Mastering Interviews by Objective
Interviewers set up different kinds of meetings for different reasons, as the leading player in the following story illustrates:
A woman with a dog was leaving a movie theater when a reporter stopped her and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I was amazed that your dog seemed to get into the movie so much. He cried at the right scenes, yawned during the ho-hum spots, and laughed his head off at the funny parts. Don’t you find that amazing?”
“Yes,” the woman replied. “I find it quite amazing, considering that his objective in coming here was to find out whether the movie was as bad as the book!”
You can read about interview objectives in the upcoming sections.
Interviewing is a two-stage process in large organizations. The two stages are screening and selection. Screening precedes selection.
The purpose of screening — or first-cut interviews — is to weed out all applicants except the best qualified.
Live (in-person) interviews to screen applicants typically are held at the employer’s worksite, independent employment services, college career services, and job fairs.
But interviewers increasingly rely on technology — such as telephone and webcam (video online) interviews — to screen applicants. They use the technology as cost-cutting moves to knock out underskilled and overpriced candidates before their companies invest too much time and money in dead ends.
The screener, usually an employee of the employer inside the human resources department or an outside, third-party (independent) recruiter, quizzes all comers and passes the survivors to a person who makes the final selection.
The selector, the person who makes the selection — that is, the person who has the final say on hiring— is usually the department manager or the boss to whom the victorious candidate will report.
The selection interview (sometimes called the decision interview) typically is a live interview (face to face). You meet with a supervisor, department head, or another person who has the authority to hire you. (Sometimes the selection decision is made by more than one person, as I explain in the later section “Group interview.”)
Because this final interviewer will be your potential boss, you, too, will be making judgments during the interview.
Selection interviewers are rarely pros at interviewing and often just go with their intuition, hoping the task is over as quickly as possible so that they can get back to their “real” work.
Because the selection interview may take several detours, be ready to ask leading questions to (1) get the interview back on track and (2) set up an opening to describe your qualifications for the position.
Even if the questioner seems like a long-lost buddy, don’t relax. Your interviewer is trying to decide which candidate is the best investment for the company — because a wrong choice can cost the company thousands of dollars in training time, correcting mistakes, and firing to hire again.
Selection interviewers are looking for
- Strong presentation of personality: How you blend with other employees, as well as your general likeability and motivation to work
- Specific details of your competencies and skills: How your qualifications allow you to do the job better than other candidates
- Specific details of your job experience or education: How you’ve not only done — or been trained to do — a similar job, but how you’ll apply that background to the new job
- How you handle specific job scenarios: How your mind works under variable or stressful conditions, and how you solve challenges
Assuming that the person conducting the meeting will be your boss or a colleague with whom you have to get along, the selection interview is where you move from neutral behavior into high gear. This is the forum where you reveal the best of your personality!
And the selection interview is where you take note of how you and your potential boss blend. If your gut instinct tells you the blend is oil-and-water, think twice before saying yes to this job if it’s offered.
Even when every other factor about the job is tempting, your work life will be a happier place when you and your future boss are “using the same software.”
In a classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, actor Harvey Korman plays a gang leader recruiting bad guys to ruin a town. Interviewing funnyman Cleavon Little, who applies to be his sidekick, Korman initially worries that the two of them are not “using the same software.”
Korman asks Little to describe his qualifications as a villain. When Little tells the gang leader that his past work was stampeding cattle, Korman is about to blow him off with a comment that stampeding cattle isn’t a big thing in gangland. Little smirks knowingly, then says, “Through the Vatican?” Right then, Korman decides that Little and he are two villains of a kind, shouting “Kinky!” and hiring him on the spot.
Small firms often combine the screening and selection interviews. The resulting combination tends to be long and arduous. It not only tests your match to the hiring requirements, but also measures your stamina and motivation for the job.
From the very first exchange, pull out all the stops in selling your top qualities and displaying a pleasant personality, because you won’t get a second chance.
Moving up from the inside as an internal candidate often is easier than gaining access as an outside candidate. But it’s not a sure thing.
When you’re the only insider wrangling for the job, use your knowledge of the company’s policies, plans, and culture to emphasize that you alone can hit the floor running — which no outsider can actually do. Then identify several current company problems you could deal with right off the bat.
