Acing the interview

Sunday May 14th 2000 by Chris Miksanek
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Experience and a hot job market won't cinch a new job if you lack the skills to nail the interview.

" Though a prospective employer has exhausted significant resources to pre-qualify you and the actual interview is generally just a formality, there are still some common interview faux pas that could jeopardize a formal offer...

Read on >
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Illustration: Daniel Guidera

Fidgeting with your tie, swallowing constantly to help relieve a dry throat, and spending the duration wriggling in your chair. That was your father's interview.

In today's market, the interview process is a slam-dunk with you in the driver's seat and you're cool as the proverbial cucumber. It's a seller's market and just about anyone who has been called in for an interview already has the job. So while the interview is little more than a formality--do you mesh with the team dynamics, do you fit the corporate culture, do you "smell good"--it still represents your one and only chance to blow a sure thing.

So what can you do to ace the interview, aside from ensuring your hair's combed and you don't have any breakfast remnants visible between your teeth when you flash your "I'm-glad-to-be-here-and-I-hope-we-can-work-something-out introductory smile"?

For starters, don't take anything for granted. Interviewers come in many flavors, and you need to impress them with your ability to assimilate and function in just about any environment.

To that end, we've outlined the two primary phases of the interview process: what might you expect and how might you respond.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression...unless the company is really desperate

Within the first 30 seconds of meeting you, interviewers have pretty much made up their minds about whether or not you've started out on the right foot. Comments like, "I had a hell of a time finding parking," or, "Man, that dress makes you look hot," would be considered "demerits." Instead, open your dialog with cordiality like, "Your directions were great, I had no problem finding your office," or, "Wow, your lunchroom coffee is great. I just wish I wore the jacket with bigger pockets to take more packets home."

"And never underestimate the effect of your appearance," says Jerri Hirch, lead programmer for the "Barbie Magic Hair Styler" and "Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover" products.

"Technical interviewees might want to consider a shiny new pair of Birkenstock's and a politically correct Hawaiian shirt (read: no hula girls) while older sixties-throwbacks often opt for the simpler no-nonsense image: a clean bowling shirt and sandals made from recycled auto tires," Hirch advises. "At the executive level, an off-the-shelf JC Penney 'Stafford' suit will do fine."

Oh, and don't even think of venturing out without your tin of Altoids, especially after a morning of coffee.

The banter: You can think it, but don't say it

Contrary to what you might have read in a lot of books that purport to know how to interview well, you don't need to know that much about about the company you're applying to. The interview is not a quiz covering last year's revenues; it's their opportunity to ferret-out candidates who just don't fit their corporate mold. To accomplish this, they generally make use of one of three interviewing styles:

The interrogation. "The interrogation puts you on the offensive, and you must think before you speak," says HR consultant Ray Nicolet, formerly an agent with the ATF. "Your interview will probably be taped to, they'll say, 'protect both parties,' but that's just their way of implying every phrase you'll utter will be parsed later on for its most negative connotation. Keep cool, speak purposefully. Their goal is to see how you operate under pressure dealing with upper-management who are themselves very often intimidating."

Here, according to Nicolet, is how a sample interrogation might transpire:

Nicolet: Take a seat
You: Thanks.
Nicolet: I see a gap here on your resume. Where were you the period between May of 1980 and September of that same year?
You: Well, that was my junior year in college and basically that was what we called our "summer break."
Nicolet: And you have someone to corroborate that?
You: I suppose you can call my mother.
Nicolet: She's not listed here as one of your references. Why's that? Don't you think it's odd that she appears to be the only one who can substantiate your claim but yet, you didn't want our HR department to speak with her?

Illustration: Daniel Guidera
Chris Miksanek

You: Well, the references I provided are professional references, people I've worked with over the past twenty years.
Nicolet: Here at Iserman's Scrap Metal, we deal with a lot of valuable materials and information. You know, iron is up to thirty cents a pound so we reserve the right to check employee briefcases each evening when they leave for the day. You have to understand we screen candidates very carefully.
Your thought bubble: And you have to understand I have two more interviews scheduled today.
You: Yes, I understand. I think I've taken enough of your time already. Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon.
Nicolet: We'll be in touch, but in the meantime, don't leave town.

The Dick Caveat. Mike Douglas, interviewer emeritus, picks-up a few extra bucks presenting a session at career fairs in the Midwest on the art of being interviewed. "There is a style of interviewing," Douglas says, "which we call the Dick Caveat. It's a way to trip-up the interviewee. You get them comfortable, ask them to tell you about themselves, then spring a question to get them squirming. The trick is to get them to reveal more about their private life than their professional life. The interviewee has to always be on guard to keep the discussion professional."

Douglas offers the following hypothetical interview transcription to all the attendees of his session (the first hundred also get a pen with his autograph etched on it):

Douglas: Don Lange, everyone. Welcome, it's good to see you again.
Your thought bubble: Again? I've never seen this man before in my life.
You: Well, Mike, it's nice to be here.
Douglas: So what have you been working on lately?

