When a Job Search Feels Wrong

It was hard not to get excited when a recruiter called with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She was looking for a corporate leader to oversee talent management for a global pharmaceutical company. The job description had my name written all over it. My experience and credentials aligned perfectly with the role's requirements. And the best part was the job was just three miles from my home.

While I was not looking to make a move, the opportunity and timing felt right. I knew I wanted to work for a leader I respected, someone I enjoyed being around and someone ambitious about setting goals, but reasonable in their expectations. Plus, I wanted a healthy work environment where the hours were more manageable than the 14-hour days I was putting in. And I wanted to work at a place where people liked each other and enjoyed being at work. But most importantly, it needed to make sense, financial sense. 

As I investigated further, I wanted to learn more about the title, salary and the overall benefits. The title was noteworthy; as an associate vice president of talent acquisition, my role would align with senior staff. And while the bonus structure was not as rich as I expected, the base salary was double what I made, the 401(k) was more generous and it came with stock options, which I did not have with my current employer. In the end, it came down to money and prestige. So, after some serious consideration, I called the recruiter and threw my hat in the ring.

My first interview was with the hiring manager, the vice president of human resources. We spoke at length about my experience and the details of the role, and things seemed to be going well. After about an hour with each other, I felt confident about my responses, but I didn't feel entirely comfortable with the exchange. I couldn't tell if it was his personality, his communication style or if he wasn't sold on my candidacy, but it felt uneasy.

My next interview was with the delightful team I would be managing. There were 20 recruiters in the department with varying backgrounds, ages and levels of experience. The team was great; I enjoyed their humor, exchanging war stories and gaining their trust to ask some difficult questions. I asked them to describe the most challenging aspects of their job, and I asked them to describe the VP's leadership style. They were hesitant, but eventually, I learned that their work environment was less than healthy. They lived in constant fear of losing their jobs to contractors readily available, and as a result, morale was low. And sadly, they shared their doubts that anyone in the management role could make a difference. Disappointed but undeterred, I was committed to seeing the search through. A kinship had formed, and I knew I wanted to make a difference for this staff. 

The last group I met with were members of senior staff, my would-be colleagues. I understood the pharmaceutical industry and its business model, but I didn't have enough knowledge about the state-of-affairs at the company nor a feel for leadership. Nevertheless, they were there to interview me. They asked thoughtful and direct questions to assess my fit with the organization. I must have done well because when it was my turn to ask questions, they were open and generous with sharing information. Their insight helped me better understand how my work would intersect with theirs and at what capacity. They were also honest in describing the administration as incohesive, which caused confusion among the staff and sent mixed signals about their priorities. The senior staff were delicate in the details, but I could tell I hit a sore spot. 

The following day the recruiter called to tell me that I was selected as their candidate of choice. The job was mine if I wanted it! I expressed my excitement, but I also shared my concerns about the job. First, I told her about my meeting with the VP and that I couldn't tell if things had gone well. Next, I shared how much I loved meeting with staff and that I could see myself working alongside them but was worried that I would be unsuccessful in helping with their work conditions and lifting morale. The final concern I shared was that of leadership. I was nervous about the constant change in the administration and where that might leave me down the road. She took it all in and suggested that I meet with the VP a second time to discuss my concerns and see how I felt afterward. I happily agreed.

A few days later, I met with the VP again. This time, things got worse. He became cold and withdrawn when I brought up my questions and concerns. I assured him I could do the job, but I was concerned that I would be setting myself up for failure without more information. Our meeting ended when he stood up and abruptly asked, "Do you want the job or not?" At that moment, I went from nervous to frozen. I told him I appreciated the offer and he gave me a couple of days to think about it.

As a recruiter, I knew the answer. I'd seen it play out many times before only to have a candidate withdraw from a search that didn't feel right. But as a candidate, I fell into the trap of wanting a job so badly I was willing to lie to myself to make it happen. I tried to tell myself that the toxic environment was situational, when I knew it was systemic. I told myself I could work around the issue with the VP. I ran the numbers, and the increase in compensation would significantly contribute to my overall financial health. That was a big deal to consider, but it wasn't the only one.

A couple of days went by, and I finally called the recruiter to withdraw my candidacy. She wasn't surprised. All I could ask is how could a job be so perfect but not the organization?

Undoubtedly, there will be moments when you need to make difficult decisions that are in your best interest. For example, you might feel tremendous pressure to take a job that you're not excited about, but you don't have a choice; sometimes, you have to take what you can get. It's not a bad thing; it's how most of us got started in our careers. But with time and tenure, you can be more discerning about your options. Just remember, do not get stuck on the compensation alone. Yes, it needs to make financial sense, but unless the job in its totality makes sense for you, take a pause and make sure it aligns with your priorities personally and professionally.

I saw all the red flags and I heard that little voice in my head telling me to run, but I felt I owed it to myself to see the process through. And I'm glad I did. Despite feeling discouraged throughout the interviews and not hearing what I wanted, it wasn't until the last meeting with the hiring manager that I finally woke up and accepted what I already knew — this job was not for me. 

If you ever find yourself at a crossroads when the excitement of a job opportunity turns to doubt, the right choice for you will come from within. Trust your instincts.

The Career Engineering series features the expert advice of Amy Rueda, a 25-year veteran of executive search, who has placed CEOs and C-suite executives across multiple industries and functional areas. Her passion for leading diversity initiatives that focus on change management and employee engagement is reflected in her portfolio of accomplishments. Amy studied political science and was born and raised in Los Angeles.

Email your career questions to connectfeedback@alumni.ucla.edu and Amy will try and answer them in next month’s issue of Career Engineering.

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