Category Archives: Interview

Nailing the interview process; part 5. First impressions matter

I’m sure you were told, as a child, to look the person with whom you were talking in the eyes. You were also instructed to deliver a firm, yet gentle, handshake; not a limp one. I bet you were told to smile, as well. Your guardians wanted you to come across as likable, because being likable would get you far in this world.

Handshake

Guess what; all of the lessons you were taught as a child apply today. Now that you’re an adult, you still need to maintain consistent eye contact, deliver a great handshake, smile, and more. And if you’re interviewing, your first impressions count more than ever.

It’s believed that 33% of employers will make a decision to not hire you within 90 seconds based on the first impressions you make.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is how important first impressions count, so don’t take them lightly. Let’s look at some interviewers’ pet peeves to make sure you don’t commit them in the interview.

1. Poor Eye Contact. Mentioned earlier, making the appropriate amount of eye contact is important. Which means that you don’t have to stare at the person for many minutes; that’s just creepy. You can look away occasionally, as this shows you’re reflecting.

Good eye contact shows engagement and implies trust. Poor eye contact may imply that you’re avoiding a question, you’re disinterested, or you’re lying. People who are shy need to make a concerted effort to make eye contact with the interviewers.

2. Not Knowing Enough About the Company. This is considered a first impression, because it shows you didn’t prepare for the interview. If you are asked what you know about the company, and you answer, “I was hoping to learn about the company in the interview,” you’ve failed at this very first important first impression.

Employers want to know that you have done your research on their company, as well as the position and even the competition. Will you come across as prepared, or do you appear to not care? It should be the latter.

3. A Lousy Handshake. To me the handshake is one of the most important first impressions you can make. It says something about your character. Your handshake should be firm, yet gentle. Don’t crush the hand of the person you’re greeting.

On the flip side, do not deliver a limp handshake, as this indicates indifference. The sweaty palm handshake is an immediate turnoff. Also annoying is the early grab, where you grab the interviewer’s fingers. The crooks of your hands should nicely fit together.

4. Fidgeting, Crossing Your Arms, Playing with Facial Hair. All of these are signs of body language that imply nervousness. You may not know you’re committing any of these faux pas, but interviewers can see you do them and be distracted.

Fidgeting and playing with your facial hair can easily be corrected by holding a pen or interlocking you fingers and placing them on the table. Crossing your arms can imply defensiveness or aloofness. You may simply feel comfortable talking with your arms crossed, but interviewers may see it as a negative stance.

5. Monotone Voice. The worst thing you want to do is talk in a monotone voice, as it implies indifference or boredom or even pretentiousness. You sound robotic when there’s no inflection or pitch in your voice. You lack enthusiasm.

This is particularly important during a telephone interview when the interviewer can’t see the enthusiasm on your face. So, you need to “show” your excitement through your voice. Occasionally you’ll  want to raise your voice or even lower it to make important points.

6. Not Smiling. This is what job candidates often forget to do during an interview, even people who have killer smiles. We are so intent on delivering the best answers that sometimes we forget to smile. Try to remember to smile, at least occasionally.

Smiling shows interviewers that you are friendly, welcoming, and happy to be in their presence. This is important, because interviewers want to know that you are enthusiastic about working for their company.

7. Poorly dressed. There is much debate as to how job candidates should dress for an interview. The general rule is one or two notches above the company’s dress code. What is the company’s dress code, you may wonder? Following are some suggestions for various occupations.

Sales/Finance/Banking. You’ll want to look formal and contemporary, which may include a grey or black suit for men with a color tie. Woman may want to wear a silk blouse beneath a suite jacket, as well as a skirt.

For education, IT, and public sectors; no suit, but a pressed shirt and nice slacks for men. For women, a skirt or trousers and a silk blouse.

Engineers, construction workers, warehouse workers may go with a simple shirt, maybe a tie for men. Women may wear a button-down shirt and slacks.

In all cases, refrain from heavy perfume and cologne. Women should not wear a lot of bling (jewelry). What’s most important is showing respect for the interviewer. There are no situations when you should wear jeans,  unless you’re specifically told to.


