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An interview to remember

This particular interview does not start with a vampire on one end and a cheesy reporter on the other end. There’s no over enthusiastic Christian Slater grilling the ‘sassy’ Brad Pitt the way it happened in An Interview with the Vampire – in fact, it’s even better! This involves a multi talented interviewer who can assume any role – an author, a poet, a debater, a public speaker, a mimicker, a singer and the list goes on and on – but humility demands that I end it on last but not the least, a banker too!

Interviewing is a crucial part of every individual’s life and more or less every individual experiences this thrill or ordeal at least once in their life time. Whether it’s pertaining to academics or jobs or even match making! In the professional domain, it can be treated both as a science and as an art. Science being, “What entry will you pass in the system, when you retire a letter of credit?” or better yet: “If humans evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?” Questions which basically make you want to run to a mountain top and yell out loud! Unfortunately, they don’t add much value to either parties, neither in assessing competence nor in getting any clue on initiative-taking ability.

As mentioned earlier, being connected to the field of financial industry, I have been on both sides of the fence for the last three decades now. I have been both Christian Slater and Brad Pitt (I bet both of them will be very flattered should they read this!) and some of my encounters have been quite interesting, some made me walk out (of embarrassment) and some have truly inspired me. Some of which I shall narrate and the effect it has had on me is left to the readers’ discretion.

In my professional life, I have also been associated with panel interview rituals, where some senior co-panelists often took the lead. They had been usually firing bullets left right and centre of technical questions and brutally cornering the poor candidate. After an impatient pause, the answer itself is given by the honourable interviewer, of course, displaying superior standards of knowledge and professional acumen. This way, at least the candidate has had a take-home bit in the form of divine information that it is Part C of Chapter 19 in the foreign exchange manual which talks about bid bond… Oh! And in this episode, after a while, it takes extraordinary intelligence to guess which one is the interviewer and which one is the interviewee!

Some interviewers are just rebels without a cause. They are angry individuals who are perhaps allergic to human beings. They have sadist streaks in them. Their high point is when they are able to explode the grey matter of candidates through a mental maze. They like pretending that they are some secret undercover agents of the agencies and love to intimidate the candidates by asking questions on integrity issues and maybe past affairs as well! I had the occasion to sit with similar types, at two different geographic locations. Even before the start of any interview, they would position themselves in a combative style, waiting with expressive eyes, for their ‘prey’ to walk in! And no sooner would the candidate sit across them would both pounce on the poor interviewee, literally going to the extent of concluding, “How dare you come before us to give an interview?” and “Don’t you know we are cannibals? If you didn’t, regret now!” I had great fun on this panel, playing the role of a pacifist.

Then comes another category of interviewers with a sweet tooth. They prefer eye candy. It’s the encounter with the fairer sex in an interview. I recall an instance (this one in Pakistan) where I found myself in an extremely challenging situation. A senior colleague and myself were interviewing a lady for a front office position. Incidentally, she belonged to the airline industry. My colleague questioned her on the reason for quitting her previous job. To this came a very apt response that her status was changed to being a married person and hence her schedule of flying disturbed her family life. The next question I was expecting was along the lines of “How do you see yourself adjusting to an industry change?” but instead I hear, “So how long have you been married now?” At this, the color of my skin turned into a vivid shade of guava pink. The lady replied sheepishly, “Two years.” My colleague lost no moment and pounced at her with a crisp question, “And how many children do you have?” At this point, I was wondering in two years time, how many children can human specie possibly have? The poor lady was turning red and I could clearly see what was going on in her head. But this was not it – my colleague had to put the last nail in the coffin. He made no qualms about playing the role of a typical mother-in-law and fired the most unpredictable question, “When do you intend on having kids?” I couldn’t take this any longer, with a sympathetic and beyond-words-embarrassed look, I walked out of the room on the pretext of greeting a visitor, who much to my
Luck, walked into the office and saved me from the predicament. Any other country, culture or society, I am sure a legal suit or ‘gender trial’ would have been involved.