Be cautious about suggesting solutions to company problems caused by the hiring authority. When in doubt, don’t.
Should you emphasize your 20 years of loyal service with a show-and-tell of your successes at a time when your company is handing off generational control from boomers to Xers? Although it may seem counterintuitive to boomers, if that’s you, tread carefully. The familiar “tried-and-proven” strategy won’t have legs during a time when new captains are determined to justify taking the wheel by steering in different directions.
A youth-oriented management doesn’t care about the glories of Ancient Rome or Ancient You — what they care about is whether you can do the work ahead — now and tomorrow.
So while you include the accomplishments of the past ten years (no more than that), reframe the discussion to focus on work samples and skills that highlight your ability to do the new job. Give examples of your flexible personality. Identify times when you welcomed new tasks and responsibilities. Help them see you as the way forward, not as star-spangled yesteryear.
Recruiter courtesy interview
A retained recruiter gets paid whether or not the recruiter matches a candidate to a position. These professionals typically run the other way to avoid job seekers who come unbidden to their offices. (Time is money.) But you may know a client or friend of a retained recruiter who can get you through the door with a courtesy interview.
Unless the retained recruiter giving you a courtesy interview is recruiting for a position that’s perfect for you — which is very unlikely — focus on providing the recruiter with information that may qualify you for a future search. Follow these practices:
- Always give the recruiter a current resume.
- Get straight to the point; don’t take more than 20 minutes of the recruiter’s time.
- Explain your experience, accomplishments, and skills.
- If the recruiter asks whether you know someone qualified for a specific position for which the recruiter is trying to collect candidates, rack your brain to be accommodating if you know someone who fills the bill. The recruiter may remember your favor for future searches more appropriate for you.
- Thank the recruiter for time invested in you.
Don’t play the role of a coy, amateur job seeker. The retained recruiter is in no business for games. You wouldn’t ask for a courtesy interview if you didn’t need a job. Your conciseness and ability to communicate efficiently count. Review your resume and get to the point.
Recruiter general screening interview
Contingency recruiters, unlike retained recruiters, get paid only when they match up a candidate with a position. The more people they see, the larger their candidate pool from which to fill employers’ job orders. Getting an interview with a contingency recruiter or employment agency consultant is easier than with a retained recruiter.
But you still can’t waste a contingency recruiter’s time. Hand over your resume and give your best performance to show a broad selection of work experiences. You’re trying to make the contingency recruiter remember you for a variety of future job openings.
Take care to rate high scores in the following qualities:
- Competence in skills and knowledge
- Enthusiasm and motivated interest in work
- Experience (some job history)
- Good communication
- Leadership and initiative
Recruiter search interview
A recruiter may contact you about a specific job opening. Chances are that you’ve done or are doing a job similar to the one the recruiter’s client wants to fill, and that’s why the recruiter called you. So you already know the basics of your industry, even though at first you may not know the identity of the client.
The recruiter is prepared for the (de facto screening) interview on first contact; you’re not. Level the playing field by saying you were walking out the door for an important appointment and schedule the interview for the following day.
Recruiters — whether third-party or internal — can’t hire you, but you’ve got to pass their muster before you see their client hiring authorities.
To impress a recruiter in a search interview:
- Show that you have definite career goals and indicate how this position fits those goals.
- Ask probing, thoughtful questions about the company and position, showing you’ve done your homework.
When you want to make the initial recruiter contact, use the web to research recruiting firms that specialize in your industry or occupation.
- The gold standard is Kennedy’s Directory of Executive Recruiters (with purchase of a print copy, you’re entitled to a free online version): www. kennedyinfo.com.
- A good free resource is Oya’s Directory of Recruiters at www.i-recruit. com/oya. You can search by keyword or browse the listings by specialty or location.
- Find many other directories of recruiting firms, both free and for a fee, on The Riley Guide (www.rileyguide.com/recruiters.html).
Being called back is a good sign: You’re a few steps closer to being offered the job you want.
To come out first in the second interview, be sure you understand the dynamics at play. (Actually, the second interview may turn out to be a series of interviews, but the purpose is typically the same in all of them.)
