Since I came to Canada about 5 months ago, I have been advised to prepare stories to use during job interviews. “Stories for job interviews?” You are probably wondering with many exclamation marks on your face… Well, yes, in a certain type of job interviews called the CBI (Competency Based Interview), some human resources professionals believe that a past behavior predicts a future behavior. While, I don’t necessarily agree with how accurate a past behavior can set the tone for any future behavior, as I believe, human beings go through a learning curve, I am finding myself more and more inclined to think about certain scenarios, write them down, and prepare them for CBIs.
In a few workshops, I have attended in Canada, I have been urged to use the STAR technique which stands for: Situation, Task, Action, and Result. In this post, I will go through a painful event that shaped my work experience in 2015 while trying as much as possible to shed enough light for you to understand the background, consequences, and ramifications of this story without badmouthing a previous employer, commit libel or any other type of defamation. I will also towards the end of this post, frame the parts of the story that I will use during an interview while omitting certain parts and giving a positive note to the whole experience.
On Monday, November 2nd, 2015, I joined my dream organization. It was the organization I have always dreamed of working for. I believed in its mission, its vision, and its values. I marveled at its accomplishments in helping children and women step out of poverty and reach their full potential through assistance with their basic needs, education, and health. However, I wasn’t an employee of this organization. For some unknown reason, the supply department in that organization had contracted with an outsourcing agency to hire temporary workers for a few positions. I was employed with the organization through the outsourcing agency, something, I found complicated to explain and to comprehend.
I had a two-hour training on my first day with a few other colleagues where I was implicitly instructed to refrain from asking any questions. That was the only training I got for a job that I had never done before in circumstances that many would describe as traumatizing, unsettling, unclear, and vague.
I was the only employee in that office for that specific position. The office was small with a handful of employees recently hired. Most of them were fearful and unsure of what job responsibilities they needed to perform. The office was planned to expand in coming months to encompass additional employees, departments, and offices.
Two days before joining that organization, I was on top of the world with a brilliant organization where I held an important position assisting two amazing people who impacted my life and career.
On that first day of training, I met my manager but I had difficulties understanding him although I have outstanding communication skills in English. For some unknown reason, I didn’t click with the trainer who was also the project manager and he didn’t click with me either. The whole hiring process was odd, I expected a face to face interview which never took place, instead there was one telephone call in which I wasn’t sure my interlocutor – who will become my manager at that organization for the whole duration of my 5-month contract – understood what I was saying…
On Friday, November 6, on my third day working in the field with the organization’s implementing partner; I encountered a problem that would shape my work experience. I had been on the job for 5 days only and in the field for the 3rd day. I had never been in informal refugee camps and I had never encountered people living in such destitution and poverty, where their minimal basic needs of food, water, and shelter weren’t met. The whole thing was novel to me and although I tried asking for feedback and assistance from both the manager and from the project manager I received no response to my numerous emails. For them, my job was very easy: Observe and report. I was told that I needed to be the eyes and ears of my employers on the ground. I was never given any specific information on how to act or behave when problems aroused. I was never explicitly or implicitly explained how to approach issues in the field whether between landowners, refugees, or implementing partners. I tried asking for an informational meeting or for advice on certain pertinent issues but both managers were too busy to show any concern. Even when I managed to meet with them, they simply didn’t show any interest in helping me, guiding me, or providing any assistance whatsoever. The project manager was always angry with me, I couldn’t interact with him or communicate with him. In his eyes, I wasn’t good enough no matter what I did. The manager was oblivious to anything I told him. I had a feeling that he either didn’t care about what I told him or that he simply didn’t understand what I was saying. Shortly before joining that organization, I was in a place where discussion, feedback, listening, and problem-solving were the norm, where my employers met regularly to anticipate issues and needs, where everyone had a voice and his/her voice was appreciated and welcomed. In the new place, I felt like an alien on Mars where I spoke a strange language that no one understood.
Here is what happened. I remember it clearly as if it took place a few hours ago. In the directions I had read upon starting my work, I was told to assess certain households that met certain criteria: tents only made of plastic sheets with minimal construction, masonry, or anything else. Plastic tents were very rare in the area I operated. They were more abundant in other districts where a higher density of refugees lived but not in the mountainous district where informal tents were minimal with a few tents scattered around agricultural lands. Therefore, implementing partners always faced a dilemma when assessing beneficiaries. Someone was called upon to make the call of whether to include the household or to exclude it. I thought that was my responsibility although my employers never confirmed it.
