The Right Way to Interview

The following is from my upcoming book, A Hooker’s Guide to Getting a Job: Parables from the Real World of Career Counseling and Executive Recruiting.  To obtain a discount off the cover price, pre-order your copy today!  You may also register for my free webinar, Radical Perspectives on Conducting a Successful Job Search, which is based on the book.

SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE to dig deeper. Dave was that sort of candidate.  He should have had no problem at all getting a job.  He was doing everything correctly.  His cover letters were short, sweet and to the point, his résumé was engaging, he was networking in the right groups, he had no “baggage,” and he was genuinely a nice guy.  In his case, I had to become a detective.

            “Dave, I just don’t get it.  I read your draft cover letter and went over your résumé with a fine tooth comb.  I really have no substantive suggestions.  Everything looks great.  So what’s the problem?”

            “Pardon my French, but it beats the crap out of me.”

            “Tell me what you have been doing.”

            “I have a great network.  My friends and associates have been getting me appointments.”

            “So you have been going on interviews?”

            “About one every ten days.”

            “I’ve got career counseling clients who would kill for that many interviews.”

            “How many call-backs?”

            “None.”

            “None?  Out of how many?”

            “All of them.”

            “No.  I understand that.  I meant, how many interviews have you had?”

            “Sorry.  I don’t really know for certain.  Probably around 25.”

            “OK.  First, that is an unacceptable answer.  You are unemployed and therefore your full-time job now is getting a full-time job.  Just like – and I am making an assumption here – you tracked what you did when you were employed – sales calls, meetings, follow-up, closes, follow-up after the close…”

            “Absolutely.”

            “So why aren’t you doing the same thing now?  You need an Excel spreadsheet with the names of the companies where you have applied, the people who interviewed you, notes on what they asked, what you saw, what you overheard.  You don’t want to apply for the same job twice, and you don’t want to forget something important when you get a second interview.”

            “I’ll give you that one.  And, before you ask, I always send a thank you e-mail after an interview, get them whatever they asked for and, don’t bother telling me, I went to your website and read some of the articles you were quoted in.  Now I also send a hand-written thank you note.  I get the importance of differentiation.”

            “The people in your network who introduced you to the people who interviewed you, did you thank them as well?”

            “Absolutely!   I sent each one a bottle of wine.”

            “How many would have had the chance to hear back from the employer they sent you to?”

            “Probably all of them.”

            “Let’s make an assumption.  Let’s assume that your network referrers are hearing bad things about you from the interviewers.  Would they tell you?”

            “Maybe not?”

            “Why not?”

            “I don’t take criticism well.  I get defensive.”

            “Is there someone in your network who you are close enough to that you can call them right now and they’ll share with you honest feedback?”

            “Yes.  Chris Mooney.”

            “It’s kind of warm in here.  I’m going to go get us both a cold glass of water.  You call Chris and ask him if he heard back and what he heard.”

            “Will do.  He should be in.”

***

            “What did he say?”

            “He said that Jenkins, that’s the guy he arranged for me to meet with, said I had a great résumé, perfect experience and a lousy attitude.  He said that my answers to questions just did not ring true and that I was argumentative.”

            “Was that an accurate assessment?”

            “No.  I was providing clarifications.”

            “You may have thought that you were providing ‘clarifications,’ but they didn’t hear ‘clarifying,’ they heard ‘arguing.’  And it’s what they hear that matters.  Whenever I give a class on working with the media, I always say, ‘It’s not what you say that counts, it’s what people hear.’  And I bet you can think of times someone said one thing to you and you heard something completely different.”

            “Wife accuses me of not listening to her.”

            “I hate to side with the wife, but she’s probably right.  And that’s got to be our focus.  So let’s do a mock interview.”

            “Sounds like a plan.”

            “And in case I forget to tell you, make certain you call everyone in your network who got you an interview.  Apologize to them.  Tell them that you know you screwed up.  Don’t blame anyone or anything but yourself.  Tell them you have taken a career counseling session and that you now know what you were doing wrong and it won’t happen again.

            “So now let me ask you a question.  And when you answer it, answer it the way that you answered it when the employer asked it.”

            “How do you know what they asked?”

            “With very few exceptions, they – we – all ask the same questions.”

            “OK.  So what’s the first question?

            “Why do you want to work here?”

            “Chris spoke very highly of you.”

            “Let’s take this one question and answer at a time.  How did you prepare for the interview?”

            “I devoured their website.  I knew the ‘About’ page by heart – including their mission and vision statements.”

            “Anything else?”

            “I Googled them and discovered some press releases that had been issued.”

            “Very impressive.  Anything else?”

