Perception is Reality
By Steve Prziborowski
Perception is in the eye of the beholder. People are continuously forming opinions about you, based on their perception of you. Alternately, you are also continuously forming opinions about others, based on your perceptions of them. This is something you, the firefighter candidate, needs to be aware of, any time you are interacting with fire service (or non-fire service) folks while participating in the firefighter hiring process. Situational awareness in relation to perception can help you increase your chances of getting hired as a firefighter. However, not being aware of how others perceive you or the message you are sending to others can quickly reduce or eliminate your chances of getting hired as a firefighter.
Let me provide some examples, all of which I have personally experienced (note to the best of my knowledge, all of the candidates that were observed doing these behaviors were not hired by the department they were applying to):
1. You show up at the firehouse to ask the crew some questions about becoming a firefighter in their department, and you arrive empty-handed (bearing no edible gifts that are so graciously accepted at firehouses around the world). Will the crew still make some time to talk to you? Maybe, maybe not. Most firefighters have busy schedules; showing up with some edible gifts will usually allow them to find some time to meet with you and take away from their busy day.
- Perception: you are not prepared, and that you think their time is not worth anything. Is it true? Not necessarily - is it reality? In their eyes it is.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: ALWAYS take the time and spend the money to bring some edible treats to the firehouse when doing a visit. Yes, I know it can get expensive, and you're probably on a limited budget. However, you need to spend money to make money. Take the time to invest in your future and in your career. Is it better to make (or bake) something yourself or buy it in a store? It depends. If you decide to not purchase something at a store, make sure the cook who created it is producing quality stuff.
2. You show up at the same firehouse to ask the same crew some questions about becoming a firefighter, and you are wearing flip-flops, shorts that look perfect for the beach (but not for a visit to the firehouse), and a Metallica t-shirt. By the way, you also haven't shaved in a day or so, or you think your goatee or fu-manchu mustache makes you look like cool.
- Perception: same as #1 above and also that you are immature and unprofessional, and you don't believe in proper presentation or taking the time to look nice for certain occasions. Is it true? Not necessarily - is it reality? In their eyes it is. Would you dress like that on a first-date? I would hope not. Think of the visit to the firehouse as a first-date of sorts.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: Always wear appropriate clothing to ALL phases of the hiring process, not just the oral interview and/or the chief's interview. While visiting a station or showing up for the written examination, wear some khaki pants (like Dockers, casual / clean or polished shoes (not your scuffed up tennis shoes), and a nice polo shirt. While you don't need to wear a suit when visiting a station, you do need to look appropriate and professional. You'll never know whom you will see on your oral board or some other phase of the hiring process. Reputations can be formed very quickly when visiting fire stations.
- Note: This might be a surprise to some folks, but I actually like Metallica; so I'm not bashing them. I just can't think of too many places I would wear a Metallica t-shirt, except for going to one of their concerts.
3. You are a male and you show up to an oral interview and you are not wearing a suit, you are wearing a sport coat and slacks, or a polo shirt and slacks, or some other combination of clothing considered inappropriate for firefighter oral interviews.
- Perception: you are not prepared, immature, unprofessional, and you are not taking the interview process seriously. Is it true? Not necessarily - is it reality? In their eyes it is.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: learn what it takes to be properly attired!
- For men: wear a suit in a conservative color (save the mustard-colored suit for impressing the women) such as gray, navy blue, brown, or black. Go to a place like the Men's Wearhouse and you can find a good suit at a good price. Their sales people can also get you set up with dress shirts, ties, and other accessories at the same time. Wear polished dress shoes. Wear dress socks (not white socks). Wear a nice belt that matches your dress shoes. Wear a nice long-sleeve dress shirt (one color and a light color such as white or light blue). Wear a nice tie. Also, take the time to be clean-shaven, which includes no mustaches or facial hair. Yes you can argue that many firefighters have mustaches. Well, they already have a job and you're trying to get a job. Just my opinion, but eliminate the facial hair.
Also, eliminate the unnecessary bling-bling jewelry; wear a nice watch and your wedding ring if you have one. Keep the puka-shell necklace and fancy bracelets at home. Liberace is dead and you don't need to wear your Mr. T starter kit to an interview. Save it for impressing the ladies (which ones I'm not sure).
