Interviewing, part 3: Curveballs and questionable questions

The purpose of a job interview is to determine whether or not you are suitable to join a company’s team.  How the interviewer figures that out, however, can be unusual, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright odd.  It can also be illegal.  You need to be prepared for when the interview goes in an unexpected direction.

You expect to be asked about your experience, skills, education, and training during a job interview.  You may not be expecting some of the tools that companies use in their hiring process to find the best candidates for the job,  though.  Some companies will ask you to take a personality test (to see what you are really like), submit a handwriting sample (to be analyzed by handwriting experts), have your picture taken (so that others who are involved in the hiring process can see what you look like),  or something equally strange.  These questions and tests are perfectly legal, even if they seem a bit unusual.

What about questions that are not legal?

There are some questions that are not permitted, by law, to be asked of an applicant.  Although they vary from state to state, they generally fall somewhere in the following list:

  • Age
  • Gender, sex, or sexual preference
  • Race, ethnicity, or heritage
  • Disability
  • Faith or religious beliefs
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy or children

There are a few more for serving military veterans:

  • Classification of discharge
  • Military related disability status (particularly PTSD)
  • Post-military benefits status (healthcare, pension, etc.)
  • Whether you are in the National Guard and Reserves

Professional interviewers are well aware of which questions are permitted and which are not.  Not all interviews are conducted by professional hiring managers, though.  Many are conducted by small business owners, retail store managers, restaurant chefs, or anyone in business who needs to staff a position in their organization.  These interviewers may ask a question that they shouldn’t without realizing it, but even though they don’t know the law they are still required to follow it.

There is another possibility, too.  The person conducting the interview may be asking you questions that they know are illegal but they ask them anyway.

Regardless of the circumstance, when one of these questions is laid on the table it is up to you to figure out what to do about it.  You have about a millisecond to decide whether you will answer it or not.  How much do you want the job?  That it what it all boils down to in the end.  If you stonewall, refuse to answer, or debate the legality of the question with the interviewer the probability of you landing the job will rapidly approach zero.  However, if you feel that the interviewer is crossing the line intentionally, then perhaps the company is not really a place where you would like to work anyway.

You have to ask yourself the simple question: “Is answering that question worth getting a job with this company?”  If you answer yes, then do as you are asked.  If not, then don’t.  It is a simple as that.  The downside is that you are certainly guaranteeing that you won’t get the job.  Do you have to answer an illegal question or fulfill an odd request?

Nope.  You can say no.  And probably not get the job.  It is up for you to decide.

__________

Lessons Learned:

– Not everyone conducting an interview is a professional.  They may ask questions that they shouldn’t out of ignorance.

– There are illegal questions, unusual questions, and uncomfortable questions.  Regardless of where those questions lie on the spectrum, it is up to you as to whether or not to answer them.

– There are some questions that pertain specifically to serving military and veterans.  Your military and VA benefits are personal in nature, as is any pension of disability payment that you receive.  Disclosing any of that information is up to you, should any such questions come up.

– It all boils down to how much you want to work at the company.  Questions may be asked innocuously, and making a big deal out of it will likely cost you a job offer.

Not so traditional job interviews, part 2: Lunch, Dinner, and Cocktails

There are many kinds of interviews, and we have covered quite a few of them thus far.  Today we are going to take a trip to your hiring manager’s favorite restaurant or bar and learn about just how similar interviewing for a job is with a drink or a cheeseburger in your hand is to a traditional interview.

Just how similar is it, you ask?

It is a little similar.  And it is completely, totally, and utterly different at the same time.

It is similar to all interviews in that the goal of the interview never changes: the company wants to fill a staffing need and you want to find a job.

That’s about where the similarity ends.  The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details to an interview in a bar or a restaurant.  Trust me.

Why would a company want to conduct an interview outside the office?  There are a lot of reasons, but we’ll drill down into four significant ones:

  • First, you may not be able to get your schedules to align during working hours, and the hiring manager may simply find it easier to interview you outside the normal workday.
  • Second, it may be a small company.  Small companies often don’t have hiring managers, or may not even have managers at all.  Small business owners may be busy running their businesses during normal hours and the only way they can squeeze interviews in is to meet with you for a meal or a drink.
  • Third, the company may still be feeling you out.  The interviewing process is often a lengthy one that may begin with a phone call that is followed by a lunch meeting and then, if things go well, a more formal interview at the firm.
  • Fourth, the company may be seeing what kind of person you are outside the formal interviewing arena.  They want to observe your manners, your social awareness, etiquette, etcetera.  This is particularly the case for positions that place the employee in the public’s view, because the firm doesn’t want to hire a caveman to represent them in the business world.  It is also an opportunity for the company to evaluate how well you will fit into their culture by observing you in a social environment.

