Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Is Texting During a Job Interview Now Acceptable?

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During a recent campus interview at my university, a candidate met with department members for dinner and basically spent the entire meal texting. Is this really the new normal?

Let me take this moment to assure you: No, it is not. It might be tempting to think that it is because texting is so endemic in our social spaces, including professional ones. Tenured (and sometimes even untenured) faculty members text their way through department meetings (yes, I am looking at you!).

So in the category of "obvious yet apparently needing to be said," let me offer job candidates this advice: Put away your phone while your hosts are taking you out to dinner (or lunch or any meal or social event during a campus interview).

Texting in such situations sends out several messages to the hiring committee — but not the kind you should be sending. It signals:

  • You are involved in another social interaction that you find more interesting or compelling at this moment than your job interview. You may be there in body with the professors who are wining and dining you, but you are not there in spirit. So they become aware that they are competing for your attention, and they are already losing.
  • You can’t keep your focus on what is in front of you. "Can’t focus" is not really a glowing testament to the future promise of your candidacy.
  • You are either flouting the norms and conventions of the interview space, or showing a total ignorance of them. And that is exactly what the septuagenarian faculty members who already bemoan how "iPhones and Facebook are ruining human connection" are going to say about you, and in this particular case, they will be correct.
  • Most important, whatever the underlying interpretations particular to each offended party, the take-away will be: This candidate does not care about this job and/or thinks he/she is too good for this job.

If indeed you really do think you are too good for this job and don’t want it, I suppose texting during interview meals doesn’t much matter. You could spend your entire meeting with the dean playing Words With Friends if you aren’t worried about your employment prospects.

But academe is a small world, and people like to partake in informative gossip. Rude behavior at a campus visit for a job you think is beneath you may cost you an interview at a job you really want down the road. If you are remembered by the search-committee members as, "Oh my God, that was the one who texted the entire meal! Wouldn’t even look up from the phone when someone asked a question!" they will tell their friends over drinks at the next Big Conference in Your Field, and those friends might be on the next search committee you face.

This rule applies not just to texting through dinner — which I hope is an extreme outlier example, and not something that happens a lot — but to other behaviors, too. In general, as a candidate, you must think about how you are perceived. Most people know that a star candidate from an R1 university who interviews at a college with a 4-4 teaching load probably is being disingenuous when disquisitioning to the search committee about how he/she would like nothing more than to teach general-education courses to students on a campus with an open-admission policy and be their John Keating à la Dead Poets Society.

But you know what? Even if everyone involved in that conversation knows that the sentiments are feigned, insincere sentiments are often a sincere signal of interest in the position. Everyone in the interview knows the rules for these kinds of interactions: You are supposed to talk about why you believe in the mission of the campus (even if you don’t).

In a sense you are assessed not only on your sincerity (which can be hard to gauge — it requires taking you at face value and not getting bogged down in possible projection) but on your adherence to social scripts expected of you in that setting. That is what being polite in a job-interview setting means. It also means you are taking the interview seriously even if everything about your profile screams that the blanket you were wrapped in as an infant said Yale on it.

I do want to note the exception for emergencies. If you really, really have a legitimate emergency that requires you to be glued to your text messages throughout a dinner with the search committee (for example, a family member is going through open-heart surgery and you are waiting for updates), be open about it, apologize in advance, and try to limit your texting as much as possible. Explain yourself: "I have to apologize in advance. My mother-in-law is in the hospital and I am waiting on updates, so while I would normally turn off my cell phone, I am going to keep it on until I hear something, and I may need to briefly excuse myself to take a phone call pertaining to that. But I will try to minimize the extent to which this will interfere with our dinner." People will be sympathetic (or ought to be, at least), and checking your messages or texting will not reflect badly upon you in that sort of circumstance.

Otherwise, put the phone away.

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