- For women: wear a conservative dress and jacket, or a conservative business suit. When I say conservative, I mean not too revealing, not too flashy or flamboyant, one that doesn't make you look too young or too old, and one that is in appropriate neutral colors such as navy blue, black, gray, tan, etc. Wear polished dress pumps (not the four-inch high heels, or the ones with no heels). Wear nylons (as opposed to bare legs). Keep the perfume to the minimum. Keep your hair up. Stay away from excessive jewelry and heavy make-up. Do not wear clothing or accessories that make you look trashy or like you're there to pick up guys. I hope I don't need to explain what clothing that might be.
4. You show up to your oral interview and you did not bring enough resumes. You bring three resumes and there are five members on the oral board. Oops.
- Perception: you are not prepared, unprofessional, and you are not taking the interview process seriously. Is it true? Not necessarily - is it reality? In their eyes it is.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: always plan ahead and bring enough resumes. I've been on oral boards with up to seven raters evaluating each candidate.
- Note: many oral boards will also have one person from the human resource / personnel division on the panel to moderate and ensure the raters are sticking to the questions and not asking inappropriate questions of the candidates. Most of the time, these folks will not be grading you. Don't let that fool you! While they may not be grading you, the other oral board members may still ask them their opinion of you (after you leave). Make the effort to give them a resume and also include them in your eye contact while answering questions. It makes them feel included and it can't hurt your score.
5. You use terms that are considered inappropriate by the politically correct police, such as fireman or manning.
- Perception: you are sexist and old fashioned. It is very possible to see at least one female rater on your oral board. Put yourself in their shoes, if you kept hearing someone use inappropriate terms such as fireman, wouldn't you be turned off by what they have to say? Do you think you would give the candidate the highest score on every question? I highly doubt it.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: always use appropriate terminology such as firefighter or staffing (as opposed to fireman or manning).
6. You walk into a fire station or fire-related facility (headquarters, fire museum, city hall, etc.) and you do not acknowledge every person you come in contact with in a positive way. For example, you want to talk to a firefighter and the secretary at the front counter is rude to you. It is very natural for a person to be rude back in this situation. Remember where you are! Just because the secretary is not a firefighter, it does not mean they cannot provide negative feedback or suggestions about you to the fire chief or other administrative staff. Also, if you see someone that is not in a fire department uniform, don't dismiss them as being unimportant or not realize who they actually are (you may be surprised at who they actually are!).
- Perception: you are rude and do not treat everyone with respect and dignity.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: always treat everyone (I repeat EVERYONE) you meet with respect and dignity. Take the time to say hello, good morning, etc. You never know who a person might be or what influence they might have on you, on the chief, or on the hiring process! If I were a fire chief, I would definitely ask my secretaries what they thought of candidates as they came through the office for a chief's interview. Were they nice? Were they respectful? Did they act mature? Did they act professional? Would you have a problem working with them?
Remember the movie Tin Cup with Kevin Costner? He is trying to win-over Rene Russo and get her to leave Don Johnson, another golfer Kevin is competing with. She stays loyal to Don, while Kevin continues to try and convince her that Don treats women, old people, and children poorly and disrespectfully. Rene doesn't see this side of Don (which is very typical) and only sees the loving, caring side. Well, she finally has the chance to witness Don being rude to a little kid asking for an autograph, and that is one of the things that led to her breaking up with him. Think of this when you are interacting with people, especially relating to the fire service.
- Case Study: I remember testing with the City of Roseville, CA many years ago. I was still pretty naive about the whole testing process and had only been testing for a few months. I went to human resources at city hall to pick up my application, and then decided to stop by the headquarters fire station to talk with some firefighters about becoming a firefighter and about their department. Well, I go up to the front counter of the fire station headquarters, and who do you think walks up to me (in a suit)? The fire chief! The problem is that I didn't realize he was the fire chief. I probably assumed he was just some guy in a suit that couldn't be important (boy, was I wrong; I guess I assumed all chiefs wore fire department uniforms).