I count three kinds of second interviews and suggest tips to come out ahead in each one:
- The yours-to-lose selection interview: The decision is virtually made in your favor. But the hiring manager is confirming it with endorsements and buy-in consensus from the team. Your qualifications aren’t in question, but your fit (how you fit in with the company culture) is being probed. Relax a little — these are your new colleagues. Keep your answers pleasant, straightforward, and brief but not terse.
- The finalists’ selection interview: The decision has narrowed to two or three finalists. Keep selling your qualifications. Allude to cultural fit with subtle comments suggesting that you’re one of them. (“I agree that we must build adequate electrical power into the infrastructure.”) Ask intelligent questions, such as depth of support for stated missions and professional development opportunities.
- The do-over screening interview: Management still wonders whether you’re underqualified and overpriced and wants to make another pass at you, perhaps with different screeners. Expect questions all over again about your job history, skills, salary history or requirements, resume gaps, and the kind of person you are. (You’re reliable, honest, teamoriented, and, overall, have laudable values.)
If you’re working with a recruiter, ask the recruiter for tips and where you are in the selection process. If not, ask the same question of the interviewer who has shown you the greatest interest.
Mastering Interviews by Interviewer
The most common interview style you’ll encounter is the one in which a solo interviewer meets and questions you. Another possibility is that you meet face to face with several pairs of measuring eyes — all at once. Still another format shuffles you from one interview to another to another, all with the same company. In the upcoming sections, I sketch the possibilities.
You and the employer meet, usually at the employer’s office, and discuss the job and your relevant skills and other qualifications that relate to it.
The plot thickens. Also called a panel, board, team, collective, or committee interview, this style puts you center stage before a comparatively huge crowd — perhaps 5 to 12 questioners. Usually they are people from the department where you would work, or they may come from various departments throughout the organization.
You wouldn’t be at this expensive meeting (think of all the salaries for the group’s time) if you hadn’t already been screened to be sure your qualifications are acceptable. These people are gathered to see whether they like you and whether you’ll fit into their operation. Greet each person, handing out a fresh copy of your resume. Appear confident. Make a quick seating chart to help you remember names.
Before you answer a first question, smile, thank everyone for inviting you to meet with them, and then begin your answer, which will probably be “You asked me to tell you about myself . . ..”
Should you try to identify the leader and direct most of your remarks to that person? Not necessarily. The boss may be the quiet observer in the corner. Play it safe — maintain eye contact with all committee members. When your curtain goes up, play to a full house!
Group interviews highlight your interpersonal skills, leadership, and ability to think on your feet and deal with issues in a stressful setting. The purpose of a group interview is not only to hear what you say, but to see what behaviors and skills you display within a group.
When the interview is over, thank the group as though you just finished a speech.
Thank you for having me here today. I enjoyed being with you. This interview confirmed my research indicating that this company is a good place to work. I’ll look forward to hearing from you and, hopefully, joining you.
Ask questions. Periodically summarize important points to keep the group focused. Use a notebook to record several simultaneous questions, explaining that you don’t want to omit responding to anyone’s important concern.
A serial interview also involves a group of people, but not all at once. You are handed off from person to person. You typically are passed from screener to line manager to top manager — and perhaps a half-dozen people in between in the drawn-out process of the serial interview. You strengthen your chances each time you are passed onward.
Use your screening (plain vanilla personality) interview behavior with all interviewers you meet except those with whom you would work. Then go into your selection (full personality) mode.
When the initial interviewer says that you’re being passed on to the second interviewer, try to find out a little about the second interviewer. Ask a question like “Does number two feel the same way about customer service as you do?” You’ll get information you need to establish common ground with your next interviewer. Continue the advance-tip technique all the way to the finish line.
When you’re interviewed by one person after another, consistency counts. Don’t tell a rainbow of stories about the same black-and-white topics. When interview team members later compare notes, they should be discussing the same person.
Mastering Interviews by Technique
One of the funniest movie reviews ever was for the 1960s film Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang.
The entire review read: “It went bang bang and it was chitty!”
The film’s director, who here shall remain nameless, couldn’t have been happy about that review. No happier than a job interviewer bearing responsibility for the hiring of a candidate who disappoints.
A film director calls the shots on a movie set, placing actors and cameras to best advantage.
