Published On : August 18, 2009
The Riley Guide: Network, Interview, & Negotiate
The job interview process can seem grueling, but a few minutes of advance preparation can spare you a lot of stress along the way. Spend a while reviewing common questions before each interview, and rehearse your responses to the tricky ones, and you'll be surprised how easily you sail through each stage. So here are the top strategies for approaching every portion of the interview process, from initial contact to follow-through. Read on to find out how to get your potential noticed.
It's helpful to enter the interview process with an understanding of some of the most common trip-ups – both those set up by interviewers, and those made by many interviewees. The former category consists mostly of questions designed to filter out undesirable employees. Questions like, "Why did you leave your last job?" fall into this category, as do questions like, "How do you work under pressure?" and "Have you ever clashed with your boss?" The key to answering these types of questions is to spin your answers in positive ways.
For example, you could explain that you once had a boss with whom you had trouble communicating, but you put in the time to understand him or her better – which improved that relationship, and also taught you communication skills that you'll bring to this new position. In short, keep your descriptions of the negative aspects as brief as possible, then go into detail about your positive takeaways. You can save yourself some stress about this by doing a little mental rehearsal before the interview – think back to some tough bosses and high-pressure situations you've been through, and reflect on what you learned from each one. This will help keep your focus in the right place.
You can also save yourself trouble simply by not asking certain types of questions in the interview. Avoid introducing the question of what salary range you can expect – if the interviewer wants to discuss this with you at this stage of the process, he or she will bring it up. If you do get asked point-blank what salary you're expecting, respond with an average figure for professionals in that region who hold similar positions (you'll definitely want to spend a few minutes researching this prior to the interview). Similar principles hold true for questions about benefits, discounts, expense accounts, dress code and other topics that aren't directly related to job duties. If the interviewer wants to discuss any of these things at this stage, he or she will bring them up; otherwise, you're better off asking later in the process – for instance, during the offer-negotiation stage – once you're sure you're a serious candidate.
Whereas traditional job interviews focus on education, work history and the familiar question-and-answer formula, behavioral interviews – which are growing in popularity – tend to take a more conversational tone. Instead of asking a dry traditional question like, "Why are you interested in this position?" a behavioral interviewer is more likely to ask something like, "What's the trickiest situation you've ever been in with a boss? How did you handle it?" And in response to your answer, a behavioral interviewer may even come back with a psychological-sounding follow-up, like, "I see. And how did that make you feel?" or "What was your decision-making process there?" in order to get a clearer idea of how your mind works.
As described in the previous section of this article, the ideal preparation for a behavioral interview is some reflection on what you've learned from difficult situations in your career. Behavioral interviewers are looking for specific examples of your skills in leadership, communication, adaptability, organization and so on – so spend some time before the interview thinking of stories from your life that demonstrate how you've learned and used those skills. The operative word here is "stories" rather than just dry anecdotes. In fact, a dose of genuine conflict or humor can spice up your tales and make them more memorable to the interviewer – provided, of course, that each story's final resolution emphasizes your maturation as a person and an employee.
Sometimes you don't have a whole interview to sell your skills – sometimes your window of opportunity only opens for the length of an elevator ride or a lunch line. These "elevator pitches" require a conversational approach all their own, distinctly different from the techniques used in a formal job interview. The most notable difference is that your audience is only captive for a few seconds, so you've got to know your main points in advance, and have some idea how to get them across clearly in the shortest time possible. At the same time, it won't help to sound artificial or over-rehearsed – so you should aim to know your material well enough to summarize it off the cuff.
The main goal of most elevator pitches is to demonstrate your value to the listener, in order to network, angle for a better position, or just get your name in the mix. An elevator pitch typically follows this general formula:
- A smile, handshake and name – for example, "Nice to meet you, Mr. Smith; I'm Jane Jones. I manage the IT department on the third floor."
- An introductory question about a common problem faced by a specific group of people – for example, "Have you ever noticed that IT professionals have trouble communicating with executives?"
- A specific solution to the problem you've just described, with an explanation of how you're helping – for example, "I act as a liaison between the IT department and other managers, and help clear up any communication confusion that happens."
- An example of a resource or event that demonstrates how knowledgeable you are about the issue – for example, "I also organize monthly meetings where IT staff and executives can air their complaints and learn from each other. The next one is this Thursday at noon, and you're welcome to join."
- A statement of passion that closes your pitch and leaves a positive impression – for example, "I've worked in IT and on executive teams, and I love helping them understand each other better. Plus, it's great that this company is so open to new ideas for making that communication even stronger."
