Do job interviews in architecture need to be more structured and professional? Kirsty Volz believes a more formal process would help create a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Kirsty Volz piece_1

In my experience the architectural job interview is a very casual affair – a quick half-hour discussion about projects, maybe mutual contacts, money and work hours, and the deed is done. In the past I’ve never really minded this because job interviews can be very unpleasant for both parties. And this approach is not a problem if job negotiation doesn’t involve anything more than availability and money. However, this casual approach becomes much more difficult if the potential employee needs to negotiate anything outside these basic parameters, as it doesn’t allow for more complex negotiations. The following are my reflections on the architectural job interview and how this informal approach to employment creates a potential barrier to equity and diversity in the practice of architecture.

Interview obstacles

I dedicated much of the past six months looking for work in an architectural practice. I have enough experience on my resume to land a job interview most of the time (not always), but time and again I became unstuck during the interview. There are a number of reasons for this (it is a very competitive employment environment), but the interview usually went awry when I confessed that I have a young son. At this point, the focus shifted from architecture to raising children and I was no longer taken seriously as a candidate for the job. I realised I needed some advice on interviewing techniques and that’s when I made an appointment with a careers counsellor.

Overcoming barriers to employment

The counsellor put me onto a book No One Is Unemployable: Creative Solutions for Overcoming Barriers to Employment by Elisabeth Harney and Debra Angel. This book suggests not hiding any barriers you have to attaining employment and, instead, recommends turning these experiences into positive attributes relating to your employability. For example, since becoming a parent I have found that I am very efficient at tasks because I am accustomed to producing work in very limited timeframes. In fact, there is a growing trend of job seekers listing the skills acquired in parenting as transferrable skills on their resume. I attempted this approach at a number of interviews, but was never successful. This interview technique really demonstrated to me that it was a good thing I went into architecture and not sales and marketing. I just couldn’t pitch parenting to a potential employer as an asset to my skill set (although I genuinely believe it to be the case), and I would be really interested to hear from people who have mastered this approach.

To tell or not to tell

The other option is to keep mum about being a Mum. A human resources advisor I consulted argued that a potential employer has no right to know about an applicant’s family situation and that such information should be left out of any job application or interview.

It probably sounds silly, but it really hadn’t occurred to me to avoid discussing my family situation. I asked my husband – also a graduate of architecture and a similar age to me with similar experience – if he would feel obliged to disclose that he had a child when applying for a new job. He said he wouldn’t. So why did I feel so obliged to do so?

More structure & professionalism

These last few months have given me the opportunity to hone and develop my job-seeking skills but there are two parties involved in the job interview. My motivation in writing this article is to suggest that there is room for improvement on the interviewer’s side as well.

Undoubtedly some architecture practices are better than others with interviewing processes, but I am yet to attend a job interview that is structured or has more than one interviewer. I’m not sure why the architectural interview is such a casual affair when, as an architect recently said to me, six months’ wages is an expensive mistake to make. But beyond the financial implications of making poor choices in employing staff, informal interviews also potentially exclude professionals who may require more complex discussions around working conditions. This is explored by the authors of the journal article, ‘The Panel Interview: A review of empirical research and guidelines for practice’ (Public Personnel Management, vol. 31 no. 3 [2002], 397–428), who canvas the impact of structured panel interviews on better decision making in employing new staff. They conclude, “panel interviews were potentially one way of reducing bias in the selection process” and that “current research indicates that panel interviews may be promising as a fair and legally defensible selection tool.”

In the end, as the bank account was quickly evaporating, I had to expand my search to fields outside architecture. The selection process for these jobs involved responding to selection criteria, a practical exam (in some cases) and, if I made it through those tasks, a panel interview. Regardless of a job being on offer or not, the time and effort invested by both parties towards the interview made them very worthwhile exchanges (you get out what you put in?). By adopting more professional employment practices, architecture firms would not only benefit from making careful, objective decisions around staffing, they would also create a more diverse workforce through an inclusive employment process. I’m really not suggesting anything ground-breaking here – just more than one person interviewing a candidate, in a professional environment, with a few planned and thoughtful questions to address.