Acing the interview

Experience and a hot job market won't cinch a new job if you lack the skills to nail the interview.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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" 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...

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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?

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