The job interview concept
The concept of job interviews is as old as work itself. Someone is seeking a person to work for them, they interview a number of qualified candidates and pick one for the job. Sounds simple, but the amount of preparation and energy that goes into an interview by both the interviewer and the interviewee can be enormous, and could end up a complete waste of time for one, or all of the people involved.
We will look at job interviews from both perspectives, the candidate’s, as well as the interviewer’s perspective.
If you are the candidate:
A job interview can take many characteristics, from a formal interview panel, more common in the public service sector, to an informal chat at the local coffee shop, which is more likely should you be interviewing at a startup. But the most common type of interview is between the hiring manager at a company, and a person interested in the job that is available.
Let’s assume that this is the situation and that you are the person that has been asked to attend an interview.
What should you do to prepare?
A couple of fundamental things that should never be overlooked;
Firstly, NEVER arrive late for a job interview; plan your journey time to allow for all possibilities.
Second, dress appropriately for the company for which you hope to work. This needs a little research on the culture of the company. If you are interviewing at an investment bank in the City of London or Wall Street, then formal business attire is appropriate, whereas an interview for a software engineer in Silicon Valley would require something much more casual, but even at such an interview, jeans and a hoodie may be a bit too casual.
Even if you are feeling nervous, don’t forget to smile and make eye contact when you are greeted. In pre-Covid days, a firm handshake was recommended. Let’s see how socially acceptable that will be in the future.
Your social media:
Even before you arrive at the interview location, communication with the hiring company will set the tone for the interview, and research will likely have been done on you without your knowledge. By the time you arrive, the hiring manager will have received your application and/or resume, so will have an idea of who you are.
But more importantly, your social media presence will tell that person a lot about you.
Nowadays, it’s imperative to have a credible and up-to-date LinkedIn profile, preferably with a good number of recommendations and endorsements.
List your accomplishments proudly, including any voluntary or philanthropic work that you do. While LinkedIn has become the professional platform, part of researching a candidate will now include your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, plus any others that you may have. The company is not stalking you if your profiles are public, and anything that you post about yourself, your friends, your lifestyle, and your activities, could weigh heavily in your favor, or go badly against you.
Do your research:
In your own preparation, one of the first rules is to identify the need of the company. Try to find out a little bit about the position that is open, which can influence the hiring process significantly, or at least the timing. If the department in which the job is located is expanding and you will be part of that increased workforce, then there may not be an immediate urgency to fill the role.
But if you are potentially replacing someone that left the job unexpectedly and things are falling behind, then there will likely be a swift decision.
Assuming that you are technically qualified for the job that is open, expect to be questioned on various aspects of your experience. Answer the questions confidently and positively, give examples as to how you gained your experience, solved problems, and have made positive contributions, and try to end a few of those with a related question back to the interviewer, which illustrates that you are more engaged than simply answering questions.
The more you can turn the job interview into a two-way dialogue, rather than a Q&A session, the more the interviewer will be interested in you and hopefully impressed.
Find out everything you can about the company, read news reports, and do not be afraid to ask tough questions. If you think it’s a great company with a bright future, but it’s struggling to be profitable or has had recent negative press, be sure to challenge the interviewer on those issues.
Come prepared with other questions about the position, the department, and the company in general.
Two questions that I always ask an interviewer are “Tell me about the company’s culture” and “If the perfect candidate were to walk through the door, what would that person look like?” The purpose of the first question is obvious, but the second question will force the interviewer to describe in a few sentences, exactly what they are looking for, and you will know whether or not you are a good match. And the final question from you, if it has not already been offered is “What are the next steps?”
My best and worst job interviews:
I will close with some real examples of my best and worst job interview situations as an interviewee.
My worst job interview was with a large, well-established technology company in Silicon Valley where I was applying for the position of International Treasury Manager.
Early in the interview, the hiring manager said that the position really required an MBA and pointed out that I did not have an MBA. I then wasted a huge amount of energy, trying to convince her that my work experience more than qualified me for the job and that I could bring a level of practical application that would bring much more to the role than the theory learned in an MBA course.
Unfortunately, she was fixated on this aspect and the interview went nowhere except for me to feel demoralized at the end. Maybe I should have recognized this earlier, thanked her for meeting with me, and ended the interview early.
Actually, that would have been the wrong thing to do. Even though the tone was negative for me and I left feeling disappointed, every interview gives you experience and makes you better at presenting yourself and being prepared for difficult situations.
My best job interview was with a regional bank, in which the hiring manager, who was also new to his role at the time, told me honestly “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, this place is really screwed up. My problem is that I don’t know how screwed up it is, which is why I need someone like you to help me figure it out.” Immediately I knew that I wanted the job and wanted to work for that person. I did get the job.
If you are the interviewee, regardless of the level of job for which you are applying, remember to not just ask yourself if you are good enough or qualified enough; also ask yourself if the job is good enough for you.
If you are the interviewer
In the early days of our careers, our experiences with job interviews are always as the interviewee. This can be an intimidating process, for which much preparation is necessary. But as our careers progress, many of us will transcend from the role of the interviewee to that of the interviewer. Let’s assume that you are called upon, or have responsibility for doing a job interview with a candidate.
