Interviewing whilst caring for a young baby

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My job hunt experience this time around was very different to previous rounds. Being the day-to-day carer for a baby under a year old, I knew that juggling the two commitments would be tricky, but I hadn’t quite expected all of the ways that it turned out to be, especially around power dynamics.

This isn’t a topic I’ve seen talked about a lot, yet it’s something I’ve been asked about quite a few times now, and I think it’s something companies can definitely improve so as not to exclude candidates in a similar situation. I’ve decided to share my personal experiences for others to learn from for this reason.

I wasn’t able to speak to such a wide range of people, and had to be picky

During my previous job search, I consciously made a decision to cast my net far and wide, to challenge myself by speaking to people that may not have been a natural fit for what I had in mind. This time, I couldn’t do that as easily.

In typical approaches, everyone wants you to “jump on a quick call to find out more” with a recruiter as a first step, and often asks for availability over the next couple of days. This is particularly the case with executive searches, where the agencies running them may not want to divulge more sensitive information in writing.

I turned down a lot of calls (and so didn’t even begin the process), and backed out of some where I didn’t think it was going to be quite the right fit, purely because it felt like a lot to have multiple speculative conversations happening around the day to day of looking after a kid. For context, when it came to calls, my options were either to:

  • Try to fit them into nap times (but see below about how practical this was!). At its peak, after settling, I’d have around 2h 20 each day ‘free’ during the day, which was usually time to do bottle washing and sterilising, tidying the house, making food, any other life admin, showering, anything I wanted to do for myself… plus interview-related tasks. The time dwindles very fast!
  • Have the baby on calls. This isn’t ideal, but I had to do it quite a bit in the end. Whilst people were generally very accepting and kind about it, I found it less than ideal to split my focus between trying to distract/placate/have one eye on the baby, and trying to keep my professional hat on. I couldn’t do it for ‘proper’ interview rounds as I knew I wouldn’t be at my best.
  • Call in favours, or opt for paid childcare. My side of the family don’t live locally, and with people working I had a limited set of options for favours, and didn’t feel comfortable asking for too many. Likewise my kid couldn’t start at their actual nursery until they were 1. This can add a real financial implication to taking lots of interviews, or can be quite stressful to keep asking for favours (particularly when you’d rather be spending the time doing things with your baby rather than filling days with interviews too!)

I only wanted to focus on roles and companies that I was genuinely excited about, and where I felt like I had a good chance of getting the job. In the end I started less than a handful of proper interview processes, and subsequently dropped out of some, only taking two through to conclusion. I didn’t run much in parallel, which made my job hunt longer, but that worked better for me.

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • Unless there’s a very good reason for secrecy, offer to share what you can in written or other async formats that someone can engage with on their own time. If you have questions you’d like to know about the candidate, consider offering to do these async too.
  • Be mindful that lengthy interview processes may put people off even before they begin. Similarly people may decline initial calls if they aren’t excited enough about your company/role, so don’t hold back on the info waiting to speak directly!
  • Don’t assume that everyone has free childcare support options available. If you really like a candidate and they only have paid childcare open to them, consider reimbursing them for this.
  • Make sure that the candidate is contacted as early as possible if interviews are cancelled. I had a couple cancelled because of interviewer sickness, one of which I sat waiting on the call for 15 minutes before I was notified. Both times I’d already had to arrange childcare.
  • Understand the time, effort, and costs that a candidate has invested in your process, and treat them with respect, particularly if they don’t end up getting a role.

My schedule was extremely erratic at points

Things are a lot more on the clock now, and there’s generally quite a lot more flexibility if I need to push the daily schedule timings out by a bit, but for a long time that wasn’t the case!

When I began my job search, my child was on a pretty irregular schedule. There was absolutely no guarantee how long a nap they’d have – I’d typically get anything between half an hour through to having to wake them after two hours. This also meant that for a long time the times that everything happened would be subject to change. I’d find it stressful to have a call booked for a seemingly ‘safe’ time, but then end up desperately trying to speed run changing a nappy/making and feeding lunch/making sure there was enough milk settling time so that we didn’t have a big vomit from reflux/trying to get them down for a nap so that the rest of the day didn’t get messed up.

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • If possible, offer flexibility around a booking. For example, aim to start the call at 1pm, but offer a 30 minute window either side if the candidate needs to shuffle.
  • Make sure that any interviewers have completed bias training which can help with unfairly penalising candidates for situations outside of their control. Despite a candidate’s best intentions, they may be late, flustered, or may need to cancel at short notice, which leaves them vulnerable to giving a negative impression when compared to other candidates.
  • Proactively offer understanding and reassurance that last minute changes are ok if they need to happen.

Tiredness meant my brain was not always at its best!

A combination of recovering from COVID, plus having to deal with ongoing frequent night wakings meant that I found myself interviewing with a very tired, often sluggish brain. Sleep has been a big, big deal over the last year, and a good or bad night can make or break how the next day goes.

In one instance I was put on the spot about how I’d create a measurement strategy – something which I’m extremely confident with generally – but I struggled to think of more nuanced aspects and kept coming back to the same main points. I emailed the team afterwards to explain I didn’t feel my answer was strong or reflective of my ability in that area, and that I’d be happy to provide a written follow-up in more depth if needed.