He asks if there is anything he can do for me and I tell him "probably not." I tell him I wanted to speak with a firefighter. He then informs me he is a firefighter (which chiefs technically still are) and also the fire chief, and he then says the crews are out on a call, but that I can step in his office and he would be happy to talk with me. How do you think that made me feel? Let me see? I just insulted the chief, and I had assumed something (remember the old saying; if you assume something, you make an ass out of you and me. Additionally, stupid I was in shorts, a t-shirt, and some old running shoes. Do you think I made a positive first impression? Doubt it! Well, he took the time to answer my questions and then took the time to ask me some questions, most of which I was unprepared for.
Some of these questions included:
- Why do you want to work for the Roseville Fire Department?
- What do you know about the Roseville Fire Department?
- What can I tell you about the Roseville Fire Department?
- What have you done to prepare for the position of firefighter?
- Why should we hire you over the other candidates that are testing?
Needless to say (especially since I never got a job offer), I didn't make a great first impression. Did I learn a valuable lesson from this? You bet I did! Always be prepared, and always treat all people you come in contact with, with respect. Also, do a little homework on the department prior to stopping by the stations. And last, but not least, always dress appropriately in all phases of the hiring process!
7. You wear your sunglasses into a building (classroom, fire station, location of the written test or oral interview, etc.).
- Perception: you think you are cool!
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: don't wear them into a building!
8. You have your arms covered in tattoos (or you have other visible tattoos) and you are participating in any phase of the hiring process.
- Perception: you are scary to some folks and you are not too concerned about the image (or you are too concerned about your image, depending on how you look at it) you are portraying to others.
- Suggestion to not be in the same situation: keep the tattoos hidden! When I say hidden, I mean if you are wearing a t-shirt and shorts (typical firefighter workout gear), they should not be visible. Now, I personally don't have any tattoos and don't plan to get any. Call me weird or old-fashioned, but they just don't do anything for me. Some departments, like the one I work for, have a Rule against visible tattoos while in uniform. Now, when they implemented the Rule a few years ago, it didn't apply to the firefighters already on the job (meaning if they had visible tattoos, they didn't have to suddenly remove or cover them). It meant they could not get any additional tattoos that were visible and that every one hired after that point were basically not going to get hired if they had visible tattoos.
Now call it as you see fit. Some will argue the department doesn't have the right to do that. I'm not even going to get into that argument. How could we get away with that? Well, the union and the administration met and conferred and the Rule was established. Would this Rule work in every department? No, because every department is different. The clientele we serve is primarily middle-class to upper-class. Some of the homes within the communities we protect are typically in the top 25 list of cities with the most expensive homes in the United States.
Are tattoos more common in less affluent areas? Without being stereotypical, I would imagine they are. Take it a step further now. Would a firefighter working in an affluent area be looked upon in a different light if they had tattoos covering their arms than if they worked in a less affluent area? I would venture they would be. I'm not saying it is right or wrong, I'm just saying it is.
- Case Study: I remember a paramedic that worked for the local private ambulance company. He was a great paramedic that had great bedside manner, great patient care skills, and got along well with the fire crews. However, he always wore a long sleeve shirt when he worked. Why? Because his arms were covered with tattoos; he also had tattoos going up the sides of his neck. Did that make him a bad person? Of course he didn't always were the long sleeve shirts. I remember asking him one day why he was always wearing long sleeve shirts in the summer time. He told me that he got sick and tired of people asking him about his tattoos, as well as always staring at them. He also heard one too many comments from patients that were concerned about his paramedic skills. Here was a case of someone considered to be a great paramedic, but whose skills were being overshadowed by his presentation! Is that discrimination? Is that unfair? Is that real-life? Is that preventable? Is their perception their reality? Yes to all of those questions!
- Note: be careful about hiding them too much; so much that you decline to make the department aware of them during your background investigation. Most background investigations have a section wear you are required to list all scars, tattoos, etc. Failing to disclose them (and they are discovered - it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when) will lead to your termination of employment.
What I hope you get from this, is that you continuously remember now that "perception is reality" and that everything you do, every move you make, everything you say, is being evaluated, processed, and critiqued by the person or persons who are around you, whether or not they are interacting with you or not. Keep that frame of mind and you will hopefully be able to present yourself in a positive and professional manner, which gets remembered in the best way possible (as opposed to the worst way possible).