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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Alba

Is Olivia just another snowflake who melted in an interview from hell?

The boss who made headline news by driving a job applicant to tears following an interview from hell, reminded me of David Brent trying to impress the office junior by pretending to have read Dostoyevsky.

In an hilarious episode of The Office, Brent never figured his young colleague might have studied Russian Literature at university, leaving his own ignorance cruelly exposed. Every time he left the room to Google another fact about the author only served to highlight further, how little he knew.

Craig Dean, the now infamous CEO of Oldham-based Web Applications UK, was clearly on a Brent-inspired power trip when he belittled Olivia Bland, a 22-year-old graduate who had applied for the role of communications assistant with his firm.

In Olivia’s own words, Dean‘s treatment of her felt like that of ‘an abusive-ex’ when he asked her a series of highly personal (and irrelevant) questions – including whether her parents were still together - and criticised everything about her from her writing style to her posture. He deployed every cliché in the self-important, small business owner’s playbook, including strategically placing colleagues, who had no role in the interview process, beside and behind Olivia to unnerve her. How clever!

Dean’s stupidity was exposed in two ways; firstly, he underestimated Olivia’s intelligence and resolve when she turned-down the unexpected job offer that subsequently came her way. Secondly, it never occurred to him that his thoughtless behaviour would find a wider audience through the power of social media. A Tweet of her refusal letter went viral and the story was then picked-up by every mainstream news outlet in the country. As a result, Web Applications UK now has a nationwide reputation, for all the wrong reasons.

Dean is no doubt feeling like a bit of a chump but, as can happen with incidents like this, the public and media reaction has turned it into something quite different. Clearly, he went about things in the wrong way but is it right to label him, as some commentators have done, a ‘bully’ or as ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynistic’?

Let’s give Dean the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t going out of his way to be personally abusive to Olivia. He was, after all, recruiting for an important role in his business and, we must assume, he was doing what he thought best to find the right person. The so-called ‘stress interview’ techniques he later admitted to using are designed to provoke, embarrass and even to intimidate interviewees, to see how they cope under pressure. There is, of course, a line to be drawn in deciding when such strategies are appropriate. Someone applying to join the Royal Marines would expect a very different interview experience than if they were seeking to join the priesthood.

Whatever job you’re going for you should expect, at least, a bit of criticism. The one thing common to most interviews is that you will be required to promote yourself and to talk-up your skills, qualities and achievements. If the interviewer feels you’re not doing that, it’s reasonable for him or her to prompt you by questioning them. No self-respecting interviewer would begin by saying to a candidate ‘tell me how wonderful you are’.  

Olivia complained that during the interview she saw Dean scrolling through her Spotify account. You might wonder what he hoped to learn about her ability to do the job from her taste in music, but he was entitled to look. Employers recruiting staff are making an investment in their business and the should be able to use whatever information is publicly available about candidates in forming a view about them. Posting on social media might feel like you’re interacting with friends and family, but you are, in effect, publishing your thoughts to the world and it shouldn’t be a surprise when a prospective employer reads them.

Inevitably, Olivia’s experience has led to a debate about whether she’s simply reverting to type as a member of the ‘snowflake’ generation. Some commentators suggested so-called Millennials are unreasonably entitled in their professional expectations and that Olivia, rather than taking things personally, should have accepted that challenging and sometimes unpleasant exchanges are part and parcel of the world of work. Perhaps, she should have put her feelings to one side and been more robust in her engagement with a prospective employer, no matter his own obvious inadequacies.

Interviewed on BBC Five Live, she said: “I just felt very under attack. There was a lot of intimidating questions.” That's to be expected and perhaps someone like Olivia, who has a First-Class Honours degree in English Literature from Southampton University, should have been able to handle them and to give as good as she got. One option might have been to steer the conversation onto Dostoyevsky.

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