The first impressions you make can be your last ones, so make sure your start of on the right track. Enter the room and shake each persons’ hand, make eye contact, and smile. Show the interviewers that you’re happy to be there.

Next week we’ll look at how to answer the difficult questions.

Photo: Flickr, Flazingo Photos

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“Why did you leave your last company?” How to answer this question

And three possible scenarios. 

Why did you leave your last company?” is an interview question that can be a cinch for job candidates to answer or difficult, depending on the reason for leaving your position.

interview with womanAlways expect this question in an interview. It only makes sense that the interviewer would like to know why you left your last company. Were you laid off, let go, or did you quit. Those are the three possible scenarios.

How you answer this question—most likely the first one asked—will set the tone for the rest of the interview. Many people interviewing for the first time are surprised when they get this question. It’s as though they didn’t expect it.

Not only should you expect this question; you should have the answer to this question already formulated. It should not take you by surprise. Expect it. Be prepared. If you get it wrong, shame on you.

Also, be aware of a zinger like, “Steve, tell us why you want to leave (company X) and come to work with us?” To answer this two-part question successfully requires an in depth knowledge of the company and position. Both of which are topics for another article.

What are employers looking for?

Is there a wrong answer? Not really. It’s how you answer it, for the most part. There’s no way to change the past, so your calm response is the best policy. They want transparency, not lies. They also don’t want a drawn-out story; your answer should be brief.

If you become emotional, it will send a negative message to interviewers. If you hesitate, they may distrust you or question your resolve.

Three possible scenarios

Let’s look at the reasons why people lose their job and how to address them.

1. You were laid off

This is easiest way to answer the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” As mentioned above, your answer should be short and sweet. You may say, “The company had to cut cost and restructure after a poor second quarter.”

To beat them to the punch, you might add, “I was among 15 people in my group who were laid off. I was told by my manager that she was sad to see me go.” The reason for doing this is because you might get a follow-up question about how many people were laid off.

Caveat: some people think being laid off is the same as being let go or fired. It is not. Being laid off is do to company failure.

2. You were let go

This is harder to explain, but not impossible to come up with a viable answer. This especially needs a short answer. It’s important that you are transparent and self-aware with your answer. In other words, if you were at fault, be honest about it.

You must also explain what you learned from the experience and state that it will not be repeated. Perhaps it was a conflict of personality between you and your manager, poor performance, or a “mutual departure.”

Conflict of personality. “A new manager took over our department. I was used to the way the previous person managed us. The new manager had a different style, which I didn’t adapt to quick enough. I now understand I need to be more adaptable to other types of management.”

Poor or inadequate performance. “As the project manager of my department, I was responsible for delivering a release of a new data storage software. We failed to meet the deadline by a week. My VP saw this as unexceptionable.  I see where I could have done a better job of managing the team.”

Caveat: the interviewer might want to dig deeper into the situation. Be prepared to answer the questions directly with little emotion. Always keep a cool head. Resist the temptation to speak negatively about your previous boss.

3. You quit or resigned

To quit a position—especially without a job in hand—means there was an existing problem. One common reason I hear for quitting is a conflict of personality with the employee’s supervisor. Another one is a toxic work environment. And a lame reason I hear is because advancement was not possible.

Regardless, a red flag will go up with interviewers if you quit your position. What some people don’t realize is that you give up your right to collect unemployment, if you quit; another reason why this is not a great scenario.

Conflict of personality. “My previous boss and I didn’t see things eye-to-eye on certain decisions he made, and tension was high, so I decided the best move for me was to resign. I realize I could done a better job of accepting his ideas.”

Unsafe environment. “I felt the work environment was not as safe as I was comfortable with. For example, there were many fire hazards in the warehouse. Additionally, the air quality was tested, and it failed. I feel fortunate that my wife brings in a substantial income; otherwise I might have stuck it out longer. My only regret is that I miss the people with whom I worked.”