Regardless of the circumstance under which you find yourself in this type of interview, the most important thing to remember is that you are being observed, evaluated, and judged from the second you meet up to the second that you leave.  Don’t forget it!

The best way to proceed with an interview at a restaurant is to treat it like a date.  You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of a prospective significant other, and you certainly don’t want to look like an idiot in front of a potential employer.  This type of interview is one where you can really make a knockout impression or have the opposite effect of making the person across the table run screaming out the door.

The choice is yours.

The basics in dating apply to lunch or dinner with a hiring manager.  Dress nicely, just as you would for an interview, show up a few minutes early, and double check yourself in your car’s rearview mirror before you get out of the car.  It is always embarrassing to find out after it is all over that your necktie was crooked or that your was hair is sticking up like Don King’s.

You should also do a little homework about the restaurant before you go.  Look at their menu online, and decide what you would like ahead of time.  The hiring manager probably uses the restaurant routinely and knows exactly what to order and it will be awkward for you if you are stumped by what to order when the waiter shows up.  I recommend that you order a salad because it is easy to eat with a knife and fork (not your hands!) and will not put you in the awkward position of trying to eat the world’s greasiest cheeseburger without making a mess out of yourself in front of your interviewer.

That brings me to a significant point about military people, food, and table manners.  Most military folks view consuming food as a method of calorie loading: we need to feed the machine to keep the machine going.  We eat too fast, talk while we eat, and generally just shovel it in, starting on one side of the plate and stopping when we run out of food on the other side.  Not only is this not a way to impress a date, it is certainly not a way to impress an interviewer.

Remember your manners: be polite to everyone (including your server!), use the proper utensils (don’t eat everything with your spoon because of years and years of experience eating rations with the issued plastic spoon), and SLOW DOWN!  A good rule of thumb is to take a bite, chew it at least ten times, swallow, and then take another bite.  Take small bites and pace how quickly you eat your meal with the interviewer.  You will be talking through the meal, and it is quite embarrassing to try to answer a question right after you shove half of a steak into your gaping maw.  To help with this, try paying attention to yourself the next time you eat alone — I’ll bet you will be surprised at how much the military lifestyle has affected your table manners as you mow down French fries like a belt fed machine gun.

Treat your interviewer with the same deference and respect as you would a date.  Allow them to be seated first, and follow their lead in ordering.  Avoid alcohol and drink sparkling water or iced tea.  Remember, you are being evaluated through the entire process, and if they sense that you are a three martini lunch kind of person then you will likely find yourself pursuing an interview with another company.

Place your napkin in your lap and keep your elbows off the table.  As with a date, it is a good idea to have some topics of conversation ready.  Lunch and dinner interviews tend to be a bit more informal and social, and the hiring manager is feeling you out to see if you are a social match with the company in addition to asking about your skills.  Remember the rules of the military mess: do not discuss politics, religion, or sex. Any one of those topics will be a guaranteed job loser.  Even if the interviewer initiates a conversation on one of those topics do your absolute best to steer the discussion back to the company and your interest in working there.  One thing that may help is reading the newspaper before you go to the interview or listening to the news on the radio in order to have something to chat about when you need to fill some time.

Here are a couple of other do’s and don’ts:  don’t complain about the food (do you want to look like a whiner?), don’t get a to-go box for your uneaten food (you will look cheap), don’t order dessert unless the interviewer does, and lastly do be both appreciative and gracious when he or she picks up the tab.  It is assumed that the company is paying the bill, but it is good form to be thankful for the free lunch or dinner that you just enjoyed.

So there are some tips for an interview over a meal, but what about an interview in a bar or lounge?  That is again similar, but also different.

Think of being interviewed in a bar as the same as running through a minefield in your underwear — it can be both embarrassing and potentially lethal for your career.  You can do just fine, however, if you treat it as an interview the entire time you are in the bar.  My recommendation is to order one drink and nurse it all night.  The best drink to order is a Gin and Tonic because you can just keep topping it off with tonic or soda water and nobody will ever know.  Keep the conversation clean and on topic, and even if the interviewer gets hammered don’t give into temptation to join him down the boozy trail!