The last category of interviewers I have experienced are those who would talk to you about anything but work or academics. They’ll never ask the Newton’s law of motion, nor a quick math or logic question and neither any technical work-related problems. They would love to discuss Allama Iqbal’s verses or Khalil Gibran’s 28 essays in his book The Prophet. Long discussions on the mysteries of life, philosophy, religion would be good enough to judge the suitability of the candidate and that would qualify for an interview. Some would just get over excited about a hot favorite question on hobbies. This could range from music, to horse riding, to swimming and I clearly recall that on each activity, the participant was grilled to an abnormal degree as if his annual increment will be dependent on his expertise at horseback trotting. If any participant dared say music then it was a two-hour session on discussing the beauty of every note from the flute, to the harmonium, to the banjo, the drums, and the trumpet. If the discussion turned to vocals, then questions would be like, “Do you like Urdu or English songs? If English, is it classical, pop, hard metal or what?” If it was Urdu, “Do you like ghazals (if so whose?) or plain film songs of Lata and Rafi or even Kundalal Saigol.” I used to sit and wonder, if our (then) institution would be sending a team to one of the Star Plus singing competition programs!

Moreover, we possess queer tendencies of digging into what the candidate’s father, grandfather, great grandfather or great great grandfather does or did in their lifetime. I recall a candidate sitting before me in a panel interview and he was asked what his father did. He promptly replied that he’s not alive and to my utter amazement, the next question was, “So what did he do when he was alive?” This really made me wonder what the world is coming to! Surprisingly, I found the same tendencies in myself, not realising that this trait disorder is specific to Eastern societies. When I was based in South East Asia, I remember this one candidate who came for an interview, and I asked her, “What does your father do?” She shot a cold glance at me instantly and curtly fired back, “He’s a bus driver!” and I found myself wondering why in the world did I ask this question! In North East Africa, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea, it is considered extremely demeaning to the calibre or talent of any interviewee if he is asked any questions relating to his family. In fact, on their resumes, candidates never mention the name of their father. This is quite contrary to the interviews I conducted in an English-speaking West African country, where my local co-panelist would ask if the candidates’ siblings were from the same father and mother! In fact, in my first ever trip to that country, my brother who was heading a shipping line there introduced me to his colleagues and lo and behold, one of them asked him if we were from the same father and same mother! I felt like coming to blows with him (readers know how excited we become when it relates to our own mothers and sisters, whilst we may continue to say about other peoples’ mothers and sisters!) but then my brother calmed me down and explained the typical manners of a tribal society.

Apart from all my interesting encounters, none has paralleled the one I recently experienced. A candidate was referred to me by a very senior colleague in the industry for the purpose of being counselled on issues like career path. During the meeting, we discussed many issues and I counselled him on the career path he may take, and general guidance which I could provide as a mentor. Towards the end, he volunteered critical information! He instantly remarked that he didn’t have any spare time. I became quizzical and enquired what engaged him to that effect. The gentleman very proudly declared that he had to spend his time with his two beloved wives!

I was highly intrigued by this individual who already had two spouses in his portfolio in his mid 30s. He proudly went on to elaborate that his first wife helped him hunt for his second wife and that they lived together as one happy family. I was mesmerized beyond words till he said that currently both his wives were on a joint venture in search of the third bride for their mutual sweetheart. I was absolutely stunned and speechless at this young man. Instinctively, I overthrew the corporate veneer and assumed an eager position of a mentee and suggested as to why doesn’t he coach me instead on how to achieve what every man yearns to but very few live that dream in actuality. On this note, I told him that I’d be more than enthusiastic to get counselled by him on tips for what he’d achieved!

There’s been much learning in all the interview encounters in my life. Now I’m thinking when do I start implementing what I’ve learnt from the candidates, while taking and giving interviews.

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