I was accompanying 4 assessors when we arrived at an agricultural land that the implementing partner had never been to. The 4 assessors were the driver, two data collectors, and their supervisor. The makeshift households were located in an agricultural land and while we had trouble deciding on who to include and who to exclude, we met with the landowner of that land who objected to our work. He was angry when he thought that organizations were providing financial assistance to his employees who relied on the assistance and were way behind their work responsibilities. He told us that he had sponsored those families to come, live, and work on his lands. He reiterated that his survival depended on their work and when organizations gave money to these families they stopped working and relied only on that money. All these things impacted his land productivity and created struggles for him to survive, sell his land products, and send his own children to school. The assessors didn’t want to deal with any of that. It was almost 2pm on a cold winter day and it was about to rain. They wanted to call it for the day and return to their offices. The directions I had read stated otherwise: data collectors weren’t allowed to leave an informal settlement until all tents were assessed. Since we didn’t know how many tents there were, I was in favor of staying until everything was uncovered.
I decided to stay and to let the landowner vent his anger. I had been around angry people before. In fact, I had been angry at times in the past, and I knew that active listening, clear communication, and problem-solving were keys to solve anything. I was in favor of letting him speak. The assessors wanted to leave. I instructed them to stay put. They obeyed reluctantly. I let him speak. I agreed with his points and then I explained that it was a one-time assistance and was targeted at children below 15. I told him that I understood his concerns but there was no reason to punish innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents. I also reiterated that the assistance was supposed to take place around Christmas for parents to buy warm winter clothes for their children, something like a Christmas gift for the most vulnerable refugees… While I spoke slowly and looked him directly in the eyes while showing understanding and compassion, he started understanding the purpose of our work, and a few minutes later while I assured him that he was in control and that we wouldn’t do anything to upset him, he gladly agreed to let us assess the 4 families who lived on his land. I thanked him gracefully and the data collectors collected the needed information. We moved on to other makeshift tents and I thought the whole issue was solved.
Upon my return to the office, I had mixed feelings. I hadn’t built enough trust to openly tell my employers about my encounters. I wasn’t sure they would listen. I started writing my report when I decided to take a call outside where I met the project manager. His face was red but he joked around. I wanted to take some distance from the whole thing before telling him about that encounter.
On Friday toward 4:30pm, the supervisor had reported her perspective to her employer who called the project manager to complain. I don’t know what story he was told. While I thought I did a good job of solving a difficult situation on the ground, I was flabbergasted when the project manager stormed into my corner office in the huge empty hall and severely reprimanded me for destroying his relationships with his implementing partners. He didn’t give me a chance to defend myself or to even present my view of what had happened. In his eyes, I made an unforgivable mistake. He yelled. He screamed. He intimidated me.
After he left, I concluded my report where I presented my point of view of the whole situation and I went home.
I am not sure anyone read my reports. I have no idea why I wrote them in the first place if no one read them or acted upon them.
On Monday, November 9 in the morning, I was called to a meeting where the manager and the project manager yelled at me without giving me a chance to explain my perspective or to voice my story. I was threatened of being fired, and I simply refused to leave as I needed the money and most importantly I wanted to add that work experience to my resume (Pouf! It is odd what we are willing to do to have a line or two on a useless piece of paper that claims to showcase our entire life!)
I asked questions that no one cared to answer. I asked for feedback and I openly, explicitly, and clearly asked for assistance that no one seemed to be willing to provide. I had never felt unprotected and vulnerable in my entire life. The project manager stormed out of the room in the middle of that meeting. The manager put his hands on both sides of the table as if to convey control and management which he totally lacked. 10 minutes into that weird meeting I started crying. My sobs and tears didn’t change anything in the body language or expressions of the manager.
I stayed on that job every single day until the end of that 5-month contract. Some days were harder than others in getting up, showing up, and moving on with my days, but I persisted. I badly wanted that experience.
In job interviews, I usually broadcast a positive happy ending where the families were assessed and I was lauded for my good work. Shades around the other consequences of that story never make it to the light. When I am stressed to provide additional details, I carefully navigate around the landowner, his anger, and how I dealt with it.
This is the first time I put these words in writing. I think it is time to let this story go.
What do you think?