The good, the bad and the ugly sides of working as an interviewer

Here is a quick wrap-up of my experience working as a face to face research interviewer now when I’m through my first few assignment batches.

I’ll try to limit aspects that relate to this position specifically and the employer, because I want the post to show how it is to work as a face to face research interviewer generally – the best sides and the worst challenges from my perspective.

 

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The best sides of the job

 
1. Freedom

The freedom to plan and work independently and be paid to drive in my own car, listening to my favourite radio station, feels great. So does the flexibility to coordinate my work schedule with hobbies and other priorities, and the freedom from dreadful long days in an cubicle (or something) trapped in a daily swamp of server noise, ringing phones and office politics.

 
2. The puzzle-aspect

To categorise and keep track of data according to a comprehensive rules regime; to have to think about definitions and fit grey zone cases into the right spots. This aspect draws on reading comprehension and logical information processing skills – and I love it. The clarity, the control and the systematic nature of the job combined with freedom and flexibility.

 
3. Sociological insights

The data collection itself and the way the process links up with what I’ve learned about Statistics and scientific methods is nice… but the best is the ‘sociological snapshots’ from listening to and observing families and their familiar surroundings. I’m an alien in a sense; an immigrant who doesn’t even understand the culture I’ve grown up in well, and who’ve passed through most of my adult life having limited contact with people and their norms. So I appreciate the opportunity to study ‘family snapshots’ of randomly selected samples of people.

 
4. Local geography

I get to see a lot of Australian landscapes and suburbs while I drive to them and through them, and get socio-geographic insights: to experience local suburbs from inside some of the houses gives snapshots of suburb-cultures that can’t be achieved by just driving around or having a coffee in a cafe in the area or reading about it.

 
5. Friendliness

People can be friendly, fun, interesting and welcoming. I like the controlled interaction: scripted and predictable and longer than a conversation with a random stranger would be, but time limited. It is a good balance.

 
6. A good employer

Behind the scene of this specific position, there is a competent and supportive employer. The training and materials are great, and the work conditions are good. The colleagues are nice too and although I’ll hardly ever see them, it gives a sense of belonging to a solid community of nice & smart people.

 
 
The biggest challenges of working as a face to face interviewer

 
1. Unpredictability

I don’t know anything about a household when I approach it. I don’t know who they are and how many they are, their national culture and their family culture, if they are home at all (at any point in time), if they speak English, if my timing inconveniences them, if they have dogs, if something just happened before I knocked on the door, how they will respond to me. They could even be dangerous.

 

You never know what’s behind the door

 
2. Rejections

Rejections make me feel cheap, small, intrusive and superficial. Probably the one thing in the world I dislike more than having my boundaries violated is to feel that I am being perceived as intrusive. It makes me loathe myself almost as much as I think the person I try to persuade loathes me.

 
3. Self confidence injuries

As an introvert person I don’t really like to knock on doors to stranger’s homes when they haven’t called for it. I decided to take the job anyway because of its other aspects, and so far the door knocking stuff has been survivable.

However, I came to loathe the recruitment aspect during my current assignment, where almost every visit was a failure. Either because no one was home, or worse: they were finally home, but refused to cooperate.

I guess this is the chapter where I show whether I can persevere in the job despite failures, and whether I can restrain from developing too much social anxiety to cope.

 
4. Privacy boundary fuzziness

I have to ask people fairly personal survey questions. The answers are strictly confidential and will be anonymised and processed for statistical purposes, and I don’t do anything with them. My role is to undertake the collection of raw information and pass it on, not to react to it or interpret it in any way. Any social or emotional expression from me that can cause the respondents to adjust their answers to please me or avoid perceived embarrassment is a potential source of data bias, so I’m ideally a data collection robot with a human face.

 

Smiling face of Gerty from Moon (2009)

Ideal: a compromise between this thing and a real human

 
However, from the respondents’ perspective I am a real person and I ask them personal questions, so they ask me personal questions back. Things like where do I live, which country do I come from, why and when did I move to Australia, do I have kids, which sports team am I with, what do I think of this and that. And it seems fair – I am in their home and ask them questions, so of course they want to know things about me too.

People don’t ask inappropriate or tricky questions, it is just conversational fuzziness, but I need to be a bit wary because I have a natural tendency to reply straight to questions without thinking strategically. I think I’ll order a bulletproof inner mind guard (TM) to instantly sort questions & filter my answers, so that I don’t need to worry that I’ll expose myself and compromise my professional facade, while I can still be friendly and build rapport.

Oh wait, […googling…], No such thing. Damn.