Caveat: again, it is important to be transparent and honest when answering this question. To simply say you quit or resigned is not good enough. Do not be bitter when you answer this question; just state facts.


Always expect the question, “Why did you leave your last job.” Any interviewer who doesn’t ask this question isn’t doing his job. The reason for departure is essential information. I find this traditional question to be one of the most important ones for job candidates to able to answer.

Can we have a little transparency at the interview, please?

 

Honest Abe

A conversation with my daughter in the past aroused in me emotions of both concern and relief. Two conflicting emotions you’re thinking. Yes, two conflicting emotions, but the feeling that stays with me is the feeling of relief.

The feeling of relief because she was truthful about her faux pas, her display of bad judgement. All was forgiven, although not forgotten. “This is what the truth accomplishes,” I told her.

This is what you get when you ask your kids to be honest. This is what you get when you ask for honesty, regardless of the response.

What interviewers get from their job candidates at an interview aren’t always honest responses. Candidates are guarded, weighing every word they say, because they feel one wrong answer can blow the deal. They don’t have faith in the interviewers being understanding of mistakes made in the past.

Questions Addressing Candidates Weaknesses

When I spring the question, “What is your greatest weakness?” on my workshop attendees, I often get a moment of silence. Their minds are working like crazy to come up with the correct answer. They think the best answer is one which demonstrates a strength, not a weakness.

No job candidate wants to disclose a real weakness. They don’t want to kill their chances of getting the job, so they creatively elude the question, or even lie.

What I impress upon my workshop attendees is that interviewers want transparency, not a coy answer they’ve heard countless times. The “weakness” question is the one that gives them the most trouble.

So they come up with answers like, “I work too hard,” or, worse yet, “I’m a perfectionist.” I tell them these questions rank high on the bullshit scale, to which they laugh. But it’s true. These answers are predictable. They’re throwaway answers, wasted breath.

Be smart, though. Don’t mention a skill as a weakness that is vital to the position at hand. Bringing up public speaking, when it’s a major component of a position requiring public speaking skills, would be a major problem and probably eliminate you from consideration.

Another question job candidates struggle with is, “Why did you leave your last job?” For those who’ve been let go this can be a struggle. Transparency is required here just like the weakness question.

Unfortunately you may have been let go from your previous position, which means you may have done something wrong; or maybe it was just a conflict in personality with your manager. Whichever the case may be, be transparent, rather than trying to make up a phony story.

For example, “My first manager worked well together because he was clear about his deadlines. However, with my recent manager, I didn’t get a clear sense of when financial reports were due.

This became a problem on a few occasions, which I take responsibility for. Because of this, I’ve learned to ask about strict deadlines.”

Note the person explained the situation succinctly (this answer must be short) and explained how she learned from the experience. This demonstrates transparency and self-awareness.

make mistake

People Make Mistakes, They Do

Smart interviewers understand that just as jobseekers make mistakes, managers also make mistakes. No one is flawless in the interview process. They don’t want to hear people dancing around their questions. It’s a waste of time and just makes the job candidate look silly.

Furthermore, interviewers want to hear self-awareness, meaning that you know your weaknesses, and are doing something to correct them. If your greatest weakness is a fear of public speaking, maybe you’ve been attending Toastmasters to get over that fear.

Lynda Spiegel, a job coach who has interviewed hundreds of job candidates, believes transparency is the best policy:

“There’s nothing to be gained by candidates trying to bluff their weaknesses. To act as though a strength is a weakness (“I can’t seem to turn off my work email when on vacation”) is disingenuous, and to claim that there are no weaknesses lacks credibility. The best way for candidates to approach questions about their weaknesses is to acknowledge one or two, explain what they’ve done to address them, and then move on to their strengths.”

If you can’t admit that you slip every once in awhile, you lack not only self-awareness, but also emotional intelligence, which is a key component of your personality. Not all interviewers want the purple squirrel, the candidate that is perfect and elusive.

Employers want people who can do the job—have most of the required skills—and the motivation to take on challenges. So if candidates don’t have some  non-consequential skills, they need to own up to it. Their understanding of self and limitations is part of their EQ, which is not a given in everyone.