Similarly, a job interviewer sets the technique and tone of the interview, whether it is behavior based, tightly or loosely controlled, intentionally stressful, or loaded with brain-crunching puzzles.
Behavior-based interviewing relies on storytelling — examples of what you’ve done that support your claims. Premised on the belief that the past predicts the future, behavior-based interviewing techniques are used to ask candidates how they have handled specific situations — what kinds of behaviors they used to solve problems.
The presumption is that if you were a good problem solver in the past, you’ll be a good problem solver in the future. Behavior-based interviewing emphasizes “What did you do when?” instead of “What would you do if?”
Interview questions are designed to draw out clues to a candidate’s workplace DNA. All candidates are asked virtually the same questions. The tip-off that you’ve just been handed a behavior-based question, which should be answered with a demonstrated skill or trait, is when the question begins with such words as these:
- Tell me about a time when —
- Give me an example of your skills in —
- Describe a time when you —
- Why did you —
A few fleshed-out examples illustrate the behavior-based technique more fully:
Think back to a time when you were on the verge of making a huge sale, and the customer balked at the last minute, promised to get back to you, but didn’t. What action did you take? Remember a time when you improved inventory turns; how big of an improvement did you make? Tell me about an on-the-job disaster that you turned around, making lemonade from lemons. Describe the types of risks you have allowed your direct reports to take. Can you give me an example of when you were able to implement a vision for your organization? Why did you decide to major in sociology at San Marcos State University instead of at a small private college?
Companies using behavior-based interviewing first must identify the behaviors important to the job. If leadership, for instance, is one of the valued behaviors, several questions asking for stories of demonstrated leadership will be asked:
Tell me about the last time you had to take charge of a project but were lacking in clear direction. How did you carry forward the project?
Because the behavioral style of interviewing attempts to measure predictable behavior rather than pure paid work experience, it can help level the playing field for rookies competing against seasoned candidates.
In mining your past for anecdotes, you can draw from virtually any part of your past behavior — education, school projects, paid work experience, volunteer work, activities, hobbies, family life.
As you sift through your memories, be on the lookout for a theme, the motif that runs through your choices of education, jobs, and activities. Put at least half a dozen anecdotes that illustrate your theme in your mental pocket and pull them out when you need them. Examples of themes are
- Displaying leadership
- Solving problems
- Showing initiative
- Overcoming adversity
- Dealing with stress
- Sacrificing to achieve an important work goal
- Dealing with someone who disagrees with you
- Displaying commitment
- Demonstrating work ethic
- Staying task orientated
- Practicing communication skills
Here are several more suggestions to tap-dance your way through behaviorbased questions:
- Tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end using the PAR technique — problem, action, result.
Here’s an example: Problem: An e-commerce company was operating at a substantial loss. Action: I outsourced technical support and added seven new product lines. Result: We cut our expenses by 8 percent, increased our revenues by 14 percent, and had our first profitable year, with expectations of higher profits next year.
- Rookies: Don’t simply cite the subject of your classes — “I couldn’t solve my accounting problem, so I asked my professor.” No! Look back at your student class projects, previous work experience, and extracurricular activities. Reach into real life for your success stories.
- Try not to sound as though you memorized every syllable and inflection, or like a machine with all the answers. Admitting that your example was a complex problem and that you experimented until you found its best solution humanizes you.
Realize that the interviewer is more interested in the process than in the details of your success stories. What was the reasoning behind your actions? Why did you behave the way you did? What skills did you use?
Behavior-based interviewing, which arrived nearly 50 years ago, is popular today because employers are trying to snatch clues from history to project the future. The underlying rationale is that people tend to play the same roles in life over and over.
Theatrical insiders call this tendency “typecasting.” In explaining a shift away from action films, film star Bruce Willis quipped, “I’ve saved the world so many times, they’ve given me an 800 number.”
The directive interview is one in which the interviewer maintains complete control and walks you through the discussion to uncover what the interviewer wants to know.
The structured interview is directive because the interviewer works from a written list of questions asked of all candidates and writes down your answers.
The argument in favor of structured interviews is that they promote fairness, uncover superior candidates, and eliminate the cloning effect (in which an interviewer essentially hires candidates in his own image — or one who the interviewer thinks will “fit in” merely because of shared values).
