Last week, I had the good fortune to be invited by DARS (Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services) to give mock interviews to blind and visually impaired job seekers. As is so often the case with these sorts of ventures, I got more from it than I gave. I was given two job seekers to “interview.”
The first was a lady with several years of customer service experience before she lost her sight. She wanted to return to that field. That was an easy interview. She had the personality for the job and her years of experience were reflected in the answers she gave to the interview questions. If I were in a position to hire a person to do customer service, I would have made an offer on the spot.
The next interview was a bit rough. It was a young man who wanted to be a chef. A blind chef. He wanted to convince me that it was OK to bring him into my profit center (the kitchen) to work around fire, slippery liquids, heavy objects and knives in a crowded, hectic environment. What little I know about a commercial kitchen, I know from talking to my two children; one who is a server and one who manages a restaurant. However, one of my strengths is empathy. Somehow, I was able to morph into a restaurant owner and I was not going to hire this guy. The risks were just too great. What if he got hurt? What if he started a fire? What if he hurt someone else? My mind was going full speed against making this hire.
What transpired over the next 20 minutes was an enormous struggle within me. I asked him a few general questions and he gracefully worked into the conversation that he specialized in taking the usual and putting his own twist on it. I asked for an example. He said, “Chicken Fried Strawberries.” Perhaps he heard the snicker in my voice. I’ve been to the State Fair of Texas, home of Fried Twinkies, Chicken Fried Bacon and Chicken Fried Butter (I wish I were making this up). I just assumed that this was one more gauche Texas redneck indulgence until he continued. “It is a lot harder to get right than it sounds. If you fry it too long, the strawberry turns into mush. If you don’t fry it long enough, the crust is not crisp.” That made sense. I know enough about cooking that he had me interested and a little bit impressed. Then he went on to describe the elegant sauce he made to drizzle over it. I was hooked. It sounded incredible.
I turned the conversation back to the reservations I had about hiring a visually impaired person to work in a dangerous environment. He was honest. He could not see if chicken was browned correctly (as an example) but he would ask a prep chef to be his eyes on the rare occasions when he needed them. We talked about the stressful environment of working in a commercial kitchen. He said that he focused so intensely on what he was doing that he blocked out the distractions and was not easily rattled by the stress. He always knew where everything he needed was. He was methodical in where he placed his pans, knives, ingredients, etc. His answers were good but he could not take away my fear of taking a chance on him. There are plenty of chefs out there to hire. Why take a chance on someone who just might not be able to perform the duties?
I let up a little bit on the hostile questioning. We talked about his specialty. He was not really Southwestern or French or (I ran out of specialties). What was his specialty? When he started talking about food, his passion was contagious. I felt my apprehensions starting to melt and a voice in my head started saying, “Give this guy a chance. He sounds like an incredible chef.”
My marketing brain started to run. What a great story for the evening news. “Blind chef creates signature dish that puts struggling restaurant on the map.” He had a nice look and would look great on camera. What an incredible break through this would be for visually impaired people all over North Texas. I had no doubt that this guy could work magic with food.
That’s when the lizard brain kicked in. I started feeling cautious. I could not get over the fact that he could not see where the fire was. He could not see if the prep chef was right behind him. He could not see if he’d spilled the olive oil and it was under his feet or seeping into the flame. He did not have complete use of all his senses which made him a risky addition to the kitchen.
As I wrapped up the interview, I asked the standard, “Do you have any questions?” He went straight to the point. “What would prevent you from hiring me today?” My answer was honest, “I am concerned that your lack of sight might cause you to get hurt or to hurt someone else.” His thoughtful response was an exquisite Touche’. “I managed 250 men on a construction site for several years” (this was back before he lost his sight). “I’ve seen a lot of men with sight, get hurt because they were distracted. Since I lack my sight, when I am in the kitchen, I am the most focused person in the room.”
Interestingly, the day before this mock interview, I’d had a real interview with a major hotel chain who is staffing up 90 marketers in their eCommerce department. My eCommerce experience is a bit limited, but not inconsequential. I am proficient in social media marketing, am certainly a self-starter, have management experience, good sense of humor and people skills. The best thing I brought to the table was a clear understanding of what their customers need when making on-line reservations. I was a road warrior for 10 years and used multiple on-line booking sites, including their’s.
I was required to work through a case study and give a presentation as part of the interview process. I love giving presentations. I really got into the case study, pouring over the numbers, examining their website, Facebook and Twitter sites. I analyzed the sites of their competitors and Google rankings. I had more than enough to say in the 20 minutes they gave me for the presentation. I had a wonderful time and showed them a pretty good time in the process.
The day following my time with the blind job seekers, I received the phone call from the recruiter. “Thanks, but no thanks.” The piece I left out of the description of my interview was the age gap. Everyone I spoke to was late 20s or early 30s. I have a son in college. eCommerce is the domain of the young. It did not matter that I was passionate about the opportunity or the employer. It did not matter that my passion was palpable. The lizard brain would not let them take a chance on me. I did not fit their profile for what an eCommerce person should be. Their careers depend on staffing with the right people. They were not willing to take a chance.
Despite my talent and passion for doing exactly what this employer is looking for, I have a significant barrier. I am like the blind chef. I understand the lizard brain because it was active in me as I talked to him. I know why these “20 somethings” were not willing to extend to me an offer. We become frustrated by this job market, even angry. But I say, have some understanding for those on the other side of the desk.
Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to move from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Some day, someone will give the blind chef a chance and I am sure he will prove himself to be an tremendous asset. As for me, I need to take some of my own advice. I LinkedIn with the most senior person with whom I interviewed. I Googled him and read a great article about him. I dropped him an email to tell him how much I enjoyed the article. I connected to him via Google+. I found 12 people who work at this hotel chain who are involved in eCommerce and are alumni of my two alma maters. Did I mention to you that fellow alumni are very likely to connect with you on LinkedIn? I now have 12 new connections on LinkedIn. This may all amount to nothing but it may end up getting me a really great job.
Keep in mind that there are things that are just going to get in the way. If you have passion for what you do, you will get a job. It may not be the very next job that comes along, but you will get one.
If you ever see Chicken Fried Strawberries on the menu, get them. Send your compliments to the chef. Shake the restaurant manager’s hand and tip your server well. That signature dish will be your sign that a blind chef had the passion to overcome significant barriers and land that job he is dreaming of today.
Good Luck and Godspeed,