Back to My Daughter

It’s tough as a parent to realize your daughter, or son, is not perfect and makes poor judgement calls. Life would be easier if you didn’t have to deal with these minor issues, but they are part of life.

I appreciated her transparency and, as a result, trust her more than if she hadn’t told the truth. In addition, I understand she’ll make mistakes in the future. This is not too different than a conversation that an interviewer and job candidate have. Interviewers will trust candidates more when the candidate is honest….to a point.

I’m sure there was more to the story than my daughter wanted to disclose.

Photo: Flickr, Limmel Robinson

Dear recruiter, 15 reasons why you lost the best candidate ever

Man on phone 2

As a career strategist I’m privy to conversation from job candidates who are at the mercy of internal and third-party recruiters. I say mercy because before they can sell themselves to the hiring manager, they have to get past the recruiter.

In the grand scheme of things there seems to be a misunderstanding of the importance the role job candidates play in the hiring process. They are the bread and butter of the process because they’re the ones who are going to solve the employer’s most dire need, the need to fill a position.

While we see many articles written on what jobseekers do wrong, rarely a word do we see on what recruiters do wrong. I personally don’t see the justice in this inequity of blame; and I’m not even applying for jobs. I’m just the messenger.

Some recruiters (a small number) are treating their job candidates like shite, Mate. This seems counterproductive to achieving the goal of hiring people for the jobs that need to get filled. And there are numerous jobs to fill. I know, recruiters are busy (#11 on the list of job candidate complaints) vetting candidates to present to their clients, but their lack of sensitivity, courtesy, and plain logic is sometimes baffling.

I realize there are some great recruiters and some lousy recruiters (the number favors the former); and the same applies to job candidates (ditto). But some of the behavior I’ve heard about recruiters is well…baffling. Without further ado, let me relay what my customers have told me over time.

  1. You told me I was your number one and then didn’t call back. Didn’t that make me feel cheap.
  2. You knew less about the job than I did. (Ouch.)
  3. You thought I was too old. Hint: don’t ask a candidate how old she is. One of my former customers was actually asked during a telephone interview, “Just how old are you?”
  4. You took the liberty to revise MY résumé. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the interview to find the interviewers holding a different version of the résumé I sent.
  5. Do you really think what I did after graduating from college (25 years ago) is relevant? The last time I checked, no one was using DOS.
  6. You called me an hour late and wondered why I was pissed. I  had to pick up my child from daycare,  which by the way takes up most of my UI benefits.
  7. You wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn so you could have access to my connections. I’m not stupid, stupid.
  8. You sent me to the wrong interview. Imagine my surprise when the hiring manager started describing a position that I wasn’t aware of applying for.
  9. You overlooked me because I was out of work for three months. No, technology in finance doesn’t change that much in three months. Oh, I get it; I’m damaged goods.
  10. I may not be as beautiful as your dream date, but I can manage a project with my eyes close. Incidentally,  you’re no looker yourself.
  11. You complain about being sooo busy. I’m not exactly sitting around watching Oprah and popping Bonbons. I am out beating the bushes.
  12. Really? “What is your greatest weakness?” Why do you ask idiotic questions like this? Do you think I’ll really tell you my greatest weakness? Besides, I have the answer memorized.
  13. I wasn’t a fit? Couldn’t you get a better explanation than that. I only want to know if I need to improve my interviewing techniques.
  14. Speaking of interviewing, couldn’t you have told me that I was going to be the oldest person in the building? I can rock with the best of them, but it would have been great to have a heads up.
  15. No means no. I don’t want to take a position that pays half the amount I was making at my last job. I know salaries may be lower these days, but doing twice the amount of work for half the pay doesn’t add up.

Many of the people I serve have had favorable experiences with recruiters, but the process could be a lot better if some of these common complaints are addressed.

Read the follow-up post, Dear hiring manager, 15 reasons why you lost the best candidate ever. There are 15 different reasons!