The first time you are asked to do this can be just as intimidating as being an inexperienced interviewee. Formal training to conduct a job interview is something for which formal training is rarely offered, and you find yourself in a position of power with the ability to influence a decision. One of your first roles as an interviewer may be as a potential peer of the candidate.
An example of this would be when one of your co-workers leaves, and the company is looking to replace that person. The hiring manager asks you to be one of the interviewers. The most important thing here is that the candidate is someone that you are going to have to work with, so you want to be sure that not only is that person competent to do the job and will be a good team member, but that they are also a good personality fit for the department and the demands of the role.
Know the rules
The responsibility increases with your own seniority and the seniority of the role you are looking to fill. Depending on where you are located, there will be different laws to determine what questions you are allowed to ask in an interview.
Here in California, it is illegal to ask anything of a personal nature, and the interviewer must focus solely on the candidate’s education, work history, experience, and skills. While these restrictions are in place for good reasons, principally to protect against discrimination, they can result in a candidate being hired that may not work out, and there is a risk factor in hiring a person that you may not get to know until after they are hired and have started work.
Of course, there is no harm in having a candidate volunteer information, but it is important not to elaborate or question further.
Prepare the interview
If you are not formally trained in how to conduct a job interview, it’s likely that you will learn by experience, and the more interviews you conduct, the better you will become.
As in the role of the interviewee, preparation is paramount to success and even to the way you host the interview.
Firstly, have a clear view of the type of person you want, not just their technical skills and experience, but also their personality and their perceived ability to work with others. Do your research on the candidate, using any information about them that is publicly available, especially their LinkedIn profile.
But no matter how well you may be prepared, you will not be able to make an informed decision before that important in-person meeting. You may form a first impression of the person that may change as the interview progresses.
First impressions and fit
A candidate that is very nervous at the beginning, may not initially create that good impression, but during the interview, as they become more relaxed, more warmth and empathy may emerge. As the host, it helps if you try to put the candidate at ease with pleasant small talk before you start the formal interview.
Aside from technical skills, also focus on the candidate’s soft skills, which include their style of communication and their personality. A very quiet, reserved person may be the perfect hire for the job of a financial analyst, but not for a marketing role. Think about how the candidate is likely to work with yourself, with peers, and with other co-workers.
During the job interview
I generally take a couple of approaches that work well for me.
Firstly, I acknowledge that I have read a summary of the candidate’s experience, but invite them to tell their story in their own words.
Most people are happy to talk about themselves and it gives you an opportunity to ask questions along the way. At the end of their narrative, I ask “so what exactly brings you here today?” which opens the door for them to explain why the job is of interest to them and why they are looking to move on.
I always ask for an example of something in their career to date that makes them feel proud. This is a thought-provoking question and often, people need time to think about it. The answers are always interesting and give some insight into the person’s comfort level in taking risks and acknowledging their success. If they are unable to think of anything, I question their suitability, as everyone should have pride in their accomplishments and be happy to talk about them.
Another question I ask is whether they would have done anything differently. There should be no shame for anyone in revealing a mistake that they may have made and with the benefit of hindsight may have taken a different direction. Risks and failures are good things, provided we learn from them and use those experiences for learning and self-improvement.
Depending on how the interview is progressing, I often ask where they see themselves in five or ten years. There is no right or wrong answer to that question, I am just interested in their goals and vision for themselves.
Finally, encourage the candidate to ask questions.
At the end of the interview, I generally know whether or not I wish to proceed with the candidate and have them interview with other people, or whether I am likely to end the process without taking it further.
Now for some anecdotes of good and bad interviews from my past experience. I remember interviewing to fill a Treasury Management role. My top candidate was a young lady with an incredible educational pedigree and experience with some prestigious companies. This was in the days before social media, so I relied on the resume.
From the information on paper, she was my dream candidate.
The actual interview was one of the shortest interviews I can remember. Despite her qualifications, she had no personality, answered my questions with few words of more than one syllable, did not make eye contact, and had no questions for me. I could not proceed with such a person to work in a very nurturing and collaborative department.
and the good…
One of my best interviews actually had a disappointing moment that I had to overcome.
I was conducting a job interview to fill the role of a financial controller for a fast-growing startup and I was doing all the work myself.
In short, I was getting desperate for help.
I started the interview process in mid-November and quickly narrowed down my choices to two candidates, one of whom was an outstanding person and, in my opinion, a perfect fit for the job.
I called her back to interview with other executives and at the end of that process I offered her the job. She told me that this was also her top choice of company to work for and that she also had an offer from another company. However, she would not be available until January.
So, I was faced with waiting for my top choice person for about five weeks or going with my second choice who could start immediately. I decided to take the short-term loss for the long-term gain and wait until January. It was the right decision.
The job interview is simply part of the process of hiring a person to work for you. It is not a process that anyone should take lightly, as your decision will affect so many lives; your own, the person you are hiring, and the people that the person will be working with. Maybe those days when you were the young interviewee were simpler, and dare I say, easier?
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