Defensive Behavior

ROGER MIKALSKI (NOT HIS REAL NAME) was understandably sad to hear that a consulting firm had rejected him for its newly created position: solid waste practice director. But, as he figured, you win some, and you lose some. His attitude changed, however, when, months later, he learned that the company was using the material he had submitted with his application. The firm didn't even bother changing the name he had created for the business development initiative. Now, he was downright furious.

“I had two interviews, progressively up the chain of command,” he told his lawyer. “Everyone was very polite, very open. Thinking back, I have to say it seemed odd that they asked me so few questions about my proposed marketing strategy. They specifically asked for it in writing before the second meeting.”

Strictly speaking, there's nothing particularly unusual or unfair about asking candidates, who purport to have the necessary know-how and experience, how they would tackle a job. Whether the employer asks probing questions in an interview or requires applicants to devise a tentative business plan, the goal is the same: to identify people who are likely to get off to a prompt and productive start.

Job applicants need to be smart, which often means carefully walking the line between candor and reticence. The trick is to convince the would-be employer that you are someone with great ideas without fully spelling them out.

For starters, illustrate your drive and resourcefulness by using examples from completed projects and not by creating something new. If the interviewer pressures you to deal with the company's current situation, perhaps you can show insight and ingenuity with a tantalizing conceptual approach that lacks key implementing factors.

If it looks like submitting a written proposal is the key to getting further in the interview process, then be sure to make the point that what you're furnishing is your property. You can do so by inserting a copyright notice and symbol at the bottom of the first page or title page of the material. In addition, both the cover letter, if any, and the submission should highlight its proprietary or confidential nature with wording that the content is “provided solely for the [insert date] interview for the _________ position and may not be used or relied upon for any other purpose without the author's consent.”

This protection, of course, has its downside. A standoffish posture can offend or alienate a potential boss. Try putting a positive spin on your strict stance with an allusion to business secrets: “If I were managing the department, this is how I would safeguard the company's work product.” Finally, your post-interview “thank you” note — and be sure to keep a copy — should refer to what you submitted and what you and the interviewers had to say about the material.

Whether you're applying for a job in the waste industry, or, for that matter, anywhere else, you can hint at what's in store without giving away the store.
Barry Shanoff
Legal Editor
Rockville, Md.