After that, all that's left – provided you've gotten a reasonably good response from the listener – is to hand over your business card, shake hands and smile, and wish the listener a great day. As long as you keep your pitch short and sweet, keep it focused on helping the company, and convey honest passion for your work there, you'll be surprised how receptive many managers are to pitches like this.
When an employer asks to schedule an interview with you, you'll probably be expecting an in-person meeting – but some employers are increasingly relying on video interviews to save time. Many career coaches recommend politely declining requests to interview you via Skype or other video platforms, for a number of reasons.
Some of these reasons are technical: Dropped connections can interrupt the call in the middle of an important question or answer, the use of a webcam and a Skype window makes it difficult to maintain eye contact, and it's easy for both the interviewer and the interviewee to get distracted and pulled away from the screen at inopportune moments. A request for a Skype interview also conveys a lack of investment in you as a candidate. Even if there's high competition for the position, a serious interviewer should at least be willing to spend a few minutes with you in person – and it can be much more difficult for you to really engage with the interviewer if you're not in the same room.
If an interviewer tries to talk you into a Skype interview, it's probably best to respond that you're happy to come down to the office in person. This conveys that you're willing to invest your time in the interview, without directly criticizing the interviewer's desire to conduct the interview online. You can also point out that you've gotten other requests for online interviews (if this is true) and that you prefer to meet with interviewers in person instead. This will ultimately work in your career's favor: A company that flat-out refuses to schedule an in-person interview with you isn't likely to take you very seriously as an employee.
Getting fired doesn't have to hurt your long-term career prospects – and in some cases, it may be more of a reflection on your former employer than it is on you. Employees get fired for a whole host of reasons – downsizing, relocation, or a poor fit with a company's culture – and many of those reasons have nothing to do with your value to other companies. As long as the termination wasn't in response to some wilful wrongdoing on your part, you can almost always find ways to spin it in a positive light in future interviews.
One of the most common ways to put a positive spin on a previous termination is simply to explain that the job wasn't an ideal fit for you. While it's never a good idea to badmouth a particular boss, company or department in an interview, it's totally reasonable to explain that your skillset wasn't a good match for the position. In fact, if you lead with your credentials and experience, you can even point out that you were overqualified for your position at that company, and that they didn't have the infrastructure to take full advantage of your talents (be specific about those talents, of course). As the writer of this article remembers, "An executive I know was about to be dumped by his boss because in the boss's judgment, the exec wasn't performing well. Before the boss could actually fire him, two other departments in the company started bidding for the exec. He is now comfortably esconced in a better job with a better boss."
No matter why you were fired, though, it pays to come to a clear conclusion about the reason as you prepare for your next interview – because one answer no interviewer wants to hear in response to the question, "Why were you fired?" is, "You know, I'm really not sure." Even if you got fired for failing to live up to your boss's expectations, remember that that's still based on someone's subjective opinion – so form your own opinion and state it confidently in your next interview.
Answering interview questions appropriately is one thing – but what if a question itself is inappropriate? Federal law actually prohibits employers from basing their hiring decisions on certain types of answers. For example, it's illegal for an employer to discriminate against you based on your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, physical or mental condition, country of origin or sexual preference. Some types of interview questions, meanwhile, may not be discriminatory, but may still feel inappropriate to you because they probe into private areas of your life. Questions about your salary history, your relationship status and your personal beliefs may fall into this category.
Many career experts agree that the ideal way to deal with an improper interview question is to answer honestly, while sticking to a short answer that relates directly to the interview. If the interviewer asks whether you're in a serious relationship, for instance, you could respond that although you have a girlfriend, you and she both understand that work takes a priority. Or if you're asked how soon you'd be willing to relocate, you can reply that you'll be more than happy to take a look at the company's relocation plan.
Keep in mind, too, that some interviewers ask about topics like nationality and marital status out of simple curiosity, without any discriminatory intent. If you're getting a good vibe from the interview overall, there may not be any harm in sharing a little information about these things. In other words, use your common sense to keep tabs on the tone and context of each question, and answer in a way that makes you comfortable.
The old "you're overqualified" rejection can be one of the most irritating follow-ups to a successful interview. As the writer of this article says, "When I was told that after an interview, several thoughts went through my frustration-fogged mind… What kind of crazy excuse is that for not hiring me? So what if I'm 'overqualified' — don't employers always want to hire the person with the best qualifications? If I'm will ng to take this job, overqualified or not, why is that a problem? This isn't fair! What's the real reason they don't want to hire me?"
