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Job Interview or Free Consulting?

Jul 17, 2008
Job interviews often require you to show your skills by demonstrating how you would solve a specific problem. Very reasonable... but what if you suspect you are being asked to address a situation that vexes your prospective employer. Your best efforts will help your employer while you gain no reward.

When this happens, you may find yourself wondering if you've been invited because the interviewer wants to pick your brain. You sense they want your expertise without paying for it.

Professional consultants run into this challenge all the time. That's why so many independent professionals charge for a diagnosis and preliminary review of your business challenge.

When interviewing, you may feel more constrained, especially if you need or really want the job. Here are some suggestions - but it is always a judgment call. You are on the scene.

(1) Are your interviewer's requests common within your industry?

If not, recognize a red flag. For example, a senior manager normally would not be asked for a writing sample. You have to decide if the company is coming from left field or if the HR people are incompetent or bored. Your own boss may be unaware or unable to change the hiring process.

(2) Did you initiate the contact through a back-door or informational interview approach?

As a mid-life career changer, you might be selling the employer on creating a job, not just filling one. Some experts recommend using the opportunity to demonstrate your problem-solving skills by presenting yourself as a consultant, not a candidate.

(3) Are you being asked to disclose information about specific programs and processes from your current career or business?

I would view these requests as a danger signal. Your manager may be testing your loyalty and ethics. If not, you have to ask about this prospective employer's value system..

(4) Are you asked to prepare a written report?

Be sure to write your name and identifying information on every page.

Frankly, I would take a risk and ask directly, "If you implement my recommendations, what will my compensation look like?" You will learn a lot about the company from the response you get to your question.

(5) Are you asked for on-the-spot recommendations to a specific, complex challenge?

This technique may be legitimate. Some interviewers want to see how you approach a problem, such as the kinds of questions you ask. Your interviewer may want to assess how you think on your feet.

But sometimes they are facing a real problem and they want to get free advice. Consider saying something like, "We had a similar problem in my last job. And here is what I did..."

Bottom line: If you haven't undertaken a job search for awhile, you may be surprised by your interviews. A senior manager faces challenges you never experienced in your earlier career. Interview styles change over time. And your career may have moved to a new industry with different customs and culture.
About the Author
Are you experiencing mid-life career change...and wondering how to turn your experience into an asset (instead of wasting time fighting age discrimination)? Download Why Most Mid-Life Career Change Fails...and Why Yours Doesn't Have To. From Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D.

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