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Because it is so crucial, the job interview can be a great source of stress. This guide shows job candidates how to implement up-to-date, effective interview strategies in order to overcome interview obstacles, anticipate questions and answers, negotiate a higher salary, and more.
The Art and Skill of Preparation.
Red Flags: Employer Objections.
Behavior-Based Questions: The Newest Trend.
Want to Dance? The Psychology of Interviewing.
Dealing with the Unexpected.
Your Turn to Ask.
The Morning After: Follow-Up and Follow-Through.
The Headhunter Connection.
Customs and Protocol for Interviewing with Foreign Companies.
The Wheel Comes Full Circle--Evaluating Job Offers.
What Employers Look For
Every year hundreds of millions of organizational dollars are wasted because candidates are hired for jobs they aren't qualified for, while others are turned down for jobs they are more than qualified to fill. In many cases, interviewers were fooled into thinking that fast talkers make good workers. Countless others have been simultaneously passed over because interviewers didn't recognize their talents.
To make sure that you don't become one of those workplace casualties, you need to take the time to understand what employers are looking for and then communicate to them that you have the skills and desire to do the job.
While it's always difficult to make generalizations about what all employers are looking for, the climate of the current workplace does allow us to identify general traits and characteristics that most employers appreciate.
If there's any simple answer to the question, "What do employers really want?" it's this: They want someone who has the skills and the desire to do the job.
Coreen Morrell and Hardy Freeman, a husband-wife team of outplacement consultants in Chicago, teach candidates how to listen and probe for employers' needs so they can portray their experience as relevant and meaningful.
"The foundation of interviewing," says Morrell, "is to define your experience in ways that help employers see how you can help them."
In workshops for hiring managers on how to conduct interviews, Drake Beam Morin Inc., a national career management firm, encourages participants to evaluate candidates in three general areas:
1. "Can-do" factors include abilities, training, education and other areas of competency;
2. "Will-do" factors emphasize motivation, drive, aspirations, goals and interests;
3. "How-fit" factors speak to the question of style- how well will the candidate fit in and get along with bosses, peers, customers and so on.
More specifically, you can expect employers to be on the lookout for some of the following clues:
Organizations that are committed to their missions often design hiring strategies to implement their direction and purpose. If you know a company's mission, you can position yourself as someone who will help it advance organizational values and goals.
For example, Ben and Jerry's Homemade Inc., a South Burlington, Vermont, premium ice cream maker, espouses "linked prosperity" as its organizational mission. That means that the company is committed to win-win partnerships with vendors, customers, employees and the community. The firm goes out of its way to hire employees who understand and truly buy into this philosophy.
While Ben and Jerry's is famous for its social mission, most organizations have less visible philosophies. However, publicly held companies routinely publish mission statements in annual reports. Most companies also display these overarching goals in public areas as well as in printed materials.
Missions are statements of ideals and values. If you're more of a pragmatist who works primarily for a paycheck, you're better off keeping that information to yourself when interviewing with mission-driven organizations. Otherwise, you'll be passed over in favor of candidates who seem likely to dedicate them-selves to the organization's objectives.
"I'm impressed with a candidate who says to me, ' No one will work harder or make a greater commitment to your mission, ' " says Ken Freeman, manager of employee relations at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Your best bet is to target employers and industries whose values match your strengths.
Most employers are afraid of job hoppers. Because it takes time and energy to hire and train new employees, they don't want to be a stepping stone in your career climb. If your employment history reveals a string of short-term positions and/ or lack of real direction, be prepared for a grilling about why you left each position and how long you plan to stay.
The truth matters. While it's no longer expected or even desirable for employees to spend their entire careers with one organization, companies want you to stay long enough to make a contribution. Because hiring mistakes are expensive, they may need some reassurance that you want to do more than collect a paycheck and that you have the desire and ambition to help achieve organizational goals.
Again, it helps if you understand your own history before you try to sell it to an employer.
A personal injury attorney had worked for a half-dozen different firms in 12 years of practice. Her challenge was to convince prospective employers that for them, she would stick around longer.
She couldn't argue that point successfully without (1) identifying common threads of discontent in her career history and (2) determining whether a prospective employer really would be different from previous employers. Reviewing her experience, she realized that she had always been the sole female professional at the various law firms and that she was tired of her role as "token woman."
