The “traditional” job interview, Part 2: Into the Fire

Hello again!

I left you hanging on the edge of your seat in my last post, and today we are going to finish the traditional job interview story.  We left off with you at the coffee shop making your last minute preparations to cross the street and meet with the interviewer.  So go ahead and finish that donut, wash your hands, check yourself in the mirror to make sure that you don’t have crumbs on your shirt.  Let’s go meet the person who will decide your employment fate!

First off, you need to remember that you are most likely being evaluated the second your hand touches the company’s doorknob.  Maybe even before then, depending on the circumstances of your interview.  Here is a real example of how one company evaluates its candidates:

The firm pays to fly candidates out to their headquarters for personal interviews.  It is a thoughtful company that sends a van with a company driver to meet you at the airport and bring you right up to the company’s front door.  She shows you in, and you are directed over to a receptionist who points you to the floor and room where the interview will be conducted.  After a quick trip on the elevator, you meet another receptionist who confirms you are in the right place and notifies the hiring manager that you are there for the interview.  After a few minutes (and right on time) the hiring manger arrives and you head off to the office for the interview.

If you are not paying attention, you would offhandedly think that your interview started when the hiring manager shook your hand.  You would be wrong – dead wrong.  A part of the company’s hiring process is to see what kind of person you are; how you interact with people like van drivers and receptionists.  The hiring manager will certainly go through the interview process with you, but your performance across the desk from the interviewer is only part of the hiring procedure.

The van driver and the receptionists are asked by the interviewer what kind of person you are.  Are you rude to people you consider beneath your level?  Were you polite?  Did you shake hands?  Were you talking on your mobile phone in the van, and if so, was anything you said indicative of a reason not to hire you?  Did you treat the receptionist professionally?  Nicely?  Would they want you to be somebody that they would work with?

This company is not alone in assessing employment candidates on more than their skills and experience.  Culture and manners matters.  Remember that.  This is particularly important to senior military officers and enlisted people who are transitioning.  When you are a Colonel or a Sergeant Major you are in a position of elevated prestige and responsibility that can make you forget that the people at the bottom of the ladder are people too.  This is not an indictment of senior military people (after all, I used to be one), but it is the way the martial game is played.  As a senior leader it is easy to focus on your peers and immediate seniors and juniors because that is how you do your job and accomplish your mission.  Senior leaders are often so focused on their level that they don’t really see the people many levels below them.

If you treat people at the company like junior subordinates on your way to the job interview it won’t go well.  That way of thinking is archaic in the corporate sector, and you had best be conscious of it or it will severely limit your ability to find a job.

Anyhow, back to the interviewing process.  You walk through the door and meet the receptionist.  Be professional, polite, and shake his or her hand. This is your chance to make a positive first impression.  You don’t need to be artificial or insincere, but just be polite.  A smile goes a long way, too.

From there you are off to meet the hiring manager.  This is where you get a chance to make a second first impression, but this time with the hiring manager instead of the receptionist.  Go in, take the seat that they offer, and get ready to prove why you are the right guy or gal for the job.

Here are a few pointers for those first critical moments of the job interview:

1.  Have a firm, but not crushing, handshake.

2.  Look the interviewer in the eye, and thank them immediately for the opportunity to meet with him or her.  Practice this!!  In your rehearsal make sure to go over what you are going to say when you meet the interviewer so that you don’t get tongue tied.  Something as simple as: “Hi.  I’m Mike, and I want to thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today.”

3.  Don’t come in carrying a bunch of stuff, and turn your mobile phone completely off!  You should have your right hand free to shake the interviewer’s hand, and your left hand should be carrying either a briefcase (which is overkill unless you were asked to bring something along that requires a briefcase) or a nice looking notebook (not a high school spiral notebook or pad of sticky notes, but a folio or pad and paper set that is professional, conservative, and not tattered).  Make sure to have a nice pen – something that looks professional and does not have “SKILCRAFT US GOVERNMENT” stamped on the side.

4.  Focus your attention on the interviewer.  Don’t look around the office like a visitor at a museum.  You are there to get a job, not admire the books on the shelf.