You may be interviewed in a bar for the same reasons as you would be for a meal, but now you have the added factor of involving alcohol.  This is a big deal because we all act differently after a few shots of loudmouth juice.  Here how an interview at a bar can change everything:

A prospective employee spends an afternoon interviewing with a company.  He meets people at varying levels of the company and impresses them all with his savvy demeanor and job skills.  So much so, he thinks, that they invite him out for drinks after work.

While having a few cocktails he shifts out of “jobseeker” mode and back into “military” mode, complete with a liberal sprinkling of the “F” bomb and barracks humor.  He had a great time, but was very surprised when he was informed that he would not be working at the company.

The trip to the bar was part of the interview.  They wanted to see what the interviewee was like outside the office, and they learned enough to know that he was not someone that they wanted in their firm.  He blew his shot because he was not savvy enough to see that rule number one of interviewing is that the interview is not over until you start working at the company or they tell you to go away.

Now that is a lesson worth learning.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  You are being evaluated the entire time that you are being interviewed, from the moment you walk into the restaurant until the moment you leave.  There are many more things to get wrong in this environment, so limit your possible mistakes by preparing before you go.  Check the restaurant location and menu online before you leave home.

2.  Be ready for some chitchat, but stay away from politics, religion, and sex.

3.  Be polite to everyone.  The interviewer will notice if you are a jerk to the waiter and you will NOT get a job offer.  I guarantee it.

4.  Eat a salad.  Avoid the Monster Burger.

5.  Manners, manners, manners!  Slow down.  Bite, chew, swallow, repeat.  Don’t shovel in your chow like it is the last MRE you will ever eat.

6.  Be gracious and don’t forget to mention how much you enjoyed lunch or dinner in your thank-you note.

7.  If alcohol is involved, order one drink and nurse it.  Keep the barracks language and humor at the barracks.  It has no place in the business world.

Not so traditional job interviews, Part 1: The Phone (or Skype) Interview

So you have sent in your resume and heard back from the hiring manager.

That’s great!

She would like to  interview you as soon as possible.

That’s even better!

Over the phone.

Um, ok, you think.  Sounds good.  That should be easy.

Au contraire, my friend.  Interviews over the phone are not simple and you can certainly screw one up.  They are not easy to get right and take just as much preparation  as a face to face meeting, at least they are if you want to succeed and get the job.

There are countless reasons why a company may want to interview an applicant over the phone, or perhaps over Skype or another video interfacing system.  The company may be on the other side of the country or even the other side of the planet, and a phone call is infinitely cheaper than a plane ticket and a hotel room.  The hiring manager may be travelling.  You may be travelling.  A common reason may be that the company’s hiring process begins with a phone interview to determine whether or not you are worth bringing to the office for a second look.

Regardless of the reason, a phone or Skype interview is still a job interview, and just because you are not going to the company headquarters is no reason not to adequately prepare.  You should do your research, review your resume, and rehearse with someone using a phone or Skype.  After all, you want the job, don’t you?

The heart of the interview is the interaction between you and the hiring manager of the firm.  Having a telephone or laptop screen between you and the person on the other side changes the venue, but the content is pretty much the same.

What a phone interview is not, however, is easier.  Here are a few reasons why:

First off, you don’t get a sense of the company or the interviewer that you would normally pick up by walking through the lobby, meeting a few people, and shaking hands with the hiring manager.  Instead, you are going from zero to sixty in the few seconds between “Hello?” and “Let’s get started.”

Secondly, it can seem deceptively informal and easy.  So easy, in fact, that you may not take a preparation as seriously as you would for a “real” interview.  It is over the phone, so why not do it in your pajamas?  Or over Skype, so all you need to do is put on a nice shirt and maybe a tie, right?  Again, au contraire.

The worst thing you can do in any interview situation is to be unprepared or not take it seriously.  Sure, you can do the interview in your underwear if you want and the hiring manager will never know.  Sure, you can watch Sportscenter with the sound turned down and the hiring manager will never know.  You will know, however, and it will affect the interview.  And not in a good way.  You need to get your mind right, steer clear of distractions, and focus.

Here are some recommendations that will help you have a successful phone or Skype interview:

Most importantly, prepare for the interview in exactly the same manner as you would for a traditional interview.  Get a haircut (they can still see you on Skype, after all, and getting a haircut is never a bad thing), wear your interview suit and tie or blouse and slacks, research the company, and review your resume.  Be ready fifteen minutes before it starts, and clear your mind in order to focus on the interviewer and the questions that you will be asked.