She began prequalifying employers before applying to them. By eliminating firms that employed only men from her list, she was able to speak more openly about her needs and desires in interviews. She also was able to select the firm she genuinely wanted to work for, rather than joining whichever employer happened to offer her a job and leaving shortly thereafter because she wasn't satisfied.
Despite highly stable work histories, many "older candidates" may encounter employers' reservations about how long they'll stay. It may be illegal for employers (1) to ask your age and (2) discriminate against you on the basis of age, but that doesn't mean that they won't reject you if they think you're just biding your time (and hoarding paychecks) until retirement. If you can clearly indicate that you have plenty of ambition and drive to succeed, a company is more likely to view your age and experience as an asset, not a liability.
Loyalty between employers and employees is dead; it died an ignoble death during the 1980s when constant downsizing and restructuring shattered the unspoken covenant.
For some, the result has been cynicism. As one downsized middle manager notes: "I worked for AT&T for 25 years. I was a good corporate soldier. I did what I was told and went where I was needed. But all it got me at the end of the day was a pink slip and a severance package. I've learned my lesson. I'll never be that loyal to a company again. From now on, I'm going to put my own needs first."
This former AT&T manager is both a baby boomer and a downsizing casualty. But don't look for greater loyalty and commitment from the so-called Gen X-ers, who have learned from their parent's mistakes and don't expect or want a job for life. For many of them, the goal is to keep moving and growing- not to wait for a promotion that may never come.
Whether you mourn the passing of the traditional covenant between employee and employer or simply accept that loss as part of the new workplace reality, you need to deal with the ramifications of the passing of this unspoken agreement. The focus has shifted from the concept of employment to that of employability. What employers seek now are people who have the skills and mentality to do the work that needs to be done.
Unlike the old covenant- where employees entrusted major career decisions to the organization- it's up to you (the individual) to take the initiative to develop and maintain marketable skills.
Given this new pact, it's not surprising that companies seek employees who exhibit what Tom Peters once called "a continuous learning mentality." By that, he meant a curiosity, willingness and even enjoyment in learning new things.
To paraphrase California career consultant Betsy Collard, it means staying knowledgeable about market trends as well as understanding organizational needs. You also must be willing, able and flexible enough to respond quickly to changing organizational needs. You need to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and have a plan to improve your performance and enhance your long-term employability.
Employees who exhibit this kind of attitude forge win-win relationships with their employers. By looking out for themselves, they look out for the company, too.
One of the easiest ways for employers to assess whether you have a continuous learning mentality is to look at your education, training and on-the-job experiences. If they can see that you have taken the initiative to keep growing and developing your experience and competence, they'll have greater confidence in your trainability.
Benjamin Barber, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, once commented that people could be divided into two categories: learners and nonlearners. Under the rules of the new employment game, learners will be clear winners.
For a 45-year-old plant manager with a suburban Chicago food manufacturer, being a learner meant taking the time and initiative to enroll in an evening MBA program. He took this step because he knew that he couldn't afford to let his skills become obsolete. For a personnel coordinator with a Los Angeles-based manufacturer, it meant taking a lateral move into inventory control to expand her breadth of experience. For an executive secretary with IBM, it meant volunteering to take a two-week software training program, then teaching other secretaries how to use the program.
Looking over your history, what evidence is there that you, too, are a learner? How can you show employers they can count on you to develop the skills and experience that will enable you to participate in the changes their organizations inevitably will go through?
Not so long ago, many employers' hiring procedures were notoriously slow. Some candidates were dismayed to find their job searches stretching over months, while potential employers continued interviewing more and more candidates. Because of the current labor shortage in some industries and functions, many employers are discovering that they no longer have the luxury of dragging their feet. To hire the best candidates, they need to act more decisively- and they want candidates to respond in a similar fashion.
A Chicago marketing executive in the manufacturing industry had been job hunting for nearly six months when he received an interesting offer from an integrated marketing consulting company. The only catch: He had three days to make up his mind. Although he had several other offers pending, he chose to accept this new position and start work.
Had he not been available immediately (or chosen to delay accepting), he thinks he would probably have lost the opportunity.
"They really needed someone yesterday," he says, "and they weren't willing to wait. I think the fact that I was ready, willing and able really worked to my advantage."
