When You Spot The Spinach in Her Smile

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Tough Interview Situations

To Tell Her, or Not: Tough Call

“I’m strong to the finish, ‘cause I eat my spinach.”–Popeye

You are in the beginning of an interview  and listening very attentively. Then you see it: the legendary and universally dreaded embedded shred of spinach wedged between the methodically flashed upper incisors of the Stepford-wife fixed smile facing you. What should you do? Ignore it and allow emotional distraction and seepage to compromise the interview? Or to boldly point at it or it out?

Conventional wisdom (CW) suggests it depends on the laws of supply and demand. The argument goes like this: As a recruiter, you can, with impunity, point it out, if you are on the demand side of the recruitment equation in an economic milieu in which supply seems to be outstripping demand. Alienate the applicant at no cost to yourself, save for the time spent, since there are plenty of applicants. On the other hand, when demand exceeds supply, you, as a recruiter, have to be more restrained, lest you embarrass and alienate one of “The few and the proud” candidates. Alternatively, the CW dictates that if the candidate is simply outstanding, don’t let the spinach stand out in the interview.

How about when you are the applicant who spots the recruiter’s spinach splotch? Conventional wisdom rises to this challenge too. It’s not even a zero-sum game in this instance, in which one if one of you wins, the other loses. That’s because both you and the recruiter will lose—the latter losing face, while you lose the job offer.

Now, why is there this asymmetry in the outcomes for recruiter and applicant when supply and demand gaps are reversed? It’s simple to grasp: Overriding and trumping the supply and demand equation is the immutable law  and order of contract offer and acceptance.

You, the applicant are in the recruiter’s office because, despite the relative scarcity of applicants, you still want the job. Yes, you may be more confident, less tolerant, more inflexible, even more arrogant than you would ever dare to be in a tight job market. Or, you may simply be the best of the best. But the bottom line is you want a job, and the only way to get it is ,first, to have it offered by the recruiter sitting opposite you, who already has a job. So, as the applicant, irrespective of the supply and demand situation, or of your overall rank as a candidate, you should, the CW suggests, keep your mouth shut and not stare at the recruiter’s.

So, there it is: The conventional wisdom decrees that whether you, as a recruiter, make a point of or point at the spinach depends on the laws of supply and demand, while whether as an applicant you do either depends on the law and order of offer and acceptance, which in this instance means you see-no-spinach, speak-no-spinach.

Wait. Not so fast. The problem with “conventional wisdom” is that it is conventional. Examining these scenarios more closely and with a little imagination and psychological insight,  we may conceive a different set of possible outcomes.

For example, you are an applicant in a very bad job market. Nonetheless, wanting to stay focused and to be helpful, you mention the spinach. The recruiter admires your courage and is grateful that you saved her from worse embarrassment in a subsequent staff meeting. Given this very real possible script, what do you do?

You ask the recruiter, “Do you have any meetings scheduled after this one?”—perhaps not so directly; perhaps more delicately: “I imagine you have a very full schedule the rest of the afternoon. Thanks for sparing your time.” If the reply is, “Oh, I’m heading home after this”, you can maintain your silence, but at the risk of annoying the recruiter who discovers the spinach later and resents your failure to be helpful.

What to do in this dilemma depends in part on whether the recruiter is more sensitive to immediate embarrassment irrespective of the actual costs or to the cost of embarrassment irrespective of its immediacy. The former is triggered by yourtelling her, the latter assessed after colleagues in the subsequent meeting tell her. Hence, the right strategy to adopt as an applicant in this situation will depend on the recruiter’s foresight and risk-assessment skills, which can be impossible to gauge in an interview. In this instance, following the conventional wisdom is no guarantee of success.

Suppose the spinach is the applicant’s. The same distinction applies to choosing which strategy to adopt—to tell or not: As a recruiter, weigh the likelihood that the applicant is more sensitive to immediate embarrassment irrespective of the costs than to the cost of embarrassment irrespective of its immediacy.

Since, as a recruiter, you have greater latitude in asking the questions, you could attempt to assess these two sensitivities by clever questioning: “Do you believe that honesty is the best policy?”—an affirmative answer to which is likely to correlate with a preference for immediate “closure” when confronting a sensitive issue. That, in turn, suggests a greater sensitivity to the immediacy of embarrassment than to potential ultimate and subsequent costs.

True, the complexity of the human mind precludes any guaranteed outcome; but clues are better than nothing. Besides, pondering the critical dichotomy of immediacy of outcome vs. delayed costs of outcome may promote self-understanding for applicants and recruiters alike in a review of their respective strategies.

The difference between the two approaches is quite similar to the difference between emphasizing the probability of a desired/undesired outcome of a decision and emphasizing the “utility”, value, cost or benefit of that decision’s outcome.

In mathematics,  for a given strategy, the product of the two,  probability x utility (or value), PxV, is called “expected gain”—presumably a key calculation that underlies all decision making. Some people are “probability-sensitive”, like those who won’t buy a lottery ticket because of the bad odds, irrespective of the size of the prize; others are “utility-sensitive”, e.g., those who buy a ticket irrespective of the odds, because of the possible—not probable—big payoff.

These two considerations throw into question the psychological and predictive utility of the  mathematical expected gain concept itself, since for exactly the same expected gain and associated strategic choice, there can be two diametrically opposed attitudes towards it. A utility-sensitive lottery “player” may deem it an acceptable/attractive probable positive gain, whereas a probability-sensitive player may reject  it, even though “the rational player” will see no difference.

On reflection it’s clear that reflecting on spinach between your teeth, even if not through reflection in a mirror, may increase your odds of self-understanding, of comprehending math and maybe even of success—in life, as well as in interviews.

Anyway, it’s something to chew on.

By Michael Moffa