In structured interviews, the interviewer may throw out a critical incident and ask you to respond. A critical incident is a specific problem or challenge that was successfully handled by employees of the company. Like a quiz show, the host (the interviewer) has the “answer sheet” — the actual behavior that solved the problem or met the challenge.
Some critical incidents can be anticipated by researching industry trends and inferred by reading company press releases online.
Whether you are in an unwritten directive interview or a scripted structured interview, expect interviewers to ask both closed- and open-ended questions.
A closed-end question can be answered with yes or no:
Did you find my office easily?
An open-ended question usually asks how or why:
How do you like this industry?
This interviewer has an agenda and is intent on seeing that it’s followed. Being too assertive in changing the topic is a mistake. The only safe way you can introduce one of your skills is to ask a question:
Would you like to hear about my experience in quality assessment?
A nondirective interview rewards you for leading the discussion. It’s often an approach of line managers who don’t know much about professional interviewing.
Questions tend to be broad and general so that you can elaborate and tell all kinds of terrific stories about yourself. A few questions may reveal key areas of the employer’s needs. These questions may sound at first as though they’re critical incidents, but in this loose-limbed interview, the interviewer probably doesn’t assume that he or she knows the answers. Examples of nondirective interview questions include the following:
We had a problem employee last quarter who revealed information about our marketing strategies to a competitor — how would you handle this situation? You understand some of the difficulties this department faces — how would you approach these in your first four months? Tell me about your goals in the next five years and how this position fits in with them. Your resume shows you have a degree in Spanish and another in computer science — how do you plan to use both of these in this position?
Carry agenda cards or a small notebook with a list of your qualifications and a list of questions about the company. When you have to carry the ball, working from notes can be a lifesaver if you have a leaky memory.
If all your preparation fails you, fall back on “I wish I had the answer. What’s your viewpoint on this?”
Recognizing the hazing that goes on in a stress interview is important; recognize it for what it is — either it’s a genuine test of your ability to do the job, or you’re being punk’d by a certified jerk.
Whichever it is, don’t take the horrors of a stress interview personally. Keep your cool and play the game if you want the job. Don’t sweat. Don’t cry. Your most reliable tactic is to speak with calm, unflagging confidence. You may have to practice remaining poised in the face of an interviewer’s intimidation tactics.
Suppose that you’re in sales. Asking you to sell the interviewer something — like the office chair — is fairly common. But having you face blinding sunlight while sitting in a chair with one short leg is, at best, immature.
Stress interviews often consist of
- Hour-long waits before the interview
- Long, uncomfortable silences
- Challenges of your beliefs
- A brusque interviewer or multiple curt interviewers
- Deliberate misinterpretation of your comments and outright insults
Typical questions run along these lines:
Why weren’t you working for so long?
Why eight jobs in ten years?
Your resume shows that you were with your last company for a number of years without promotion and a virtually flat salary; why is that?
Can you describe a situation when your work was criticized or you disliked your boss?
Would you like to have my job?
What would you do if violence erupted in your workplace?
A famous admiral, now dead, used to nail the furniture to the floor and ask the applicant to pull up a chair. If an interviewer crosses your personal line of reasonable business behavior, stand up with dignity, thank the interviewer for the time, and run like hell for the emergency exit.
Mastering Interviews at Remote Locations
A filming location is a place where some or all of a film or television series is produced, instead of using sets built on a studio backlit or soundstage.
Going on location isn’t always a cushy assignment. Some years ago, while filming in a Philippines jungle, the movie’s production chief warned star actor Michael Caine to beware of a poisonous serpent called the 1-2-3 snake.
Asking about the odd name, Caine was told it was because, once bitten, after taking 1-2-3 steps, you’re dead! Worse luck, the snake looked like a twig. The saving grace was that the film’s native guides could smell the snake. Unsurprisingly, each morning Caine and the crew checked to be sure the guides hadn’t caught colds.
While not every interview takes place across a desk at the company’s home base, presumably you won’t have to worry about snakes as you head out for an interview over a meal, in a campus interviewing room, at a job fair, or even at home where the whole family is inspected.