Marianne Ruggiero, a New York-based corporate vice president, agrees. "Companies may give lip service to the idea that they want every candidate to be honest, truthful and nice to his or her mother" she says, "but what they really want are people who are going to work hard-people who have the will, motivation and interest in working."
This doesn't mean that interviewees should allow themselves to be pressured into taking jobs that aren't right for them. While it's always wise to take the time you need to learn about a company and review an offer, you don't want to stall too long on a good offer because you'll send a message that you aren't that anxious to work for the company. Employers definitely want candidates who really want to do the work. By procrastinating too long, you may inadvertently communicate that you aren't very enthusiastic.
The E-Squared Factor:
Energy Enthusiasm = Success
Enthusiasm is something almost all employers look for. They aren't interested in candidates who are burnt out and/ or cynical. To become and stay competitive in the workplace, employers want candidates who are optimistic and energetic. This is one reason why some companies are suspicious of applicants who were fired or laid off. If you're still smarting from a termination that has left you feeling bitter or disillusioned, you may need to take some time off to recover your spirit and self-confidence.
When a public relations (PR) supervisor was told to start looking for a new job because she didn't have the required organizational and managerial skills, it shook her self-confidence to the core. It also gave her pause for thought. She had worked in PR for 15 years but knew in her heart she had never really liked it. Reviewing what she enjoyed, she realized that she liked writing and being creative much more than managing people. When she decided to pursue a new career direction as a writer/ editor for a trade journal, she recovered her enthusiasm and pursued her new career path with vigor and excitement.
Even if you're not an extrovert by nature, you can (and should) make the effort to express your enthusiasm for the position, field or company that interests you. But it should never be phony.
Says career counselor Dr. Phyllis Brust, "Find what really excites you about the position or the organization. All things being equal, enthusiasm distinguishes you from the rest."
Knowing that, you- the candidate- must take the time to figure out what you really want and then convince employers that what they're offering will spur you to work long and hard. If you can't do that truthfully, you should keep looking for a position and/ or organization that's right for you.
A construction manger who wanted to move off the management track to a more hands-on role had to work hard to persuade employers that he'd truly be happy in a job for which he seemed overqualified. He did so, convincingly, by describing his favorite projects and embellishing the hands-on role he played in each.
The best way to convince employers that you really want a job is, in fact, to actually want to do the job. A little self-assessment (soul-searching) will help you accomplish this goal. Unless you have great acting skills, faking enthusiasm rarely works.
Says Evanston, Illinois, career counselor Kathleen Voss, "If you know what's important to you, you do a whole lot better job of interviewing. It's hard to get up energy for something that doesn't excite you to persuade others to hire you. If you don't know what you want, you won't get there."
An Innovative Spirit
Since employers are always seeking a competitive edge, they love employing innovators. Such professionals are seldom content with the status quo, so they're constantly looking for ways to make improvements. For one testing engineer (not necessarily the most creative job), that meant inventing a procedure that stream-lined the testing process and decreased the time needed to bring a new product to market. For a publications director in a nonprofit association, innovation meant changing the format and look of a graphically staid trade magazine.
People with innovative spirits also tend to turn an analytical and creative eye toward problems. If you can devise ways to save your company money, improve customer relations or develop new revenue streams, employers will line up to hire you.
When a senior executive with a national career-management firm interviews candidates for career counseling positions, he looks for responsiveness to both organizational and client needs. Because his firm is very customer-service oriented, he wants to know that the advisors he hires are willing to go the proverbial extra mile to make sure clients are happy.
Many corporate executives agree that happy customers are good for the bot-tom line. They, too, look for candidates who can be responsive to their organizational goals and needs. Sometimes that means working longer or more flexible hours. At times it includes performing tasks that aren't necessarily in your job description. For a systems consultant with a major computer consulting firm in Chicago, responsiveness translates into a willingness to take on varied projects, travel extensively and work with many different people- not all of whom share her responsiveness to company needs.
While working as a project manager, she was surprised at the inflexibility of some of her coworkers about meeting project goals. When it was her turn to hire, she realized how much she needed new consultants to be flexible and committed enough to be responsive to customer and project needs. They needed to be willing to work outside their own job descriptions in order to achieve results.
Although she couldn't quite put her finger on the character trait she was seeking in a new CFO, the CEO of a start-up transportation company also was looking for responsiveness when she interviewed candidates. Because she was in a start-up phase, she wanted to hire someone who was comfortable with risk, could operate without a well-defined structure and shared her vision and commitment for the future.
