Hiring Wisdom: Why You Should Ask “What Was Your First Paying Job?”

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If you’ve ever been late to a movie, you know that trying to figure out what happened before you took your seat can be extremely frustrating.

When you don’t know what led up to what’s now unfolding, the things you see and hear can cause you to make false assumptions and only further confuse you.

The same thing happens when you begin an interview by asking an applicant about their most recent job.

“Priceless” information you should ask for

When your start with the present, it puts you in the position of trying to understand that person’s motivations and accomplishments (as well the attitudes and personality traits that shaped their experiences and influenced their career decisions) without a frame of reference.

Everyone’s work history makes more sense when viewed from the beginning, which is why the first thing astute interviewers say is: “Tell me about your very first paying job and what you learned from it.

The information you get about first work experiences is priceless because first jobs are emotionally powerful events that strongly influence the values and work ethic we carry throughout the rest of our working lives. In fact, you can build your entire interview off of this question.

What you can tell from someone’s first job

Once they have talked about that first job, ask how they found that job, how they learned to do that job, if their responsibilities were different when they left than when they began, why they left and how they found their next job.

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When you take an applicant through their entire work history, first job to most recent, asking these kinds of questions, you’ll quickly be able to tell if their “career movie” is either an action/adventure film about a hero’s journey, or, on the other hand, a comedy of errors, a battle zone, or horror story.

This was originally published in the September 2014 Humetrics Hiring Hints newsletter.

  • Amy Roffmann New

    I like this as a good interview opener. My first job, at the age of 14, was on a land surveying crew. My dad owned the business and that’s the only job that was available (my older sister was already working in the office, at the reception desk). It was hot, sweaty, dirty and not the job that a 14-year-old girl dreams of.

    But here’s what I learned… Do your work, no matter what it is. Don’t complain… No one wants to hear it and it does not improve the situation. Enjoy what you can; I got a great tan during that summer job and ww outside every day. Enjoy the downtime when it comes; sometimes it rained which gave us a break that preceded a busy period when we had to catch up. Do your share, but ask for help when you need it. Then watch for opportunities to help in return.

  • MilitaryAF

    This sounds like a great approach that employers should start using. Starting with your last employer is bound to almost certainly come across as, at least partially, negative. If you’re happy/satisfied, why are you looking to/did you leave? It’s hard for a prospective employer to consider you a positive move, when they could be the next employer you leave!

    My 1st job was a big mix of positive and negatives, but a great learning experience. I started bussing tables at 15 at a mom & pop seafood restaurant a few blocks from my house. The owner told me flat out he couldn’t afford minimum wage ($2.65) but he would pay $2.10. On the up-side, I could have as much clam-chowder as I could handle. The crocks were 10 feet from my station. I can’t imagine people not hearing me slosh around as I moved from table to table, because I’d knock out a gallon of the stuff per night, easy! When the owner/cook found out I LOVE scallops, he’d bring out a small, fresh batch from the kitchen every now & then. I was in heaven! I was a 15 year-old boy being paid to eat free seafood!

    I was responsible for clearing tables & washing the traditional plastic drinking cups. The waitresses were expected to set the tables and serve guests. The lead waitress told me my 1st night “We don’t share tips with the busboy.” That caught me off-guard because I had no expectations. I blew it off. It took 2 weeks before just clearing tables became very dull, and I’d stand around idle. So, on a busy Friday, when the waitresses could barely fall behind, I started setting the tables, exactly the way the waitresses liked them. People were waiting at the door and there were no tables set for them to be seated. I was reminded “We don’t split tips with the busboy.” I just said, I’m happy to help out. After we closed at 11pm, the waitresses were chatting & going through their tips as I put chairs up & mopped the floor. The lead waitress called me over & asked me to sit down. I thought I was in deep doo doo. Instead, she reached out, plopped a THICK stack of $1s in my hand saying, “We split tips with our new busboy from now on!” That job was one of the best experiences of my life & I still remember the waitress’s names 36 years later.