As part of one process I was asked to do a short take-home test. I’m not generally a huge fan of these, as they can add up to a large amount of investment when a candidate’s doing lots of different ones, and again can be a barrier. However in this instance I actually welcomed the chance to spend some time meaningfully pondering the topic and putting together something that was undoubtedly stronger (and more reflective of my actual work approach) than if I’d have been put on the spot to talk through it.

Our night sleep schedule is thankfully a lot more reliable now, but there are still off-days where I’m up for at least couple of hours in the night, which definitely takes its toll!

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • Share questions or topics with candidates in advance. I’m an advocate for this generally as I feel it can help everyone prepare better, but it can particularly help when you’ve got the specifics of what will be discussed clear in your tired head.
  • Consider whether your process can cater for different ways for a candidate to demonstrate their abilities fairly, for example whether they could submit a written example or case study instead of talking through it.
  • Proactively show understanding for if a candidate needs to postpone for being too tired, or if they don’t feel like they’d do themselves credit.

Sickness can be very disruptive

One of the things people love to tell you about having kids is how it’s just one endless conveyor belt of illnesses into your house, and this very much matches up with my experience. The start of this year in particular has been relentless, and with nursery I’m bracing myself for even more! Any kind of soft play, birthday party, indoor activity, or classes are all a horrible melting pot of disease, but also things that I’d decided to do anyway for the benefit of the kid (and my own sanity to not be in the house all the time!).

Additionally, if your child is sick, you may not then be able to use childcare. Often grandparents are more vulnerable, childcare may refuse to take them, but outside of that you generally don’t want to hand over a sick kid to infect someone else and your child usually doesn’t want to go either!

It can be really hard not to feel vulnerable when you’re going through a process and have to ask to postpone interviews because your child is sick… and then you’re sick… and then they’ve got another, different thing… and then you get it too (and repeat). I thankfully only had a couple of instances where I needed to ask to postpone, and both felt a bit easier to justify as it was because of the better understood/shared experience of covid.

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • The power dynamic of interviews can mean that candidates may find it difficult to come across as someone who could potentially need to take a lot of sick days. Ensure that this doesn’t factor into your decision-making, or biases during the process.
  • Offer a simple, no-guilt way to reschedule interviews if needed, and set the expectation that it’s ok to do so without explanation.

People may assume because you have one child, another will come along soon

I never made a secret of my kid, mostly because they were such a factor in the process and I wanted the understanding if I needed flexibility. However I did notice that compared to previous job hunts, it led to companies putting a lot more emphasis on things like discussing parental leave and family-centric benefits very early on. This is great! Everyone should be really up-front about these topics, as it can make candidates feel very vulnerable to ask.

However, it also made me consider that in some circumstances this could lead to assumptions being made. Legal or not, the reality is some companies do discriminate or bias against people where there could be reason to suspect they may not stick around in a job for long, and my worry was that I could unconsciously be labeled as a potential maternity leave risk for a second child. This kind of bias can factor into whether jobs are offered, at what level, and with what kind of responsibilities.

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • Ensure that bias training is given, that there are clear decision making processes around decisions and levelling which minimise the impact of any discrimination.
  • As part of your careers site/interview information pack you could consider featuring stories from different types of people (including those with children). I found it very reassuring to find a story from a future peer detailing how they found out they were pregnant during the interview process, and shared this with the company.
  • It should go without saying, but ensure your interviewers have enough training to know not to verge into tricky territory outside of sharing benefits information in a way that doesn’t assume anything. Outside of the potential for discrimination, the topic of having children is often extremely emotionally charged. Not everyone can have (any or more) children for various reasons, they may have had issues with miscarriage or stillbirth, and may generally find it uncomfortable to even skirt around with a stranger, no matter how well-intentioned!

Discussing part-time work can be tricky

This was possibly the aspect of job hunting that I was most worried about. 99% of all jobs I saw advertised in my domain were for full time roles, and I was keen to explore whether I could find something where I could ideally work 4/5 or 9/10 days. If you ask them outright, many companies will tell you that they want someone full time, just because they’d rather have someone in position all the time and there’s plenty of candidates who will do that.

My preference was to be upfront, but it made me realise that this again plays into power dynamics and can bring some difficulties.

If you ask about part time work and are told no but continue anyway, or if you leave asking until the end of the process, it can be disingenuous or a potential waste of everyone’s time if they really do need someone full time. You also run the risk of being biased or discriminated against for candidates who would be able to work full time. However, the reality is that if a company loves you, there’s often a lot more wiggle room once they get to know you and see how you could fit in.

💭 Suggestions for companies:

  • Consider whether your advertised role really needs someone full time, or whether you’d be open to part time or even a job share. Don’t write it off even for leadership positions without really thinking about how it could work. Make sure that this is stated clearly on job ads, and that all members of the hiring team are aware of what the possibilities for flexibility are.
  • The growing 4 Day Week movement has seen some very interesting trial results. You could consider taking on an organisation-wide trial yourselves!

Despite the difficulties, there are some really supportive companies!

With all of the layoffs and uncertainty in the industry playing on my mind as well as the above, it felt like a less-than-ideal time to be going through the process of finding a new role. Despite this though, there was also a lot of understanding, kindness, and flexibility which I appreciated a lot. The company I’m going to be joining were great, and made it very easy for me to be open about all of this, which ultimately contributed to my decision making around accepting the offer.

By considering some of my experiences and suggestions that I’ve laid out above, hopefully some people will be able to think about ways to make interview processes more supportive and inclusive, and ultimately make some more brilliant hires!

Thanks to Jerry Wang on Unsplash for the header image