How To Keep Cool in the Interview Hot Seat

by | March 31, 2009

Days before interviewing with a recruiter for banking giant HSBC, BryanStephens memorized the names of top executives at the London-based firm. TheStanford University senior researched its history, leading competitors, servicesand customers. For the big day, he scribbled key facts on index cards andstudied them until the last possible moment.

It wasn't enough.

Stephens failed to land a spot in the international banker'sexecutive-training program in New York. "I was really disappointed becauseI have a high grade-point average and do a lot on campus," says the Frenchand international-relations major. "I think I have a good package tooffer."

But Stephens' prep work didn't prepare him for such grueling questions as:What are the largest banks on each continent? Who are their main competitors andwhy? "They were too specific for me to answer coherently," he says."I thought I did fairly well anyway, but I guess I just talked too broadlywhen I probably needed to be more specific."

Crystal Ball, Anyone?

Clearly, some interview questions are tough to predict, but candidates canarm themselves for the most rigorous ones by learning key facts about theemployer's industry, says Amy Barnhart, manager of recruitment for televisionbroadcaster ABC Inc. in New York. Information about trends, competing businessesand top executives are among the most crucial. "The more specific acandidate can be, the better," she says. "At ABC, for example, I'mimpressed by candidates who can talk about programming with the highest ratings,marketing campaigns and leadership profiles."

Job candidates also can ready themselves for interviews by rehearsing answersto the most common questions that recruiters pose, says Charlene Venturino,manager of employment and employee relations for John Wiley & Sons, aHoboken, N.J.-based publisher. These typically are about a candidate's major,career goals and interest in the job and company. "You don't want to rambleon and on as if it was the first time you ever thought about these things,"she says.

Strong answers often include examples from past work, academic or socialexperiences, says Cindy Haugh, director of global staffing and resourcing atvideo-game maker Electronic Arts Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. "A person'spast performance is a good predictor of what they'll do in the future," shesays. "And you're not limited to talking about a work experience. Think ofan example from when you participated in a school project or a sportsevent."

Among the most difficult queries are those asking candidates about their weakestskills, say recruiters. Stephens was asked to describe one of his weak pointsduring a phone interview for a spot in the Gap Inc.'s retail-management program.

"I said that I have a tendency to be too independent and need to talk toothers more and incorporate their opinions into my work. Then I talked about howI'd improved on my problem and gave an example from a past workexperience," he says. "I was completely honest, and I'm afraid thatmight have hurt me. I don't want it to look like I'm not capable of working withother people."

But according to Haugh, Stephens made the right decision. She recommendsbeing honest and not spinning answers into something positive. "Everyonehas areas that can be improved on. I love when someone can step back, do aself-assessment and say: Here's what I learned," she says. "If theycan't, it raises a red flag."

Helpful Hints

If you want to convince recruiters that you're the best candidate for a job,apply these helpful hints:

1. Do loads of research. Preparing for a job interview is similar to studying for a test. It requires doing your homework on the employer, say recruiters. "I'm amazed when people don't even know that ABC is owned by Disney," says Barnhart. Visit company Web sites to learn about corporate histories and recent news, and review business and trade publications for information about the industry.

2. Time your arrival right. Arriving to an interview even a few minutes late can seriously mar your candidacy, says Steve Rexford, vice president of human resources at Swiss Army Brands Inc. in Shelton, Conn. "It tells me that you have no concept of time management." If you absolutely can't control being tardy, call ahead. "It happens sometimes, but show some consideration by picking up the phone," he says.

If you show up to an interview more than 15 minutes before your appointment, wait in the lobby before announcing your arrival until five to 10 minutes before the meeting. Your presence can put pressure on the interviewer, says Rexford.

3. Hide your body art. Although many companies now have casual dress codes, employers still expect job candidates to look like professionals during interviews. "First impressions make a difference," says Donna Henderson, personnel manager at Zippo Manufacturing Co. A college senior vying for an entry-level engineering position at the Branford, Pa.-based firm didn't remove an eyebrow piercing for a recent interview. "I got the impression that he didn't care enough about getting the job to take it out," she says.

Even when visiting companies with casual dress codes that allow tattoos, piercings and similar styles, it's prudent to cover up, says Haugh. "We have lots of creative people here, some even with blue hair, but you want to save showing off your originality for after you've got the job," she says.

4. Behave your best. Act professionally toward everyone you meet during a job interview, says Judith Lannin, vice president of staffing at financial-services firm J.P. Morgan Chase in New York. "I've had candidates treat my receptionists horribly because they think [the aides] are low on the totem pole of decision-making," she says. "The receptionists are a part of my team, and I value my team's observations," she says.

Further, if an interview isn't going well, don't appear overly upset or otherwise shed your professional image until you've left, warns Lannin. "It's a big country but a small world. I've run into candidates I met five years ago while shopping in Macy's," she says. "I have a long memory for names, faces and behaviors." The same advice applies if a recruiter rejects you over the phone, she says.

On the other end of the spectrum, don't give special attention to office members, says Bert Miller, recruiter for Protis Executive Innovations, a search firm in Indianapolis. On one occasion, a candidate ogled a female employee in a hallway while being escorted to an interview. The interviewer noticed and immediately dismissed his candidacy, he says. "While this example may sound extreme, it's important because it reminds us that people are evaluating everything you do on a job interview, such as how you shake hands, hold your head and talk," says Miller. "Always be on your best behavior and use your best judgment."

5. Listen, then speak. Wait for the interviewer to complete each sentence before speaking or you might miss important information. "Some students are so anxious to reply that they don't even let me finish what I have to say," says Haugh. "It's really important to listen, and it's totally acceptable to ask me to restate a question." Also, make sure your replies are related to the topic at hand and that you don't take more than a few minutes to answer each question. "Candidates occasionally go on a different path and some go on and on with an answer," she says. "They're not really giving me what I'm looking for."

Filed Under: Interviewing


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