            “Nope.”

            “As a general rule of thumb, what you did was perfect, but you should also have Googled the people you were meeting with to find out if you shared anything in common.  The idea is to make a personal connection with the interviewer.  In the future, check out LinkedIn profiles as well.”

            “Sounds logical.”

            “Remind me.  How did you respond when you they asked you why you wanted to work at their company?”

            “I told them that Chris spoke highly of them.”

            “So you really trust Chris, don’t you?”

            “He’s never steered me wrong.”

            “Too bad you were driving and not Chris when you gave that answer.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “You’re excused but it’s not going to get you the job.  You probably gave the worst possible answer.  You had done all of that research and yet, when you had a chance to show off your due diligence wizardry, you blew it.  ‘Chris speaks highly of you.’  So maybe they should hire Chris!”

            “Well, what should I have said?”

            “That you share their mission or vision statement – and then, since you memorized it, recite it!  Or you could have talked about being excited over what you read in one of the press releases.”

            “Oops!”

            “Big time.  Do you understand the difference?”

            “Yes.  So what should I have said when they asked me why I left my previous places of employment?”

            “What did you say?”

            “Look at my résumé.  I’ve only had two jobs prior to my present one.  The first one went out of business, the second was run by a crook.”

            “What did you say, exactly?”

            “The first place was great, but they went out of business.  We were a small fish in a very large bowl.  The second was a disaster.  The boss was a crook and I wanted out.  I couldn’t stand the guy.”

            “Good answer followed by terrible answer.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “The first place went out of business.  You didn’t say anything bad about the owner, about your boss.  The place shut down.  Simple.  But then you broke the number one rule: NEVER say anything bad about your present or former employers.  NEVER EVER.  It’s always toxic.  The person who is interviewing you will figure that one day you’ll speak ill of him, so why hire you?”

            “So what should I have said.”

            “What I always say: ‘I left for ethical reasons.  I was very uncomfortable with some of their policies and procedures.  Nothing criminal, you understand.  But that’s why I want to work for you.  I see that you have a mission statement and if it’s real and not just a bunch of words, that’s what I’m looking for.’  See the difference?”

            “Yeah.  Nothing negative and you remind them that you did your due diligence.”

            “Exactly.  But let’s go back to due diligence.

            “An interview is a two-way street.  You have the right to ask questions and your questions have to prove that you did your homework.  You can’t say, ‘I’m a great researcher,’ you have to prove to them that you are and you do that by asking insightful questions that you could only have come up with based on research.

            “So have a few questions ready.  If you don’t have any questions, that means you are not interested in the job and they will not make you an offer.  Period.

            “Now there are also a few standard questions to ask.  You can’t very well ask them if it’s a nice place to work.  That would be silly.  But you can ask for the proof by asking about the average tenure of employees, the turnover rate and if they promote from within.  The answers all speak to the question of employee satisfaction.  And that’s something you need to know.”

            “Understood.”

            “What do you think the most important question is that an employer will ask you?”

            “Why do I want to work for them?”

            “Very good!  You get a cookie!”

            “Were you ever asked a question and felt that the room got cold after you gave your answer?  In other words, everything seemed to be going fine and then you gave an answer and the person’s body language changed?”

            “Yes.  As a matter of fact, that’s what happened in my last interview when they asked me about my weaknesses.  And before you ask, I said that I am a terrible procrastinator.”

            “What floor were you on?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “What floor of the building were you on?”

            “In the twenties.  I don’t remember exactly.”

            “So why didn’t you just open the window and jump out.  You committed ‘interview suicide,’ so why not go for the real thing?”

            “Well what should I have said?  Everyone has weaknesses.”

            “You are correct.  Everyone has weaknesses and, in fact, if you can’t come up with any it’s held against you.  I already told you that it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what people hear.  You told them that you procrastinate and what they heard was that you know you have a problem and don’t do anything about it.”

            “But I do.  I have tricks that I use to get over the procrastination.”

            “Did you tell them that?”

            “No.  I guess I didn’t.”

            “What you should have said was, ‘I’ve always been a terrible procrastinator.  Or maybe I should say, an excellent procrastinator.’  A little humor never hurts.  Then continue, ‘But like any other time I know I am at a deficit, I come up with ways to deal with it.  I clearly organize my day around deadlines and I give myself rewards when I meet or beat a deadline.  It’s silly, but it works.’”

            “I see the difference.”

            “Look, we could continue until dinner.  The important thing is never to be negative including when talking about former and present bosses and about your weaknesses.  Always end on a positive.  You procrastinate BUT…  Understand?”

            “Loud and clear.”