Prepare a location for the interview.  The interviewer is likely in their office, but you can be pretty much anywhere.  That said, driving down the freeway or sitting at your child’s soccer game are remarkably bad ideas for obvious reasons.  The hiring manager is devoting their time exclusively to you in order to determine if you would fit in their company, so the least you can do is reciprocate.

You should find a place that is quiet, has good lighting, and is as office-like as possible.  Sit at the kitchen table as opposed to on the couch, for example.  We are all creatures of habit, and if you are lounging on the couch as opposed to sitting at a desk or table you may well act or sound like you are sitting on a couch as opposed to a desk or a table.  Clear everything away except a copy of your resume and your notepad and a bottle or glass of water.  No distractions!

For a Skype interview you need to go a step or two farther.  What does the background look like?  It should be bland or uninteresting, if possible.  Is the light coming from behind you?  From the front or side?  Remember, the interviewer is going to see you and your surroundings, and if the light makes you look like Bela Legosi in a ’40s vampire movie it won’t help.  Your Twisted Sister poster collection is also not the best background, either.

Back to the interview.  Make sure that the quiet place you have found stays quiet: turn off your mobile phone, the dishwasher, television, radio, and everything else that makes noise.  Put a post-it note over your doorbell telling visitors to not ring the doorbell and to come back later.  Use your land phone line if at all possible, too.  You don’t want to drop the call or have a poor connection because that will only reflect negatively on you.  Have a copy of your resume laid out in front of you, take a deep breath, and call the hiring manager exactly on time.

Close all apps and programs on your computer for a Skype interview.  You don’t want to be distracted by emails or instant messages popping up on the screen during the interview, and the interviewer will instantly recognize that you are ignoring them and reading something else that popped up on your screen.  That is a guaranteed job offer killer.

Start the interviewer by introducing yourself, and then follow interviewer’s lead from there.  Lead off with something like “Good morning!  This is Mike, and I am calling in for the interview…”

From there the interview is similar to the traditional style, except that you cannot really gauge the interviewer’s mood, expressions, or mannerisms.  Skype offers a little insight because you can see the interviewer’s face, but that is about it.

Remember to keep your answers short, in the thirty second to two minute range, and speak slowly.  A big part of listening is seeing the other person’s mouth as they speak, and that obviously is not the case over the phone. Being interviewed is anxious business, and you may unintentionally speak faster than normal which can result in the interviewer not understanding what you are saying.  To help with this, try taking a breath after hearing each question, restate the question to yourself in your mind, and then start talking.  It will make you appear thoughtful (which is good) and articulate (which is also good).  Remember, the hiring manager has done countless interviews, and you want to make a solid impression, not sound like a knucklehead.

The same rules apply for Skype, except remember that you are on camera during the interview.  Sit up straight, look at the interviewer on the computer screen when she is talking and at the camera when you are answering.  Also, be conscious of what you are doing with your hands.  A famous actor once said that one of the hardest things about acting is knowing what to do with your hands, and that applies to interviews as well.  Put them in your lap or sit on them if you need to, because if you fidget or pick at your nails all the interviewer will see on the screen is you fidgeting or picking your nails.  You don’t want to distract the interviewer.

As the interview draws to a close make sure to thank the interviewer for her time and make sure that you close out the call professionally.  Again, we are all prisoners of our past experiences, and if you say goodbye on the phone by saying pithy things like “Later!” or “Out here…” then the last impression the hiring manager will have of you is not particularly professional.  A simple “Thank you for your time today. Goodbye!” will go a long way.

As with all interviews make sure to follow up with a thank you note.  It is fine to send an email immediately, but go that extra classy mile and send a note in the mail too.  It is important, expected, and if you don’t you will be viewed as less desirable than those who do send in thank you notes.

__________

Lessons Learned.

1.  A phone or Skype interview is just as important as a traditional interview.  It is imperative that you treat is as such.  Make sure to thoroughly prepare, get dressed in your interviewing clothes, and be on time.

2.  Tips for preparing an interview setting: sit at a desk or table, sit up straight, use your land line, have some water and your resume at hand, and for a Skype interview check out your background and how the lighting affects your on-screen appearance.

3.  Take a breath, restate the question, and then provide answers in the thirty second to two minute range.  Try not to talk too fast!

4.  Make sure that there are no distractions, and turn off apps, televisions, mobile phones, or anything else that could interrupt your interview.

The next step: getting ready for job interviews

So you’ve written a dynamite resume and married it with the perfect cover letter, and after sending it off to the company where you want to work, you receive the much-anticipated call.  The firm would like to invite you to an interview!

