Handling the interview
It is said that interviewers form 80% of their opinion of you in the first four minutes of the interview, so it is important to dress and behave appropriately. If you are hoping to work for a young fashion magazine, a dark navy business suit will probably be inappropriate. Something more causal but smart is likely to fit in well. For a large law firm, the dark business suit will be correct, whilst casual dress will be out of place.
The object at an interview is to appear one grade up from the job for which you are applying. If necessary, do some research on what people wear to work in that particular company. You can always visit the company in advance and stand outside the door at lunch time to observe people and their clothes.
- Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in, that you feel good in and that boost your confidence. Never wear a brand new item; always wear it at least once, otherwise there is a real danger of the suit wearing you rather than the other way round. Make sure that your clothes are clean and pressed. Make sure that your shoes are clean, smart, re-heeled if necessary and worn in if new.
- Don’t take your shopping or a supermarket bag with you. Have a smart bag or briefcase for your papers.
- Hair should be clean and well groomed. Men should shave and women’s makeup should be appropriate for a business meeting. Jangly jewellery should be left at home.
How you handle yourself in the first few minutes also has an impact on that all-important first impression.
- Manage your nerves. Be positive and confident. Speak clearly and assertively.
- Shake hands firmly.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Sit right back in the chair, your hands on your lap and both feet firmly on the floor.
Plan a strategy for making a good first impression. Take note of what your friends say. Implement your strategy and you will be over one of the major hurdles in getting the job you really want.
The contacts you are making are starting to pay dividends and you are being invited to interviews. How do you handle this stage of the job search to ensure that you receive job offers? In 95 per cent of hirings an interview forms part of the selection process. So it is unlikely that you will be offered a job without having to attend an interview. Let’s take a detailed look at the interview process and how it can work to your advantage.
THE PURPOSE OF THE INTERVIEW
What is the purpose of the interview? It allows the interviewer, usually in a structured way, to evaluate your skills, experience, personality and suitability for the vacant position. It is also an opportunity to compare each applicant and their responses to a similar set of questions, and make a short-list or selection decision. This is when you will be selling yourself and letting the interviewer know why you are the right person for the job. it is also your opportunity to evaluate the company and the job being discussed. Many applicants miss this opportunity and end up accepting a job, based on the limited information they have gained, that turns out not to be right for them.
TYPES OF INTERVIEW
What types of interview might you encounter? Interviews can vary significantly from a short, informal type to a selection process that can last up to two days. What you encounter will depend largely on the job, the style of interview that the company decides to adopt and, to some extent, the personal style of the interviewer. The more usual types are:
- Short initial interviews. When an employer has a large number of applicants to consider, a short-list of 15-20 people may be drawn up and they will be asked to attend a short initial interview of up to 30 minutes. This will usually be informal and gives the interviewer the opportunity to meet the applicants, ask some questions and draw up a list of perhaps six to attend a more in-depth interview. At this type of interview, it is unlikely that you will be able to ask many questions. It will, however, provide you with valuable information for a subsequent interview.
- Informal/exploratory interviews. Similar to the above or, more likely, the result of a speculative contact on your part. It gives the interviewer the opportunity to find out more about you so that a decision can be made on the most appropriate next step.
- Formal first and second interviews. The most common types of interview, usually held when a small number of applicants have been short-listed for a first interview or when a few applicants are invited back for second and subsequent interviews. Normally structured so that each applicant is evaluated against the same criteria. Recruitment companies will sometimes hold initial interviews on behalf of their client, so that a short-list can be drawn up. Just as important for you, only here you are persuading the consultant that you are the best person for the job. Also a good opportunity for you to fact-find about the employer.
- Group interviews. Occasionally, the interview process will start with formal or informal group meetings, which is usually an opportunity for the employer to present the company and highlight the benefits of working for it. You should be able to ask questions and it is likely that you will have an opportunity for one-to-one discussions at the end. But bear in mind that you will be assessed during this process. This type of initial interview is usually followed by more formal one-to-one interviews at a later date.