 
5. A presentable appearance is critical

A presentable appearance is a critical professional trust factor. It tells the respondents (non-verbally) that their information is in safe hands.

A presentable appearance involves dress code, hair, nails and hygiene, to handle equipment in a well coordinated manner, to move in a calm, confident manner (no fiddling, no dropping things), have the right things ready in the right order, face expression, eye contact, talk speed & tone of voice, position & distance, be knowledgeable and able to answer all questions confidently, be able to improvise and respond appropriately to unexpected reactions.

To summarise: a presentable appearance conveys orderliness, neatness, overview, flexibility and control of all details.

 
Dog with graduation hat, looking midly confused but determined

 
For some people (especially women), a presentable appearance seems to come completely naturally – like that’s the way they are normally anyway.

For others, like me, it can be achieved but requires constant attention. I’m by nature a messy person who now try to be orderly. It can be likened to being an alcoholic who doesn’t drink… I know mess is bad for me and others, and I don’t want it, but when I get nervous, stressed and distracted, then I tend to fall into it.

I’ve taught myself to dress up well in a classic kind of way and to check that my shirt hasn’t got stains or the inside out before I take it on. I’ve also learned to move in a self-aware, well coordinated way and to compensate for my natural messiness by systematising tasks and keeping checklists in my mind. I’ve even been called ‘extremely well organised’ sometimes in recent years; which is a bit like winning an Oscar.

However, as soon as I ‘don’t keep my eyes on the ball‘, then the messy kid underneath pops through the surface and overlooks details, fidget, forget things, drop things, doesn’t notice I’m wearing sunglasses (not allowed), and so on. So being presentable is a challenge; and one I need to keep focusing on when I’m wearing a professional hat.

 
6. Distractions

I knock on the door, it opens and someone looks into my face and asks what I want. While I follow my memorised script the person keeps starring into my eyes, and it becomes hard to focus and remember what to say – my mind starts to turn blank.

 
eye on stick

 
I now keep my script at hand, even though I don’t intend to read up from it. It is better to look at the script occasionally than go blank, especially since respondent’s also tend to interrupt quite a lot during the recruitment phase, so jumping around in the script is required.

The later interviewing phase is the easy part – it is by appointment and very structured, and I know the forms like my own pocket. I knew from the start that aspect of the job would be the easiest.

There can be challenging distractions there too, though: roaming and noisy kids, other people in the room, other background noise, speeding (respondent wants to rush through and pour out all the answers at once), distracting questions. An aspect that has taken me by surprise is how noisy and interactive many families are, especially families with small kids… that is apparently normal.

That was all.

 
Ps. Challenges that didn’t make it to the top 6 list include driving in darkness, and to be disciplined and timely when having so much flexibility in a job – the latter may be a topic for a later post.

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2 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the ugly sides of working as an interviewer

  1. gavinpandion

    Wow.. this is really interesting for me as someone who has tried to interpret survey data from household face to face interviews carried out by Measure Demographic and Health Surveys. I’m suddenly tempted to pick your brain about how you would speculate that this need for boundary-policing during side-conversations when people let you into their homes for an interview could influence the data. But I know you might not be able to reveal much because you’re trying to keep the details of the nature and content of the survey out of your blog. Still, really cool insights.

    And thank you for spelling out the expectations for a “presentable appearance” – I too have no natural talent in this area, but I hadn’t really laid out in my mind what the expectations were in such detail. Now I have a better idea of what particular things I need to work on to come across as organized and neat. It doesn’t sound easy to maintain self-consciousness about all those things while doing something else though.

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    1. Mados

      Thank you very much for your feedback!

      this is really interesting for me as someone who has tried to interpret survey data from household face to face interviews carried out by Measure Demographic and Health Surveys.

      You are a dream audience for this post 🙂 with that background.

      You can ask me anything you like. As you point out, I need to keep details that can identify the survey off my blog, so there is no guarantee I will answer, but questions are always interesting.

      Now I have a better idea of what particular things I need to work on to come across as organized and neat.

      That is a really great compliment… the best. I am so glad when what I write can be of help! And actually, I would have loved to find a ‘recipe for what a presentable appearance implies’ years ago when I had no clue. Of course, my list is just as I see it and probably not exhaustive.

      It doesn’t sound easy to maintain self-consciousness about all those things while doing something else though.

      No… it isn’t. The key is to be as well prepared as possible, and then run some check-ups from time to time, and between the checks, let it go. But the need to consider appearance and presentability is quite distracting and can be anxiety-triggering.

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