I went to a job interview where they’re not taking COVID seriously … or how to make a scene when you need to make a scene

A reader writes:

I recently interviewed at an organization that I would consider working for, but I had some big concerns about their Covid precautions.

When I arrived for my interview, no one in the office was wearing a mask except me. This concerned me, but I felt that people were distancing so I decided to give the benefit of the doubt.

While I was in the waiting area a woman without a mask sat in the chair right next to me and it looked like she worked there because she had a big stack of paperwork that she was going through. I didn’t want to ask or look too closely because she was so near to me and it made me nervous. I was trying to look away the whole time to limit exposure. Not sure that helps, but I was not sure what to do.

I was then escorted by the HR woman to the interview room down the hall. She had put on a mask and that made me feel better. The two owners, who were also in the interview, were definitely not on the same page. One of them had a mask on the whole time, but she was not wearing it properly. Her nose was popped out the top the whole time. The other owner had a mask on at first, but a few minutes in he took it off. The room was fairly big and we were far enough apart that I decided it was okay.

However, it was not big enough to account for what happened next. The man sneezed twice. He did not cover his face AT ALL the first time and made a sad attempt to sneeze into his elbow the second time. I was really disturbed by this but did not feel comfortable saying anything.

Otherwise, the interview went well and it seemed like my skills were a good fit for the job. I have decided that if I am offered the job, I will let them know how unsafe I felt during the interview and give them an ultimatum about implementing better precautions. It is bad enough to expose me and each other, but this is a healthcare-adjacent field. They work with some very sick people who need to be protected too. I considered reporting them, but the process for someone who wasn’t an employee was unclear.

I do not need this job badly enough to not say something, and I honestly would not feel comfortable working there unless they made some changes. I think it’s important enough for me to say something and risk not getting the job by appearing “difficult” and I hope my concerns might prompt changes for those already working there and clients. Do you have any suggestions on how to say these things to them if I am offered the job? If I am not, should I say something to them anyway?

I am disappointed in myself because I didn’t do anything in the moment. I felt uncomfortable rocking the boat in an interview, but I hate having been kind of a doormat too.

I wouldn’t take this job if it’s offered, since you say you don’t need it. Even if you address your concerns and they promise to make changes, they’ve already shown you they’re not taking safety seriously enough. It’s unlikely that having already ignored months of public health warnings, they’re going to dramatically overhaul things based on one person’s complaint and then sustain those changes. It’s very likely that no matter what they promise, they still won’t take it seriously enough. So if you only want a job that takes employee and patient safety seriously, this isn’t that job.

But I do think you should say something, because they need to hear that people are bothered. One person’s complaints may not matter to them, but if they hear it from multiple people, it has a chance of sinking in. Be one of those people.

If you’re offered the job, you could say this: “I appreciate the offer. There’s one big concern on my mind, which is the lack of safety precautions I saw when I was in your office. People weren’t wearing masks or distancing — someone sat right next to me in the waiting room with no mask. My interviewer wasn’t wearing a mask and was sneezing while we were talking. Can I ask why your office isn’t complying with the CDC’s guidelines for businesses?” … followed by, presumably, turning down the offer unless you hear something surprisingly reassuring (perhaps “we’d all been carbon monoxide poisoned that day, weren’t thinking clearly, and were horrified afterwards”).

If you’re not offered the job, you could adapt that same language, framing it as, “I appreciate you getting back to me and wish you all the best with your new hire. Can I give you some feedback about the experience I had as a candidate?”

Alternately, you could withdraw from the process now and explain why. But there’s potentially more opportunity to have an impact if you wait until they’ve decided they want to hire you and turn down their offer then. (Of course, you need to balance that with the fact that if you wait and they reject you, at that point anything you say will probably carry less weight. There’s no way around that, though.)

Let’s also talk about what you could have done in the moment! It’s really common to feel uncomfortable rocking the boat in an interview. Lots of people feel that way! Something is happening that you didn’t expect and which is clearly wrong, and it’s hard to think of a way to address it on the fly that doesn’t feel rude or awkward or confrontational, and you don’t want to make a scene. That’s especially true in job interviews, but it happens in all sorts of other situations too.

The best way to handle that is to be prepared with a few stock phrases ahead of time, so they’re ready when you need them and you’re not scrambling for wording in the moment. You can’t always predict what weird situation will come up, but right now, during a pandemic, wherever you go it’s smart to be ready to say things like:

  • “Could you back up a few feet to give us both more space?”
  • “I’m going to move my chair over here so there’s more space between us.”
  • “Before we go on, would you mind adjusting your mask so it’s covering your nose as well? I’m trying to be really careful.”
  • “Before we start, would you mind wearing a mask? I’m high-risk/live with someone who’s high-risk/trying to be really careful. I’ll of course keep one on myself too.”
  • “Since there’s not a lot of room for distancing in your reception area, I’m going to wait in the hallway — could you let Jane know I’m out here when she’s ready?”
  • And if necessary: “I don’t feel safe staying here because your office is violating public safety guidelines, so I’m going to cut this short. Thank you for your time.”

Some of it too, though, is mental. It’s the work of getting clear in your own mind that it’s okay to assert yourself to protect your safety, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable and even if it annoys someone else. Most of us know that in theory, but your brain will still often default to Don’t Make A Scene until you take the time to really process what prioritizing your safety means (“it means I will say things like X or Y” and “it means I might create a moment of weirdness, and I’m okay with that”).

I often think that I benefitted tremendously from an activism job I had in my 20s, where part of my job was literally to make scenes. To call attention to animal abuse, I disrupted large events by standing on chairs, shouting, and unfurling massive banners; I crashed private events dressed as a giant chicken; I tossed pies; I went naked in “rather go naked than wear fur” protests. Before every single one of these, I secretly panicked and felt like I was going to have a heart attack. It’s scary to deliberately disrupt the social contract! We’ve been trained since childhood not to do it, and it took a lot of mental work to force myself to overcome all those instincts to Not Make A Scene. But doing it got me comfortable with causing a public spectacle — and as a result, “would you mind moving six feet back?” seems a lot easier.

I’m not suggesting that everyone experiment with public disruptions (although if you can tie it to a good cause, I endorse it). But I do think there’s value in thinking about how wired we are to be polite, and how much our brains resist causing those record-scratch moments, and how much that does or doesn’t serve us as we navigate life. It’s really useful to do the mental work to get comfortable with discomfort — to be okay with being the one to cause a stink in the service of a greater good, and to embrace and honor those acts of discomfort because they’re about who we are and what we want to stand for.

That might feel like a lot for a question about a frustrating interview. But I think it’s right for this moment.

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