by Esther Schindler

A Pointed Question from a Job Applicant: How Would You Answer This?

Jul 19, 20073 mins

Every CIO wants to hire the best people, particularly for high level jobs. But what do you do when an applicant—the person you desperately want for the position—asks a question during the interview that has no “good” answer? I have a hands-on exercise that can let the community explore the possibilities. Sharpen your pencils.

Carol is in a senior technical position in a Chicago-area firm. (She is a real person, whom I’ve met, though I’ve changed names and locations to protect identities.) Happily, Carol loves her current job. However, when a Household Word company invited her to apply for an even more senior position, she was perfectly amenable to interviewing. As we all know, the best time to look around (and to negotiate) is when you aren’t desperate.

Yet, Carol was aware of one big problem. Although her industry has a better-than-average gender ratio, the company in question has a track record for not retaining women at a senior level. The sole exception is the woman whom the founder and current CEO eventually married. Carol wrote, “Being a net.crone and raging feminist, I was planning to ask about this.” And she did.

In the course of her interview, the VP of development got to the point of measuring her interest in the job; he stressed that they only hire very senior people (average length of experience: 17 years). Carol asked: “You know, even though I’ve been working on-and-off in [industry] for a long time, I’ve never considered applying to [company] because it has a really bad reputation for not having or retaining women in senior software development roles—except for the woman who eventually married [CEO]. Considering that this industry has one of the highest ratios of women to men in software development, this really gives me pause.”

Assume that Carol is sitting in front of your desk. Assume that she’s everything you want for the open position; you can’t imagine a better candidate.

There’s three questions here:

  • How would you answer her question? (Obviously, this depends on the situation in your own shop, but give it a shot.)
  • How would you feel about the fact of Carol asking the question? Would it change your perception of her in any way?
  • If you were Carol, what would the “right” answer be? Before the interview, when she confided her intention to address the issue, Carol said, “They actually might come up with some good rebuttal. My question is: what’s good enough?” What answer might—or should— a senior manager give that should make the applicant say, “Wow. I really should take this job”?

The interview is over. I know the actual answer and Carol’s response. But before I share those, I’m interested in how you respond. There is, of course, no One Right Answer… which is why I think it’s such an interesting question.—Esther Schindler, senior online editor and BlogMom