            “Great.  Now let me give you a few more pointers about interviewing. 

            “When you interview, you don’t want to sound like you’re bragging.  So what I suggest is what I call the ‘I vs. We’ answer.  At the beginning, say something like, ‘Before I begin I want to make something clear.  I have been lucky to work with great people.  I realize that I have been part of a team.  So when I say ‘I’ understand that I know that there is a ‘We’ behind that ‘I.’ But you are interviewing me, not the team, so I will focus on my contributions to the common efforts.’”

            “Sounds good.  Thanks.”

            “You’re welcome.  But there’s more.  I don’t think you are doing this but, never sound desperate.  It’s unprofessional and no one is going to hire someone who behaves unprofessionally.”

            “OK.”

            “During the interview you have to relax.  Think of the three ‘C’s:  Be comfortable, confident and composed.  If you organize your thoughts, you’ll create the proper atmosphere.”

            “Great!  What else?”

            “At the end of the interview, express interest in the job.  Most people don’t do that.  They ask about future steps, but never say that they are still interested.

            “Also, a thank you e-mail is a great time, the perfect time, the only time for interview corrections and clarifications.  A good thank you e-mail can save an interview.  So if you forgot to say something, or could have said something better, use the thank you to rectify the situation.”

            “Thanks.”

            “Last thing:  If you are applying for a full-time job and you sense some hesitation on the part of the employer to hire you, don’t offer to do it part-time or on a contract basis.  It can be tempting but don’t do it.  First, if they wanted part-time they would have advertised for part-time.  And second, all jobs begin on a contract basis because all jobs start with a probationary period.  So don’t think about it and don’t say it!”

            “Thanks.  I’ll remember.”

And he did.  Later that week Dave had an interview.  He kept everything positive.  Showed off his due diligence skills and got invited back for a follow-up interview.  When he was leaving, something amusing happened.  Someone from HR went with him and followed him to his car.  “Did you see the woman sitting in Reception?”  “Yes.”  “She’s your competition.”  “I don’t stand a chance, do I?”

Well, it turned out that he did.  He called me concerned about the exchange with the HR rep in the parking lot.  I told him I thought he handled it perfectly.   A little humor can go a long way.  Apparently the HR rep thought so as well.  Dave started work the following month.

            The lesson: do your homework, show the interviewer that you know more about her and her company than she expects, never be negative, show confidence and express interest in the job.

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What Happened at Fast Company?

I have been a reader of Fast Company since 2001.  Some of their articles have been brilliant, such as the expose on China’s involvement in Africa.  Others, not so much.  I always objected when the annual Masters of Design issue didn’t include the designers of processes.  But the March 2012 issue was the first that was so offensive, so disgusting, so unconscionable that I was actually thinking of cancelling my subscription. In their list of “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” they had the unmitigated nerve to list the Occupy Movement in seventh place after Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Square and Twitter!  Unbelievable!

I always tell my clients and students that everyone is entitled to make one mistake.  And did they ever make one!  In fact, they owe an apology to their subscribers, readers, advertisers, the 49 real innovative companies – first and foremost Square to which they compared Occupy, and, perhaps most importantly, to the victims of Occupy Wall Street.

What were you thinking?  Occupy Wall Street is an “innovative company?”  They compare them to Square?  When Square started operations did they articulate a list of goals?  (As is noted in the article, Occupy “notoriously won’t list its demands.”)  Did Square occupy private property?  Did Square damage private and public property?  Did Square have to be removed by court order?  Did Square defecate on their neighbor’s property?  Did Square urinate on their neighbors’ property?  Did Square constantly beat drums  destroying their neighbors’ quality of life?  Did Square attack the police?  Did Square want to get arrested?  Were Square’s facilities the sites of rapes?  Did Square ever refer to their competitors as “enemies”  (which is how Fast Company quotes them as referring to the 1%)?  Did Square hinder, and in some cases, stop people from going to work?  Did Square stop people from patronizing local stores and restaurants?  Did Square get people fired because the drop in customers forced business owners to lay them off?   Really?  Occupy Wall Street?  An “innovative company?”  Praised in Fast Company?  Seriously?

Fast Company, and its sister publication Inc., not only laud companies and entrepreneurs trying to get to be part of the “1 %,” they provide valuable insights to help companies grow.  With the exception of the non-profits, all the  companies listed in the “Most Innovative Companies” feature,are part of the 1% (or want to be!) that  the Occupy Movement considers to be their “enemy.”  Occupy will utilize their technology, but that does not mean that they want to emulate them.  They don’t want to build; they want to destroy.  They don’t want to create; they want to ruin.  That’s an “innovative” company?  Shame on Fast Company!