Photo: Flickr, Kev-Shine

7 tips for your interview stories

Telling Story

If you’ve read my posts, you probably realize I like to begin them with a story. I do this because stories are an effective way to get your point across to readers. The stories I’m talking about in this post are the ones you’d tell at an interview.

In one of my posts I began by telling how my son wouldn’t listen to my basketball advice (why should he; I’ve never played b-ball in my life) and how my attempts to teach him the importance of being able to lay up the ball with his opposite hand relates to my attempts to get my customers to listening to common sense career advice.

Now I’m going to set the stage for the importance of being able to tell a story during the interview. When I interview customers, I ask them behavior-based questions. The reason I do this is because the majority of blue chip companies use behavioral interviewing techniques to find the best candidates; and I want them to be prepared.

If the jobseekers aren’t prepared for these type of questions, they will commit a number of blunders. Their stories will be too long, they may not use the proper format (STAR) in telling them, they may go down the wrong path, or they may simply crumble and lose their composure.

But those who are prepared for behavioral-based questions will tell stories that knock my socks off. Here are seven tips for telling a successful story.

1. You show your ability to relate your experience in a concise, yet persuasive manner. Using the STAR formula, your answer is no longer than two minutes, two and a half at most. Keep in mind that interviewers have limited time and, after many interviews, short attention spans. The crux of your story is the actions you took to solve the situation.

The situation (S) and task (T) are brief and set the stage, the actions (A) are longest because that’s what the interviewer/s are most interested in, and the result (R) caps off your story. Make sure you hit the major points in your stories. I’ve had to ask my customers, “So what was the result?” One said, “Oh, we won the five-million dollar contract.”

2. You demonstrate self-awareness. You get the directive, “Tell me about a time when you reversed a problem for which you were responsible.” First you need to briefly own up to a problem you caused, as this isn’t the core of your answer. This, like all questions that involve a story, demands truth.

“There was a time,” you begin, “when I instructed my team that a product had to be shipped a week after the actual delivery date. I had miscalculated.” This is the situation, or problem. You are owning up to a mistake you committed. “I took the following steps to correct the late delivery….In the end, the customer was slightly angry but he stayed with us as a loyal customer.”

3. You reveal more skills than asked for. Your stories delivered during the interview will reveal more skills than what the interviewer asks for. A question about how you were able to improve communications between two departments at war with each other will show not only your communication skills, but also your interpersonal, leadership, problem solving, coordinating, etc., skills.

Because your stories deliver more than what is required, one story can answer multiple questions by putting a twist on the stories. More importantly your stories give the interviewer more insight into your behavior and personality than traditional-type questions that can be answered with speculative or theoretical answers.

4. You elicit follow-up questions. When the candidate has achieved success, a couple of things can happen. First, the employer may smile and indicate approval by saying, “Thank you. That was a great answer.” This likely means that your story addressed the question and adhered to proper form.

Or the employer may come back with follow-up questions, such as, “How did you feel about volunteering to take over the webmaster responsibilities? What did you learn about yourself?” Bingo. You’ve gained the interest of the employer who follows up with additional questions.

5. You show enthusiasm. In your story you talk about organizing a fundraising event that leads to donations that exceed last years’s event by $50,000. That’s a big deal, yet your voice is monotone. There’s something missing, isn’t there? Or you were able to establish a relationship that you nurtured through understanding your client’s needs and providing customer service, which lead to increased revenue. But there’s no excitement in your voice.

When you tell your stories, make the interviewers’ care about your accomplishments as much as you do. Lean forward in your chair and look each interviewer in the eye, smile when you talk about your actions, and speak a little louder to capture their attention.

6. Your stories are about your value. There’s a fine line between talking only about yourself or just about your team. I’ve heard answers to my questions which left me wondering if my customers had performed the actions or someone else. You don’t want to leave the interviewer/s wondering the same. Don’t be afraid to use the word “I.”

On the other hand, employers want team players; so sprinkling in “we” every once in awhile is a good thing. If you led a team that did a great deal of the work, while you oversaw their work and corrected any errors; make sure to mention this. Give credit where credit is due, demonstrating you’re a leader who doesn’t take all the glory.

