Tuesday 30 May 2023
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A Simple Question: A Complicated Answer – The Interview


“But no matter how much evil I see, I think it’s important for everyone to understand that there is much more light than darkness.” ― Robert Uttaro

There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts, before this, and after this. -Unknown

A little exposition

Most of my writing comes from places in time from my extensive career in the world of recruiting and the often odd, seemingly, you cannot make that shit up interactions I have had. I often harken back to the stories of my successes in the face of adversity in this business and I share them to hopefully educate and entertain the newbies, as well as the old timers like me, and have a good laugh plus extend thought provoking ideology.

This, however, is going to be a dark ride that I am penning and it should, if you are not a total narcissist, will raise your blood pressure to new heights and yet, by the end of the story, have you standing on your feet clapping and saying, hell yeah, you go girl, as tears stream down your face.

I began my career…

I began my career, like so many of us in recruiting, sitting in a cube, on the phone, sending emails, and living that internet bubble dream. It was the 90’s and the venture capital super highway was flowing with money to coders, who even though they knew how to code, had no idea how to run a business. No one really saw it coming, well at least not the recruiters, as we were heads down making more money than we could imagine and planning the next party to blow it at, but all good things come to an end and man, did they ever.

That magnificent internet bubble burst because the middle management morons that did not understand tech or coding HTML learned there was no Y2K problem and that really amazing idea was not that amazing. Microsoft and other companies were partnering with, then swallowing up, startups for the code and the idea at a rabid pace. Sort of like what LinkedIn just did with Connectifier but with less consequences, I suppose. My career took the hit as well, as I was shown the door with a final severance check, a thanks for all you did and, well, see ya, thanks for playing, now get out. I landed on my feet like I usually seem to do for when a door opens, I find a window and jump through it. Luckily the window is almost always on the first floor.

I ended up at a very large insurance company, you know the one but after the almost lawsuit sabre-rattling I got for actually naming a company I’ll just leave that out of it. Besides, this is not about them or the procedures they run. This is about an 18-year old girl, an interview, and a moment that drastically changed my life forever.

“Most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while most women fear rape and death.” ― Gavin de Becker

The company’s largest staffing issue was inside sales, selling insurance, literally 24 hours a day 7 days a week and they had a pretty heavy turnover, based mostly on the fact that people are asshats who are angry that they are, in actuality, not really going to save money on their car insurance.

It took a calm, rational, and imperturbable type of personality. Frankly, I have no idea how I actually got a job with this company. I digress, the interview process was layered and tough with a behavioral interview that included the person role playing a phone call with me as a customer. Most people failed at the behavioral part of the interview, if you cannot be calm with me, you are probably going to die on the phone and that was not going to make anyone money.

Her Name

Her name was Maria, actually it was not really, but I want to maintain her anonymity for a reason that will be explained in a moment. Maria was young and put together, she had the chops at an early age to hold her own in a conversation, unlike most of her peers.

In other words, this young lady was no millennial that had been told she was a special snow flake, she was polished and all business – which was somewhat uncharacteristic for a person of her tender age. She not only nailed the written test, the phone simulation, and, I think, I may have actually bought insurance from her. Hell, everyone who met her was transfixed by her demeanor and poise, dare I say it to myself — but this was a super star in the making.

We did things a little different that day, as the last part of the interview was supposed to be the phone call part, not the behavioral part. HR told me that I had to get that done, so I could present her to my sales manager and pat myself on the back for getting, what would be, a top producer.

We dove right in to the Jungian/Myers Briggs standard questioning bullshit that only HR really understands but I was tasked to put it in the folder before being able to present her as a candidate for the final interview. I asked the standardized questions thought out by overpaid educators with no real world concept of what we, as humans, go through on a daily basis, yet companies felt there was some sort of relevance from it. Then – there was the question that changed the way I perceived the world.

What was a moment in your life when you had to overcome an adversity and what did you do to overcome it?

“Denial forces victims to retreat in lifeless existence, dying in the shadows of buried trauma and painful memories.” ― Trudy Metzger

I was waiting for what I thought a standard answer would be from an 18-year old girl who had barely begun life to say something about a break up or maybe a bad prom experience. That was not what I got, not by a long shot. She looked at me, emotionless for the first time, her eyes lost the sparkle she had exuded throughout the day – her voice became colder and more matter of fact than before. “I was raped 8 months ago” she said.


I was stunned and caught between a feeling of what do I do now as an intense desire to stand up, open my arms, and just hold her – to tell her she would be alright. I, instead, sat there with a blank look, she staring back at me, waiting for me to say something, anything. All of a sudden this was, for a moment, about how I would react. I felt like my empathy was being tested or that my peers were playing some kind of Ashton Kucher Punked show on me. Seriously, this is what I was hoping.

I was raised by women, trained by them, I learned empathy from them yet I struggled at this moment to voice anything. I sat there stunned, amongst the sound of silence, as we both just stared at each other, waiting for one of us to speak.

Then, Maria

I think that Maria sensed my angst as she spoke again, this time with the strength and conviction she had shown throughout the interview process that day. She said she knew the boy who did this to her was, but she was not going to let him or the system shame her or take away her dignity. She was a fighter, sure – she cried but she was done crying. She turned him in to the authorities, she pressed charges, she was going to face him court, and she was not going to let him win.