- Assessment centres/testing. Many of the larger companies use assessment centres as part of the recruitment process. These can last from half a day to three days. Between eight and twelve applicants attend a centre at any one time. You will be asked to complete a variety of exercises, including group activities, individual interviews, ability tests, a personality profile and various tasks designed to check your suitability for the job. It is a detailed and expensive process that shows that the organisation takes recruitment seriously. The process will give the interviewers a detailed profile of you to compare with the profile of the ideal candidate and subsequent interviews will depend on the outcome of the assessment centre. Each applicant should have some feedback on their profile which can be useful in the on-going job-search process.
- Panel or board interviews. Some organisations, usually in the public sector, will ask you to attend an interview with a panel or board. Don’t be intimidated – this is not usually the aim of this type of interview. Answer each question directly to the person who posed it.
- Stress or pressure interviews. Used much less now than they used to be. Most interviewers are trained to relax you so that you can present yourself as naturally as possible. Sometimes the stress interview may not reflect the company’s style but rather the style of the individual interviewer. Don’t be put off; don’t panic, keep you head and answer each question in your normal manner. This type of interview may raise questions in your own mind about whether this is the type of company you really want to work for.
- Telephone interviews. Some companies employ short telephone interviews to decide which applicants to consider for a formal interview. It usually involves answering pre-set questions and you have the disadvantage of no visual feedback. If you are called at an inconvenient time, arrange for the interviewer to phone back at a more convenient time.
You may experience a variety of types of interview and sometimes they take place in the most unlikely places. Be prepared for the unexpected and adapt to it. But make personal safety your first priority.
FROM THE INTERVIEWER’S STANDPOINT
The interviewer’s aim is to develop a complete picture and form a balanced assessment of each applicant by observation and judgement. The interviewer will seek to establish and evaluate the following:
- Physical make up – appearance, mannerisms, health, speech etc.
- Work record, responsibilities, achievements and evidence of the claims being made and how these meet the requirements of the job.
- Personal values and interpersonal skills.
- An evaluation of potential to perform the specific job as well as future development.
- Education, training, intellect and any special aptitudes.
- Personal circumstances – married/single, children, able to relocate, travel extensively, etc.
A good interviewer will cover all these areas to build a complete picture of each applicant so that an accurate comparison can be made.
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM THE INTERVIEW?
The interview is a two-way process. It is an opportunity for you to evaluate the company, and your objectives should include the following:
- To present yourself effectively and in a way that clearly demonstrates that you are the ideal candidate.
- To ask questions about the company and the job.
- To find out more about the person you will be working for.
- To get a feel for the style, values and culture of the company.
- To establish the package being offered.
Ultimately, the interview should enable you to gather enough information to compare the job with your conditions of satisfaction so that you can make a decision as to whether or not to go forward or accept an offer.
THE STAGES OF AN INTERVIEW
You will need to consider carefully each of the following stages:
- The first five minutes
- The core of the interview
- Closing the interview
This is particularly important and probably the most critical part of the interview process. Time and effort spent in preparation will pay high dividends.
- Complete your research on the company, adding to information you already have. Obtain a job description, company literature and annual report, if possible. Find out as much as you can about the company’s products or services. If the company has sites that are open to the public, eg retailers, banks etc., visit them and assess strengths and weaknesses. Who are the company’s competitors and how do they compare?
- Find out the name, job title and responsibilities of the interviewer/s and as much other information as possible.
- Find out how to get to the interview and, if possible, check the route and timing. If you are going by car, check on the availability of local parking.
- If you are given the opportunity, choose the time of your interview. Choose the first or last spot depending on whether morning or afternoon is your best time.
- Find out how long the interview will last. If you have other appointments for that day, it is important to allow enough time for over-running.
Plan the interview itself
- Develop and practise a five minute personal portrait. Early in an interview you may be invited to ‘Tell me something about yourself’. This gives you an opportunity to present yourself positively and make a good impression on the interviewer, as well as giving a boost to your confidence. Make what you say relevant, briefly cover personal details such as family, education and interests, and then focus on work achievements and ambitions for the future.
- Identify questions that may be difficult for you to answer and practise your answers. The value of this exercise is that you will have created a structure to handle any difficult questions, including the ones you have not thought of. Refer to the list of common interview questions.