It is a thrilling feeling when the phone rings and the hiring manager is on the other end of the line  – kind of like having having someone you like say “yes” when you ask them out on the first date.  It is also slightly terrifying – also kind of like having someone you like say “yes” when you ask them out on the first date.  Seemingly thousands of thoughts race through your head: what to wear?  when should I arrive?  what does the company expect from me?  what will the interview be like?

It can be overwhelming, but in the next few posts we will take deeper look at the various types of interviews that companies employ to find the right employees.  Some are very traditional, such as meeting the hiring manager in his or her office, and some are very eclectic, with such hoops to jump through as impromptu essay writing, math quizzes, and team building exercises.

The long and the short of it is that all of the work that you have done to this point – researching the company, writing a resume, crafting a cover letter, and sending it in – is wasted unless you can close the deal in the actual interview.

Before we get into the individual interviews and how best to prepare for them, we first need to go over some basics.

Remember always that the purpose of the interview is for the company to fill a need in their organization.  It is never about what a great person you are.  That said, if you fit the need of the company, then you are likely to be hired.  That’s right, you are likely to be hired.

Why is that?  Why only likely?

I’m glad you asked.  Your skills and talents are what got you the interview in the first place.  In the eyes of the company, they are bringing you in and expending resources (in terms of the interviewer’s time, maybe lunch, or maybe even airfare and a hotel room) because you look good on paper and are worthy of a closer look.  Your resume opened the door, but it is up to you to go through it and secure a job offer.

Simply put, the interview is more about how you will fit in with the company’s culture and the way things are done there than your skills.  They want to see how you articulate yourself, how you dress, what your manners and mannerisms are like.  They want to see if you trim your fingernails or pick your nose or scratch yourself in awkward places, or if you project the image that the company wants.  That is what the interview is really all about.

So in the next few posts we will look at how to prepare for specific types of interviews, but before that let’s look at things that pertain to all interviews.

First off is personal hygiene.  Ask someone you know and respect of the opposite sex how you look.  Don’t ask your mom or dad (because they still think of you as a kid in the third grade) but someone who will give you an objective opinion.  Ask them to look at you in terms of a hiring manager.  How does your hair look?   If it is a super-motivated flat-top then you may want to consider growing it out a little bit.  Your posture?  If you slouch in your chair it will project an image of slovenliness.   How do you speak?  If every third work is the “F”-bomb or you use acronyms in every sentence then you need to change your vocabulary.  Do you have any mannerisms that you are not consciously aware of yet are distracting to others, such as drumming your fingers, wiggling your toes, or biting your fingernails?  If so, recognize that you do and make a conscious effort to stop.

Make sure not to take anything that your friend says personally because they are really helping you out.  An unintended benefit is that you may actually pick up on some things that will improve your appearance and help you find a date for Saturday night, but that is an entirely different subject.

Look at how you dress.  As a transitioning military person you likely have a closet full of uniforms and a single navy blue blazer with a rumpled pair of khaki trousers.  That was fine for your time in the military, but it is completely underwhelming in the corporate sector.  Time to do some shopping.

I personally like going to the clothier Joseph A. Bank.  They carry a quality line of professional clothing, and more importantly the staff in the store is there to help you build a complete wardrobe.  This is a bit more challenging than you may realize, but after years and years of wearing exactly the same thing to work has a tendency to dull your fashion sense.  Nobody wants to hire an employee who wears a suit fresh from decades gone by, and just as importantly the sweet threads you wear to a nightclub are definitely not going to make a good impression at your interview.

Talk to the salespeople at the store.  They will show you the current trends in professional attire as well as instruct you on how to coordinate your wardrobe.  Believe it or not, there are color choices outside the green, brown, and khaki palette, and if you choose poorly you will end up looking either comical or color blind.  Swallow your pride and listen to the experts- you will be better looking for it!

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  There is a lot more to interviewing than just showing up at the hiring manager’s office.  Before you show up, you need prepare, and a significant part of preparation centers around how you will come across in the interview.

2.  Have a trusted friend give you an honest evaluation of your appearance, habits, and hygiene.  Then work on your deficiencies and shortfalls.

3.  Get a new set of clothes.  Talk to the pros at a place like Joseph A. Bank, and listen to what they say. You will look a lot more professional, and that will go a long way in presenting a solid impression at your interview.  They also have some wickedly good sales on suits and whatnot- so take advantage of them when you can.