The first candidate dozed off during the interview. When he awakened, she said, " You must be tired." He commented that he was heavily involved with his kids' soccer and had spent the weekend traveling to their games. Much as she admired his family involvement, she wasn't impressed with his stamina. The second time he dozed off, she terminated the interview. At a bare minimum, she needed someone who could stay awake long enough to hear what she had to say.
The second candidate had an impressive background in banking which, in theory, made her well-qualified for the position. But she also turned out to be a conservative thinker and spent precious interviewing time trying to convince the CEO that raising the investment capital needed to make the business a growing concern would be impossible.
"I needed someone with a can-do attitude," the CEO said. "What I heard from her was 'no way. ' The last thing I needed was someone who didn't have the vision or capability to help us achieve our prosperity goals."
Candidate number 3 was a winner. A very positive, upbeat man in his 50s he had a diverse and extensive background. He wasn't scared off by the CEO's ambitious business plan or her high expectations for the role. In fact, he welcomed the challenge and convinced her that what she wanted was realistic and doable. Need I tell you who she hired?
The career-management director who valued responsiveness placed accountability equally high on his list of priorities. Formerly in the military, he knows the importance of taking responsibility for mistakes (as well as accomplishments!). He isn't interested in employees who blame other people for errors or try to avoid the consequences of mistakes.
While employers are inclined to view past history as the best predictor of future success, losses can be recouped and directions changed. Your attitude may prove the crucial variable.
Kathleen Voss remembers working with a banker whose profile (ENFJ) on the Myers-Briggs aptitude test indicated that he was more emotional and people-oriented than many banking peers and simply didn't perform well in the concrete, analytical banking world. When a restructuring eliminated his job, he used the opportunity to redirect his career into teaching/ coaching. Although he wasn't fired, he admitted that he allowed himself to be pushed in the wrong direction because of family/ societal pressure. In his case, taking responsibility meant owning up to who he really is and moving in a direction that was consistent with that self-knowledge.
"Employers want team players who can work collaboratively more than they need individual stars," says Anneliese Crawford, a former marketing manager with Quaker Oats Company in Chicago.
In a technologically advanced, fast-paced workplace, companies know that to become and stay competitive, they must hire employees who can work together effectively. To achieve a participative management ideal, organizations want new hires who do more than give lip service to the term team player. They need people who can also "walk the talk."
What does it mean to be a team player? In many cases, it means putting your ego aside to do the work.
A senior associate in a small litigation firm admits that she doesn't have time for prima donnas. Her firm has too much work to be done. When she's asked to screen and hire new associates, she looks foremost for someone who has the right attitude and will do whatever it takes to complete a job.
When her firm decided to add a junior associate to the payroll, she was the one who asked the hard questions. Although she appreciated the feminist priorities of one candidate who said she " wouldn't be caught dead getting a partner coffee," the associate was more impressed by a male candidate who remarked, "What difference does it make who gets the coffee?"
Making coffee wasn't the real issue, of course. The point was: How much did each candidate care about status and authority? The associate wasn't looking for an employee-slave, nor did she expect anyone to make her coffee. However, she felt it was important to find a professional who wouldn't stand on ceremony when work needed to be done.
To be a team player means, at times, that you must put organizational needs and goals above your own. You must align yourself with your company's mission and values. For a publications manager with a nonprofit association, this meant giving up his assistant because the organization needed a customer-service representative, but didn't have funds in its budget for a new job. In the short term, he had to do more administrative work. The trade off was that his employer appreciated his altruism and rewarded him with a promotion. When he topped out with that organization, he could use this sacrifice to sell himself to new employers who ostensibly wanted team players, too.
It may sound self-serving, but managers naturally prefer to hire employees who'll improve their own standing in their organization.
Consider an administrator with a social-services agency in Chicago who was seeking an office manager. She'd thought about hiring someone from the private sector for the job, but wasn't convinced it would be a good idea.
Yet, when a candidate described how a bottom-line mentality would help the agency deliver more services, she realized the benefit of choosing a manager who had a business background, rather than one in social work.
The administrator knew her choice initially might be unpopular (especially among social workers). However, she was confident that the candidate's skills (and eventual accomplishments) would make her department stand out favorably.