- Prepare the questions you would like to ask. List them and refer to them during the course of the interview. It shows that you have taken time to prepare, even if all your questions have been answered during the discussion.
- Update yourself on current trends and new developments in the industry. It is likely that there will be a question related to this. If not, you may be able to include this information in your own answers to demonstrate your knowledge of the industry.
- If you think a previous employer may give you a negative reference, check back and reach agreement on what will be said. In this way, there will be no inconsistency and you will be able to handle this potential disaster during the interview.
- Arrange a practice interview, ideally with someone you don’t know well. If possible, tape or video it so that you can analyze your performance and spot areas for improvement.
- Think carefully about what you want from the interview and, if necessary, make a list for reference.
- Look at all the information you have and assess what you have to offer.
- Decide how you can present yourself to best advantage. Why are you the ideal candidate? If you don’t know, it will be almost impossible to sell yourself.
- Practise not making any negative statement about yourself.
On the day
On the day of the interview preparation is equally important.
- Decide what to wear the night before. Make sure that it is appropriate and that all your accessories match and are in keeping with a business image.
- Have all the items you need for the interview ready in your briefcase or bag.
- Get to bed early and have a good night’s sleep.
- Arrive with time to spare. If you are too early, find somewhere to wait nearby.
- Adopt a positive attitude about yourself and the coming event. The interview starts before you enter the building.
- Report to reception and least five minutes before your interview time.
- Conduct yourself professionally in reception. There is often formal or informal feedback from reception to the interviewer. It if is appropriate you may be able to ask the receptionist general questions about the business.
- Go to the lavatory just before the interview. Ask the receptionist where it is. You can check your appearance and see more of the building.
- Decline the offer of coffee or other refreshment. You might spill it and it might even lead to you wanting to go to the lavatory before the interview is over. This can be embarrassing and cause additional stress in what is already a stressful situation.
- If there is company information available in reception, read it. If you have time, refer to your own papers and check over your prepared information.
The first five minutes
This is probably the most critical part of the whole job-search process. Interviewers form 80 per cent of their opinion of you in the first four minutes of an interview. You will have to work hard to overcome a poor first impression:
- Maintain friendly eye contact but avoid an intense gaze.
- Relax, be confident, be yourself and be enthusiastic.
- Smile warmly from time to time. Avoid a fixed nervous grin.
- Be friendly, pleasant and business like. Avoid being over-familiar.
- Give a firm positive handshake.
- Wait to be asked to sit down. If you are placed in an awkward position (for example, with the sun in your eyes) ask to move and do it immediately.
- Sit right back in the chair to gain maximum support for your body, both feet firmly on the floor, hands in your lap. This is the most comfortable and reassuring position and will help to calm your nerves. Remember to breathe deeply and regularly.
- Keep the pleasantries short. No long conversations about the weather, sport or your journey. It is not business like.
- Body language can be a real give-away and can communicate your inner feelings as effectively as words. Sit still and don’t fidget. Be open in your expression and avoid sudden or violent body movements, especially with your hands. Use your hands to reinforce your message, but not too frequently or vigorously.
- Avoid ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. They detract from your presentation and can be annoying to the interviewer.
The core of the interview
This is when the interviewer will make a detailed assessment of you and build on the initial impression. Be enthusiastic about yourself and let your personality and energy show through. It seems that as soon as we are in an interview, we think that we have to be solemn and serious all the time. We bury our energy, enthusiasm and personality. An interview is serious, but let your enthusiasm show through and it will do wonders for you. If this is all you learn you will be doing yourself a great favour.
- Be honest at all times. This does not mean telling the interviewer all the negative things about yourself, unless you are specifically asked about them. Many applicants talk themselves out of a job by answering questions that they have not been asked.
- Avoid negative statements about yourself. If an answer to a question means making a negative statement about yourself, make it and quickly minimise it with a positive statement to counter the negative. For example, prepare a few acceptable weaknesses and what you are doing about them. So when the question about your weakness comes up, you can say ‘I am aware that time management has been a problem so I completed a course recently and this is much improved’.