7. Preparation is paramount to success. There is really only one way to prepare for telling your stories. You have to completely understand what’s required of the position. Know what competencies the employer is looking for, e.g. time management, leadership, problem solving, problem assessment, and customer service skills.

Based on this knowledge, you will construct five stories in anticipation of questions being asked about the identified skills. Also keep in mind that not all questions will require a positive result; some may ask you for a negative outcome. Note: Three stories may cover the five skills you’ve identified.


Many interviewers will tell you that one story about a particular skill is not enough to determine that past performance is a true predictor of future performance. You’ll be asked to tell multiple stories about a time when you successfully, and unsuccessfully, performed desired skills. One thing your stories will prevent you from doing is fibbing; it’s very hard to veer from the truth.

Photo: Flickr, Besttoptrends

The best way to answer an interview question; Prove It.

Woman Job CandidateYou’re asked the interview question, “what is your greatest strength?” To which you answer, “I would say customer service is my greatest strength.”  Paus…. Long silence between you and the interviewer…. Interviewer writes on her notepad…. She clears her throat…. Next question….

What did you do wrong?

If you say you did nothing wrong, that you answered the question by addressing the major skill the employer is seeking; you’re partly correct. What you failed to do is prove that customer service is your greatest strength. Here’s how to prove your greatest strength.

Take a breath before answering this question. “I would say customer service is my greatest strength. I listen to the customer’s needs, always asking how I can help him/her. When I understand the customer’s needs, I do my best to meet them. Can I give you an example?”

The interviewer nods and waits with anticipation for you to prove what you assert. To do this you’ll tell a story using the STAR formula, which may go like this:

Situation: One of our longstanding customers had left us prior to my arrival at Company X. I had heard the customer was unhappy to the point where he said he no longer needed our services.

Task: My vice president wanted me to persuade the customer to return. As the new manager of a group of five furnace technicians, it was my mission to win back this customer.

prove itActions:To begin with, I had to understand what made our customer unhappy, so I asked one of my subordinates who was close to the situation. He told me it was because the person who previously worked on his furnace did shoddy work and wasn’t responsive.

With this information in hand, I called out customer to introduce myself as a new manager of the company and ask him why he was unhappy with our service. At first he was justifiably angry, telling me he would never use us again. He revealed that his furnace was never cleaned, that it still smoked..

This was going to be a tough one, based on the tone in his voice. I listened to what he said and told him I really couldn’t blame him for being upset. I agreed with him that he wasn’t treated properly. I was going to make it right. Too late, he told me; he was going to go with a competitor of ours. He hung up before I had the chance to talk with him further.

I decided to go unannounced to his house to introduce myself from Company X, I was met with, “Boy, you’re persistent. I apologized for coming without warning and asked him if I could look at his furnace. He didn’t seem to mind and told me to go to the basement through the back.

“But I ain’t paying for nothing,” he told me. Fair enough, I told him. We want to regain your trust, and if I can’t fix what’s broken, I wish you the best. I am still sharp with my technical skills, so I was sure I could fix his furnace and win back his business.

I spent two hours fixing what was broken, namely the exhaust pipe was full of soot, which required vacuuming. In addition, the oil pump had to be replaced. This was not news our customer wanted to hear, but he was happy I was honest with him and for the work I had done. He also said the former technician didn’t catch these problems, or didn’t care.

When he asked me what he owed me, I told him there was no charge. I just wanted to be assured that he’d stay with our company.

Result: My customer told me that I had regained his trust. Further, he appreciated my honesty and concern that his furnace would be fixed right the first time. He returned to our company. For my efforts, he tried to give me forty dollars “to take the missus out for dinner.” Of course I refused his money.

From the above story, you see how the job candidate proves how he provided customer service in this instance. Of course the interviewer will ask more questions about customer service, both requiring positive and negative outcomes. Although this story exceeded two minutes, the job candidate was able to grab the interviewer’s attention.