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I’m on vacation. This was originally published in 2017.
A reader writes:
I have been going through a very rigorous interviewing process for a permanent job in a firm where I have been undergoing a two-month post-college training program/paid internship which is very prestigious and only very few trainees are offered the permanent job. It would be my first proper job after finishing university. I have worked very hard during the training and have been very much appreciated by all colleagues. I have successfully passed all stages of the internal recruitment and have been told repeatedly by HR that I would definitely be offered the job. All that was left was to do a final interview with the company CEO and another director, scheduled for an early afternoon on Monday. However, everyone treated this as a mere courtesy meeting or just a sort of final formality.
On Sunday evening, I was travelling home on a packed train with my bike. Suddently, I was approached by a lady who asked me, rather rudely, to give my seat to a man, her father, who was travelling with her. Since I was sitting on a regular seat (not a seat designated for disabled passangers) and had to read some materials to prepare for my interview, I ignored her. Unfortunately, when I was getting off the train, I accidentally moved my bike in a way that it caught and left dirty stains on her coat.
I did not think much of this till the next day when I ran into the same woman and one of directors in the lift in my office building. It transpired that she is the CEO’s wife. She said nothing and did not acknowledge me, but it was very clear to me that she recognised me.
My interview that day went very well. However, I was not offered the job! I was given some feedback about the skills that I have to develop but that was all. I am not sure HR knows about the above as nobody mentioned it. The HR person who handled my recruitment was very surprised, in fact he was in shock about this. In any case, I am very disappointed as I am sure that this is the result of the said woman badmouthing me to her husband. I have worked so hard to get this job and feel it is extremely unfair to be rejected for something that has nothing to do with my performance and ability to do the job.
I am thinking that I should complain to HR and also should request the meeting with the CEO and the second director (who interviewed me) to explain myself, or maybe even to offering to pay for dry-cleaning or reimbursement of the ruined coat?
Don’t complain to HR. And don’t ask for a meeting to explain yourself. It’ll come across as if (a) you feel entitled to a job that you aren’t actually entitled to and which you might have ended up not getting for other reasons, and (b) you’re only offering to pay for the coat now because you think you lost the job over it.
It’s unlikely that this is about a dry cleaning bill. It’s more likely that this is about … well, character.
Ignoring someone who asks you to give up your seat to an older person who needs it is, frankly, pretty rude. If you had a medical need to sit there, it’s of course fine to explain that. But claiming the seat for yourself because you were reading and didn’t feel like standing is pretty crappy. And not even acknowledging the request is worse. There’s a social contract around this kind of thing — you give up your seat to someone who needs it more because of infirmity.
The bike thing was just icing on the cake. I don’t know how you handled it when you bumped her and stained her clothes, and if you were mortified and apologized profusely, okay — stuff happens that you can’t always control. But you don’t mention apologizing or interacting with her in any way.
If I were your interviewer and happened to be on that train and witnessed all of this, it would give me serious pause about hiring you. I’d worry that I had just learned something about your character (rudeness, selfishness, callousness) that in time would cause problems at work too.
This isn’t all that different from losing a job because you were rude to the receptionist. People care about how you behave to others. Sure, it’s not exactly the same as the receptionist scenario because the person you slighted was the wife of an employee, rather than an actual employee … but if they’re hearing it from a credible source, it’s fair game for it to matter to them.
You could certainly offer to pay for the dry cleaning now (framing it as “I realized that you’re married to someone whose coat I stained on the train and now that I know how to reach her, I would like to pay for the cleaning bill”), but you should offer it just because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to change the hiring decision.
The hiring decision probably isn’t changing. I know that must be hugely disappointing, but I really urge you not to see it as unfair. Rather, take it as a way to learn early in your career that manners and kindness matter, and that attempts to determine how important someone might be or might not can easily go awry.
Read an update to this letter here.