5.  Sit down on the front half of the chair, fold your hands into your lap, and smile.  Don’t kick back, cross your legs, and drape your arms over the chair.  As the interview unfolds you can relax a bit, but if your mannerisms indicate you are a slacker then it does not matter how well you dress- you will be regarded as a well-dressed and unhired slacker.

So now the first few moments are over.  The interviewer is evaluation you on everything you do and say, so keep that in mind.  Don’t bite your fingernails, or pick your nose, or check your phone.  Sit upright, look at the interviewer, and answer his or her questions.

Think of the interview questions as opportunities for you to show why you are qualified and how well you can express yourself.  Don’t turn a question into a monologue by rambling on for five or ten minutes.  In your rehearsal you should focus on answering each question in a period of thirty seconds to two minutes.  Any longer than that and you will likely start to bore the interviewer.  Besides, you probably can’t say anything in ten minutes that you can’t articulate in two.

Don’t try to answer them exactly as you did in your rehearsal, but instead listen closely to the question, take a breath, and then answer it as straightforwardly and honestly as you can.  Leave your military jargon and barracks language at home – nobody, and I mean nobody, in the corporate sector is impressed by the liberal use of the “F”-bomb in an interview.

Also, it is not an interrogation, so it is ok for you to ask a few questions as well.  Just make sure that they aren’t stupid (like “how much will I make?” or “what is the vacation and sick day policy at the company?”).

Make sure to answer the questions that the interviewer asks.  Don’t try to steer the conversation in a different direction, but instead provide the answers that interviewer is looking for.  No BS, either!  If you don’t know an answer or are unsure of what the question is actually asking, be honest and say you don’t know or need the question to be rephrased.  The hiring manager has interviewed countless people before you, and your probability of fooling them with a BS response is about zero.  Plus it will show that you are not the type of person that they want to hire.

During the interview you may be asked if you would like something to drink.  Always ask for water.  That way you won’t have any hot coffee to spill on yourself or carbonation from a soda making you want to burp at exactly the wrong moment.

Be prepared for signals that the interview is wrapping up.  The interviewer may be up front and say that your time is up, or may begin saying things like “Do you have any last questions?”.  When the interview is over, it is over.  Don’t try to push the issue with stupid questions like “what are my chances to be hired?” or “how soon will you let me know your decision?” as they put the interviewer on the spot.  He or she will let you know how you will be contacted – let them lead with the information.  Don’t be needy and try to wheedle it out of them ahead of time.

When it is time to go, stand up, pick up your notebook, and shake the interviewer’s hand.  Thank them again for the opportunity to meet with them, and follow their lead from there.  They may escort you to the receptionist or all the way to the exit.  Feel free to make some small talk on the way out, but do not forget that the interview is not over until you are sitting in your car!  Many jobs have been lost because the interviewee blows it on the way out of the building by doing something stupid (like being rude to a receptionist, throwing the “F”-bomb around, or picking their nose in the hallway).

The last step in the interview is to write and send a thank you note to the interviewer.  No kidding.  A thank you note.  This will show your sincerity as well as cement your desire to work at the company.  Many hiring managers will not hire a person who neglects to send a thank you note.  It is an expectation and an essential element of business correspondence.  If you don’t have any thank you notes at home, stop by a stationery store and pick some up, or even better, have personalized notecards made.  It is a nice touch.


Lessons learned:

1.  The interview is your opportunity to present yourself in the best light possible – dress well, be well groomed, be polite, and use professional language.  Not doing any one of the above will likely result in you not getting a job.

2.  Be respectful and polite to every person you meet.  You should assume that they are part of the hiring team at the company, and if you are rude to the receptionist the word will get out.

3.  The first moments of an interview are critical- don’t blow a shot at a great first impression.  Be on time, well dressed, polite, and turn off your phone!

4.  Answer the questions you are asked- don’t try to BS the interviewer.  Also, answer in a period of thirty seconds to two minutes.  No monologues.

5.  If a drink is offered, make it water.  Coffee, tea, or soda may be more tasty, but you are not there to get  refreshments.  You are there to get a job, and the possibility of disaster through spilled coffee or an errant soda-caused burp are not worth it.


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