- Assess your interviewer. What sort of person is he or she? What is the style of interviewing being used? How is he or she feeling? Do all you can to support him and provide him with all the information he needs. If you have an unpleasant interviewer, don’t be turned off. Answer and continue the interview in the normal way.
- Allow the interviewer to manage the situation, but if she or she monopolises the interview or asks a lot of closed questions which require only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, take the initiative and make the points that you need to.
- Manage your time carefully. Don’t be drawn into long irrelevant discussions. Make sure that you have time to get all your points across.
- Listen carefully to all the questions. If you don’t understand or haven’t heard the question, as for clarification. Don’t anticipate the end of questions – you may end up answering the wrong one.
- Don’t ramble on. Keep your answers to the point and talk about your achievements. Substantiate any claims you make but be careful not to exaggerate.
- Don’t be afraid of silences. They are always much shorter than you think. If you can’t answer a question immediately, a short silence conveys thoughtfulness and maturity. Filling a silence with worthless words has the opposite effect.
- Make sure that you have an opportunity to ask your questions.
- Make regular assessments of the progress of the interview and take corrective action if necessary. In preparing for the interview, you will have identified all the important points that you want to communicate. If this has not been achieved two-thirds of the way through find a way of introducing those that have been missed.
- A good technique for reinforcing your positive points and ensuring your message comes across is to adopt the Nine O’Clock News approach. You start with the headlines, in your case the strong points relative to this job, report on them in detail during the course of the interview, and summarise at the end.
Closing the interview
When the interview has ended, it is important to continue making a positive impression.
- Thank the interviewer for his or her time and, if appropriate, confirm your interest in the position.
- Ask what the next step will be.
- The interviewer may guide you back to reception and, in some buildings, this can take up to five minutes. Don’t ruin your performance with casual, inappropriate comments. The interview has finished so make polite conversation on appropriate subjects.
The second interview
When you are invited for a second interview, your preparation needs to be just as careful and thorough. Here are some points to watch out for:
- Check who you will be meeting. If it’s the same person as before there will be no need to cover background information. If you are meeting new people, find out their names and titles. Be prepared to present your personal portrait again and to cover any or all of the questions from the first interview.
- Prepare new questions that you would like to ask. You have more information now and will be expected to ask more detailed and probing questions.
- Don’t relax too much. You may let yourself down.
- If you meet new people, get their views on the company and its values and culture and compare them with your first impressions.
What to beware of at interviews
- Don’t attempt to negotiate the package until you are offered the job. When you have received a definite offer, you will be in a much stronger position and you should be able to negotiate a better deal. If you are asked about your previous salary, quote the total package value.
- Don’t criticise former employers or colleagues.
- Beware of inaccurate statements as to why you left previous employers. If you were made redundant, say so. The stigma of redundancy has all but gone and few companies will hold this against you. If you were fired, say so. Keep the explanations brief.
- Don’t smoke when invited to unless everyone else does. If you are a smoker, declare it but say that you had one before you arrived.
- Avoid talking about domestic or personal issues unless asked to do so, or if they are relevant to your application.
- Don’t present material such as references, exam certificates, samples of work etc., unless asked to do so.
- Don’t encroach on the interviewer’s space. Don’t lean on his or her desk or table. Don’t move things on the desk or in the room.
After the interview
Reviewing your performance after an interview is as important as preparation before it. The sooner you can do this, the better, while everything is still fresh in your mind. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself:
- Did I get everything across that I wanted to?
- How would I assess the outcome of the interview? Where did I not perform well and what can I do to improve in future? What went well that can be built on for future interviews?
- Do I feel that I presented the real me?
- How did I feel in the interview? If I felt nervous or tense, what caused this and how can I overcome it in the future?
- Did I establish a good rapport with the interviewer? If not, why not, and what can I do in the future to ensure that this does not happen again?
- Were there any difficult questions and how can I handle these well in the future?
If you feel it is appropriate, send a short letter confirming your interest in the position. If the interview came through an agency, check with the consultant for feedback.
You might want to get feedback from the interviewer. If you decide to ask for this, act while the interview is still fresh in the interviewer’s mind. This can be useful in improving future performance.