Just when you thought you’d been through all the interviewing hoops and assumed that landing the job was a done deal, you get a luncheon invitation from a higher-up in the company, perhaps your potential boss. Why?
Robin Jay, author of The Art of the Business Lunch: Building Relationships Between 12 and 2 (Career Press), identifies the following reasons:
- To judge you on your social skills and manners
- To find out additional information about you that an employer may not legally be able to ask
- To get to know you better
- To compare your social behavior to that of other candidates
As an account executive, Jay ate her way through 3,000 business lunches. (No, she’s not fat.) She says that sharing a meal with someone reveals her personality faster and more effectively than all the office interviews in the world. “Many a job has been won or lost at the table,” Jay observes.
So while a mealtime interview may seem more relaxed and social, stay as alert as you would in any other location. Mealtime interviewers are watching you with big eyes.
To avoid spilling precious job opportunities, mind your manners:
- Don’t order entrees so hard to eat that you spend the entire interview lost in your plate with long pasta or saucy, messy, or bony food.
- Don’t order alcohol unless you’re at dinner — even then, have only one drink. White wine is a good choice.
- Don’t order the most expensive or the most inexpensive thing on the menu.
- Don’t smoke (companies are obsessed with employee health costs).
- Don’t complain about anything — the food, the service, or the restaurant.
- Don’t over-order or leave too much food on your plate.
To look classy in a mealtime interview, be sure to
- Order something that’s easy to eat (like a club or veggie sandwich).
- Chew with your mouth closed, speak with your mouth empty.
- Order something similar to what the interviewer orders or ask the interviewer to suggest something.
- Show your appreciation for the treat — once hired, you may find yourself brown-bagging your lunch.
Practice a technique known as mirroring — what the boss or the interviewer does, you do. Take the interviewer’s lead in where to rest arms on the table, which fork to hold, and how fast to shovel in the food. Subconsciously, you’re establishing similarities, making the interviewer like you
Always be polite to the food server, even if the service or food is so bad you make a mental note never to set foot in the place again. Treating the server with disrespect is worse than spilling spaghetti sauce all over the interviewer’s new suit.
No matter how much or how little the tab, the interviewer always pays, so don’t reach for the bill when it comes, even if it’s placed closer to you. Let it sit there unclaimed, unloved. Remember, this could be a test of your confidence or of your knowledge of protocol.
Some employers recruit on campuses by setting up interviews through your college’s career center. These are screening interviews conducted by company recruiters.
Job market to college seniors: Snag the interviews you want by learning and using the system. Sign up for resume and job interviewing workshops, make friends with the career center counselors, ask for job leads.
When you don’t get interview slots you want, check back for last-minute cancellations or additions to the interview schedules.
Job fair interview
Job fairs are brief but significant encounters in which you hand over documents — either your resume or a summary sheet of your qualifications (carry both types of documents). Your objective is to land an interview, not get a job offer on the spot at the fair. At best, you’ll get a screening interview at the event site.
Try to preregister for the job fair, get a list of participating employers, and research those you plan to visit. Your edge is to be better prepared than the competition.
Fair lines are long, so accept the likelihood that you’ll be standing in many of them. Make use of your time by writing up notes from one recruiter while standing in line to meet another.
Everyone tries to arrive early, so think about arriving at halftime when the first flood has subsided. Dress professionally, whatever that means in your career field.
Work up a branding brief with at least one strong memorable point to say to recruiters. Here’s an example: I am in the top 10 percent of my environmental engineering class. If there’s no immediate feedback inviting you for an interview, hand over your summary sheet and ask, “Do you have positions appropriate for my background?” If the answer is positive, your next question is “I’d like to take the next step — can we set up an interview?” If you don’t get a positive response, continue with “Can we talk on the phone next week?”
Whether or not you’re able to schedule an interview on the spot, when you leave, hand over your resume. Think of your job fair interaction with recruiters as a major star’s cameo performance in a film: Move in, make a highprofile impression through dress and preparedness, and move on to the next prospect.
What’s Playing on the Interview Scene?
You may not know in advance the type of interview you’ll encounter, but at least you won’t be caught off guard if you take seriously the message in the next chapter showing you how to research your way to a smooth performance followed by bouquets of greenbacks.