I complimented him, as I had not noticed it. He said the stutter comes out when he’s nervous and sometimes on sales calls. I asked how he had overcome it and built a successful career in sales. He replied that he hadn’t conquered it at all: “When I am on a sales call, I tell the prospect I have a stutter that sometimes comes out when I am speaking with people I don’t know, and I ask that if I stutter to please be patient with me.” He got the job

SOURCE: David Pachter

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