Compatibility doesn't necessarily mean twinship. You don't have to have identical values and styles if your strengths are complementary. When you don't have to have a perfectly synchronized history of goals and accomplishments, you need to work that much harder to establish common ground. Often the key is to show employers how they can exploit your difference to their own competitive advantage.
Jerry Hannigan, a Chicago-based marketing manager, communicated this effectively when he argued that since he came from a different industry, he offered a marketing advantage because he wasn't locked into old ways of thinking about business development strategies.
This may be especially important for career changers who, in general, risk seeming like they might not fit into a different work environment. Many career changers worry that they won't be able to compete effectively against candidates with more direct experience. Such candidates don't realize their very genuine advantages.
Instead of comparing your experience to everyone else's, you must look at what you do better than the competition. A marketing manager with five years of manufacturing experience landed a highly coveted account-supervisor's position with a full-service marketing agency despite the fact that he had never worked in an agency before. Why? Because he would be working on manufacturing accounts. In this case, he successfully argued that manufacturing experience was more important than general agency experience. He built a case that it was easier to learn how to be an account executive than to really understand the mentality and concerns of manufacturing executives. Apparently, the employer agreed because he was hired into a fast-track position at a higher salary than he had previously earned with a promise of future promotions commensurate with performance.
By understanding and exploiting your advantage (instead of competing against someone else's strengths), you can increase your value to a company and may even help them to gain greater competitive advantage. On the flip side, it's important to recognize that not every environment is right for you.
"Some candidates are afraid to express their preferences openly," says career counselor Kathleen Voss, "for fear the employer will think they don't 'fit in. ' But it's better to find out that you don't fit in before you take the job than afterward."
Fortunately, in the current job market, there are enough options for most candidates to be a little bit more selective about their next job. In the long run, this choosiness should be a benefit to employers as well. Because hiring mistakes are expensive and time-consuming, companies don't want to hire the wrong candidate. If you sense that a job is wrong for you, it is better to say "no thanks" and keep looking for a better environment. Otherwise, there may be more enduring consequences to your career.
Here's another example: A recently promoted regional manager for a contract-furnishing company found that his supervisory style antagonized two new sales representatives, both of whom resented being scrutinized so closely. Sales reps who prefer looser reins aren't likely to be happy or perform well with this manager. Since he probably won't change his style, candidates should be told how he operates so they can decide if they'd feel comfortable with his style.
Some interviewers may be more concerned about the issue of personality fit. When Ed Goedert, president of a psychological testing firm in Oakbrook, Illinois, interviews candidates, he's primarily concerned with three aspects of their personal style:
1. Communication skills. Rather than examining their capacity to talk endlessly, Goedert looks for their ability to organize thoughts clearly and concisely, listen and respond sensitively.
2. Nonverbal messages. Interviewees who are dressed inappropriately, lacking in social judgment, excessively anxious or poorly groomed lose considerable points.
3. Work habits. Is the candidate a perfectionist? A workaholic? A hip shooter? More importantly, how does the individual's style fit with the client's corporate culture? If there's a match, it's more likely the candidate will win a job offer.
The question of fit often extends to the more subjective issue of "likeability." All other things being equal, interviewers tend to hire people they like simply because they want them around on a day-to-day basis.
This can pose an interviewing challenge for candidates who tend to be more reserved and/ or are reluctant to express their emotions openly. They must work harder to help the interviewer feel comfortable with who they are.
A talented systems administrator for a computer software company lost his job when the facility closed. As he looked for work, he was lucky to have a former boss willing to praise his performance enthusiastically to potential employers.
But the administrator's interviewing style was so low-key that no one checked his references. He provided one-sentence answers, a "silent treatment" that intimidated interviewers and made them uneasy. Rather than dealing with their psychological discomfort or trying to draw out the candidate, employers filled the silence with their own chatter. Then they'd decide not to pursue his candidacy further.
To combat this problem, the systems administrator had to make an active effort to open up. While he didn't turn himself into a chatterbox, he made a decision (and effort) to share personal information that would demonstrate that he was a mature, stable and community-minded person- not a reclusive isolationist. For example, he began telling employers that he was a lifelong resident of his community, married and actively involved with his two children.
He also tried to elaborate on responses to interviewers' queries. He started using more anecdotes and following up with questions, so that interviewers would realize that he was truly interested in the position. These steps warmed the interview atmosphere and helped him feel more comfortable with the interview process.