You: Well, I spent the last six months managing an application conversion.
Douglas: I understand you brought a PowerPoint presentation clip. Do you need to set this up?
You: Well, basically, what you're gonna see are the three foils where I project the two-year application maintenance savings.
Douglas: OK, Don, we're gonna see that clip right now.
Your thought bubble: Good grief!
Douglas: Excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the presentation. What're you working on next?
Your thought bubble: Well, now that's really up to you, now isn't it?
You: Well, I'm looking forward to taking some time off to spend up in the mountains...
Douglas: Like a Ted Kazinski thing? You enjoy writing?
(Canned laughter)
You: Not exac....
Douglas: Hey, we have to take a break right now...
Your thought bubble: If he needs to use the rest room, why doesn't he just excuse himself like anyone else instead of announcing it to the whole cubicle bay?
Douglas: ... stick around, Frank Gorshin's up next to answer the question, "whatever happened to that 70's singer with the hit, 'I Will Survive?'"

The Kumbaya Attack. The most dangerous interview is the campfire interview. "The campfire interview, also called the 'Kumbaya Attack,' is a mind game," says Shawn Chopek, who is not a psychologist but was a big fan of the old Bob Newhart show. "The interviewee has to be on his toes like a ballerina." A campfire interviewer comes-off not as an administrator, colleague, or even peer, but as a friend--a buddy you can confide with. But as with the Interrogation-or Dick Caveat-style, the goal is the same: to break through the professional fagade and ensure the potential employee will fit into the corporation. "Keep it professional," Chopek says, "the Kumbaya attacker is adept in psychoanalysis. Your pauses, segues, and body language reveal a lot of what you're thinking, as the following sample dialog illustrates:"

Interviewer: Hello, Don. It's good to finally meet you.
You: Thanks, I appreciate your time. May I sit down?
Interviewer: Sure. Or stand, if that makes you more comfortable. Kick-off your shoes, whatever.
You: This guest chair will be fine.
Interviewer: So, Don, how are you doing?
You: You mean, right now? In general? Or, career-wise?
Interviewer: It's actually just rhetorical. Does that question make you uncomfortable?
Your Thought Bubble: What's this guy's trip?
Interviewer's Thought Bubble: I'm sensing some resistance here.
Your Thought Bubble: I might be wrong, but it looks like this guy is giving me the evil eye.
Interviewer's Thought Bubble: I am feeling some cynicism. I need to earn his trust. Maybe I should tell him how we are industry leaders.
Your Thought Bubble: Industry leader, yea, right. I read you just extended domestic benefits to pet fish.
Interviewer's Thought Bubble: And how does that make you feel?
Your Thought Bubble: I don't know.
Interviewer's Thought Bubble: Are you having problems putting your thoughts into words?
You: No. I'm just having trouble resisting the temptation to take your eyeglasses off and jam the temple in your neck.
Interviewer: Good, good, it sounds like you have some anger control issues, but you're opening up.
You: Really, I am more interested in talking about your company.
Interviewer: We'll get to that, but why did you really leave your last job?
You: It's on my application there. I got laid-off.
Interviewer: Yes, yes, I read that, but really, why did you leave?
You: Because they eliminated my job.
Interviewer: Yes, I understand that is your reality of what happened, but why did you stop going to work?
You: Basically, because they took my key card away, suspended my logon id's, and changed the locks.
Interviewer: Don, c'mon. There's something you're not telling me.
You Thought Bubble: Yes, there's something I'm not telling you. Please lean closer so I can reach your eyeglasses.
Interviewer's Thought Bubble:I I heard that.

It's a done deal

If you sent a resume in the old days, a company at least had the courtesy to drop you a card acknowledging its receipt and that your application would be kept on file (albeit, circular) for ninety days, etc. Today, employers don't have the time for such considerations. They are desperate to fill vacant IT slots, and they're not flying you all the way out to their HQ just to see if you wear a funny hat. They're already sold on your resume and references, and they want you.

Relax. The interview is just a formality, and if you keep your cool you have nothing to worry about. So unless you were so disliked at your last job that your only reference is your outplacement counselor... it's in the bag! //



Common interview faux pas

Though a prospective employer has exhausted significant resources to pre-qualify you, and the actual interview is generally just a formality, there are still a lot of things you can do to jeopardize what would otherwise be a formal offer.

Avoid these temptations:

Stealing office supplies BEFORE you actually work there. Neither should you, in the event the interview goes bad, use their Ricoh to make additional copies of your resume.

Name dropping. An interview is a time for the employer to get to know you, it's not a time for you to mention your brush with Larry Ellison at a Jimmy Buffett concert or spew lofty enigmatic quotes like, "I've always subscribed to Alan Napier's philosophy that 'not only do you have to do the right thing, but you have to also do the thing right." Besides, in the case of the former, there were fifteen-thousand people between you and Ellison; and, in the case of the latter, it's only a matter of time before someone realizes Alan Napier was the guy who played Alfred on the TV show, "Batman!"

Being flippant. In this age of startups, more and more executives tend to be young. Inevitably, you'll be asked a question like, "how would you feel working for a fifteen-year-old?" Pausing for even a moment to either compose a witticism or to discard the one you almost shared will damn you. Also, practice your response to the oft-asked, "where do you want to be five years from now" question. If your answer is, "In five years, the statute of limitations will have run out, so I hope to move back to Indiana to be with my family again," you're not trying hard enough.

The interview is a time to be serious. Save the wisecracks for the company's internal employee satisfaction surveys.

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