Employers tend to brand a candidate as "overqualified" due to some specific concerns. They may be worried that you'll get bored in a position that doesn't challenge you; that you'll ask for a raise or a promotion before long – or, worse yet, leave for a better position – and that they'll be left with the time-consuming tasks of hiring and training your replacement. Thus, if you're concerned about getting that "overqualified" stamp, your best bet is to raise that point in the interview and soothe the employer's concerns yourself.
For example, you could point out, "I know I've held some job titles higher than this one – but the truth is, this job is really interesting to me," then go into specifics about why you're interested in working for this particular company. You can also mention that salary and rank used to be your highest priorities, but these days you're more focused on finding a work environment where you feel like part of the team. As with all interview questions, the key is to answer honestly while keeping the conversation focused on your value as an employee. If you've got genuine passion for the position in question, let that excitement shine through, and it'll often overpower the interviewer's overqualification concerns.
Even if your interview went extremely well, most companies won't follow up with you on their own – which means it's up to you to keep yourself in the running. Following up demonstrates that you're genuinely interested in the position, and committed to the idea of working for the company. It also showcases some qualities that employers are looking for in a candidate: Dedication, goal-orientedness and attention to detail. Since most of the other candidates will be following up and displaying these qualities, you'll want to demonstrate them in a way that draws the employer's attention to your own unique strengths.
The simplest form of follow-up is a phone call. Make sure you get through to the actual person who interviewed you – or, if you get his or her voicemail, leave a friendly message asking to speak with him or her. If you don't hear back within a few days, follow up again – at this point you've got nothing to lose by persisting, as long as you do so politely. Once you've got the person on the line, explain that you really enjoyed the interview, and are excited to start work as soon as possible. If the interviewer expresses any concerns, address them head-on, as you did in the interview.
Some career coaches also recommend sending a thank-you card or professional letter by mail. These options are far more effective than email – and, arguably, even then a phone call – because they demonstrate your willingness to invest significant amounts of time and attention toward your goals. The main downside of these options is that, unlike a phone call, they can take a few days to reach the employer – days in which other candidates can make their cases. If you decide to send a card or letter, make sure it mentions a few details about the interview and position, to prove that you were paying close attention.
In today's high-volume job market, a growing number of employers are bypassing the traditional interview process entirely, and selecting candidates via speed interviews. As with the Skype interviews discussed earlier in this article, speed interviews may convey a lack of investment in your potential as a candidate – but on the other hand, some large and successful firms vet candidates almost entirely through this approach; especially at lower levels of their organizations. Speed interviews function almost exactly like speed dating: You'll only have a few minutes to make a positive impression with each interviewer before you're hurried on to the next one – so make sure you're well-groomed, attentive, and prepared with your elevator pitch, as discussed earlier in this article.
Another common variation on the traditional interview is the second (i.e., follow-up) interview. On the one hand, a second interview is a great sign, because it means you're one of a narrow selection of viable candidates, and may even have a chance of getting an offer immediately if the interview goes well. At the same time, though, a second interview means the pressure's ramping up, and the interviewer is likely to ask you more pointed, difficult questions than in the first round. One thing you can do to prepare for a second interview is do some additional background research on the company – find out more about their current goals, recent acquisitions, client roster and so on, and tailor your answers in relation to these specifics. Also, if you established any common ground with the interviewer in the first round, be sure to revisit that.
You can also put interviews to work for you – and in fact, as you rise in the ranks and compete for positions with higher stakes, you'll want to schedule informational interviews with experts in the field, such as consultants, recruiters and high-ranking executives. Many informational interviews focus on questions about career paths, common problems and solutions in your field, and trends in the industry. Keep in mind that relationships like this are reciprocal – so if you can offer the expert some loyal support or any other professional benefit, you're much more likely to gain a consistent source of useful insights about your field.
The Top Interview Questions Designed to Eliminate You — A list of common questions designed to trip you up, along with suggestions for answering each one.
Are You Ready for a Behavioral Interview? — Tips and tricks for showcasing your best qualities in a behavior-based interview.
Elevator Speech Do's and Don'ts — An extensive list of specific points to consider when preparing your elevator pitch.
Getting Fired Is A State of Mind — How to handle a termination, including tips for turning it into a net positive for your career.
Handling Illegal Interview Questions — A list of sample answers to inappropriate interview questions.
Are You Overqualified for This Job? — A detailed sampling of possible responses to the overqualification issue.