To see the conviction and determination in such a young girl, telling not only a stranger but a person who would determine if she is going to receive an offer of employment was – at that moment in time for me – the most mind-blowing strength I had ever had the privilege of witnessing. Even still, I have never seen such conviction in any human being.

I had to excuse myself from the room

I could only nod my head up and down, like clueless bobble head doll on a dashboard of a pickup truck from the late 80’s. I had to excuse myself from the room. I had dealt with all kinds of people and issues but this, as a man, was not going to be something I could handle without losing it or emotionally breaking down in front of her. I could not understand what she had gone through and the sympathy I felt could not, at that time in my life, be displayed in a way that could possibly do anything, but trivialize her experience.

I rarely have nothing to say in any situation but I sat there utterly helpless with my emotions. Those who know me can understand what I am saying, but this time – yet at this moment, it was not about me, it was about Maria.

I brought in my manager to meet her. To hell with HR policies and their mindless, drone-like thought process. I was not going to add this to some report for their convenience or rules, this was no one’s business, and just because she was inexperienced in the rules of interviewing, it was their damn fault for using such a dystopian thought processes to obtain a utopian work force. They would see her as a possible trouble maker, a woman who could possibly cause misfortune. Sadly, I had seen it before for much less in this industry. I still do.

Thankfully, the manager, who was a woman and a friend, agreed with my assessment and with this company, I had a 100 percent rate of hire; this helped me come up with a nice little fluff piece for the HR ladies and get her in the door. She had no idea what we did to help her pass that last hurdle, and neither of us wanted her to know either. She was going through enough and I had no interest in being part of a finger-pointing mentality that society has so often done.

Now is the part of the story where you stand up and clap your hands and say loudly, you go girl!

She won her lawsuit and he was convicted, the cell door slammed in his face and his name was added to the list of sex offenders that should be a great deal longer than it probably is. Maria won the lawsuit, but she won something else, she kept her soul. I worked with her on speaking out for other victims and proudly stood by her when she spoke at support groups.

She did not wear the crest of a victim but the coat of a survivor and empowered other victims in the process.

She rose in the ranks of that inside sales call center purgatory and eventually, became a manager herself. The last time we spoke, she told me of the many successes she’d had and that her greatest love was raising her two girls with a loving husband. She did find out, years later, what we had done when her then manager, and now friend, told her over a second bottle of wine and why we did it. Honestly, there is a part of me that is glad that I was not there for that conversation but, quite frankly, a larger part of me wishes I could have given her that hug in the first place knowing how unprofessional it may have been and how more than likely, it would have been for my wellbeing and not hers.

My Journey

Writing this has been exhausting journey in my understanding of how we, as a society, treat each other in this aquarium of humanity. However, it is a story I felt I needed to share, as I have been holding this inside me for way too long. Maria’s story needed to be told and we need to learn from it. At the end of the day, we are recruiting people, who have stories and struggles, that we need to take that in to consideration.

God, I need a drink, a rainbow, and a hug. #truestory


Derek Zeller
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Derek Zeller draws from over 18 years in the recruiting industry. The last 13 years, he has been involved with federal government recruiting, specializing within the cleared Intel space under OFCCP compliance. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines and technologies. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, military and college recruiting strategies. You can read his thoughts on or or his own site  Derek currently lives in the DC area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “A Simple Question: A Complicated Answer – The Interview

  1. Corey Newell

    Thanks for sharing Derek. Our commodity, people, have brains and emotions, and this is sometimes overlooked when we get wrapped up in our “day to day” activities. This is a real insight into a time that probably shaped your continued evolution as a talent pro.

  2. Gerry Crispin

    I couldn’t help but think of Joe Friday’s opening line for Dragnet, “The story you are about to hear is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
    I suspect we’ve all had encounters as meaningful in our professional lives, if not as dramatic as yours, that provided a life time of lessons. Some, like yours, were well handled even if you weren’t sure at the time and, others I’m sure were lessons on what not to do that fed fantasies for redemption. I know I’ve had both. Great story though and it provoked several similar memories.

    Importantly, your story supports the value of your professional consistency and discipline you displayed in how you conducted interviews…something I’m not sure is done as well these days. In hindsight I doubt you would have changed the questions. It was the answer where you were agile enough to diverge and elevate the protocol to connect with your boss. Smart. Very smart.
    You also remind us that when dealing with potentially emotionally charged responses to what is one of life’s biggest stresses- interviewing to get a job, it pays to be prepared with either extensive experience or advanced training because the skills to manage these times are not trivial. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Joe Lavelle

    What a great and moving story Derek! Thank you for sharing! We have TQM’d, Six Sigma’d and Lean’d the humanity out of Corporate America. Bravo to you for “fudging” Maria’s process for the better of her, you and that insurance company that does not provide lower prices on car insurance.

  4. Rayanne Thorn

    Derek —
    While living this story changed your life, reading it has most certainly changed mine. It is so important to remember we are human, I could help but imagine if Marie has been own daughter or sister. I am astounded how easily some business professionals are able to squash emotion or life and not let it “get in the way” – I LOVE when it gets in the way, because it proves our agility and our ability to think outside of ourselves – something very foreign in our selfie-driven world. Thank you, again.

  5. Derek Zeller

    This was one of the toughest things I have ever written and let out of my psyche. It was difficult to share, as this was deeply personal and although I share so much, there are times in my life I want to forget know they are moments that shaped me and if I can share to enrich others, so be it. Thank you all.

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