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Beware of Interview Turn-offs

Top recruiters give you the inside scoop on how to make your next job interview a winning success—not a regrettable failure. By Sheryl Nance Nash | January February 2006

 Challenger, Gray & Christmas, after months of steady declines, the amount of time it takes to find a job is up again, from 3.1 to 3.6 months. This is the longest it’s been since the third quarter of last year, when average times reached 3.96 months.

What does this mean? If you're on the hunt for a job, you can ill-afford to make mistakes that could take you out of the running for a coveted position. The interview process is a game of skill and strategy. The stakes are high. Winners get the job and losers stay in the unemployment line or stuck in their current positions.

Here's how to play the game and win.

14 seconds and counting “You get one time to make a first impression,” says Mel Kleiman, a certified speaking professional with Humetrics, a Sugar Land, Texas firm that helps companies design and develop recruiting systems. And you had better get it right immediately. “In 14 seconds someone determines whether they like you or not, and most interviewers won't get over a 14-second mistake,” she explains.

One of the deadliest moves you can make is to be unprepared. “You want to show that you did research on the company, the industry, the competition, the position,” says Mark Haering, a senior partner with Princeton Search Group, an executive search firm in Indianapolis, Ind. “Being well informed sets the stage for a more meaningful exchange of information, and the employer will take the fact that you did your homework as a sign of enthusiasm, of seriousness,” he says.

You can learn a lot about a company from its website. But also see what you can find elsewhere on the Internet; pull up articles in trade and other publications, for example. You'll be extremely embarrassed if the company was recently involved in a merger or acquisition, or launched new products or services, and you know absolutely nothing about them.

Being prepared also means you are properly groomed. “If you're unkempt and not professionally dressed, you send the wrong message,” says Monique Brannon, national director of recruiting for Grant Thornton. “You may not necessarily need a suit and tie, but you should research and dress to the level required at the firm you’re interviewing with,” she explains.

And, of course, don’t be late. If you are running behind, call at least 15 minutes before your scheduled time, not after you’re expected. Promptness will be the first measurement in evaluating your reliability and interest in the opportunity. Also make sure you get accurate directions and be weary of Internet-based mapping programs; they can be wrong.

Now, don’t be shy! While you don't want to sound rehearsed, be ready to talk about your accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses. Details and specific examples are important. Generalities are too vague to give your claims much credibility.

“Think in terms of bullet points that tell your story,” says Gayl Murphy, author of Interview Tactics! How to Survive the Media Without Getting Clobbered (Gayl Murphy Productions, Inc., 2002). Be honest enough to talk about your weaknesses if asked. It may seem like shooting yourself in the foot, but it's not.

"There's nothing worse than someone coming off as being too perfect. If you can't identify any weakness, or you dodge the question, the interview is over. It tells me you are not smart enough to own up to your failings and you might be a challenge to manage,” explains Peter Laughter, owner of Wall Street Services, a temporary staffing firm in New York City.

“It's important to open up, to give real answers about weaknesses. It shows you can take accountability,” adds Kevin Ford, Midwest leader, Financial Officers Practice, with the Chicago office of executive search firm Korn/Ferry.

Ok, maybe a little shy And yet, there’s a fine line between talking too much and not enough. Rambling is a turn-off, as is talking around questions. “You want to show that you are listening to the questions,” says Laughter.

Furthermore, rambling reveals your thoughts are not clearly executed; you're not seeing what the interviewer is trying to determine. It could also mean you're more fluff than substance, says Barbara Marchetti, president of Preferred Resource Group, a firm that provides retained search, training and consulting in Andover, Mass.

“Yacking away until they stop you may prevent them from fulfilling their agenda, not to mention being bored by your self-interest,” contends Jan Nickerson, CPA, a financial/accounting consultant with FGP International in Greenville, S.C.

Not answering questions directly is another no-no. “Doing so makes it look like you're evading questions. You want dialogue. If you get a three-part question, you want to address each point, otherwise you look like you can't give a straight answer,” Nickerson adds.

Also, never, ever bad mouth former employers. You'll be viewed as disloyal and it's just in poor taste. Regardless of the reasons you are seeking new employment, stay positive about your current and past employers. If you are leaving because you are having conflict with your current manager, walk softly with an explanation. It’s not appropriate to emotionally explain the problem during the interview. Keep a neutral, non-personal posture and reply that the corporate culture/philosophy is not a good fit for your long-term goals. Reinforce that you are looking for a team-driven, positive environment where you can add value to the company. Sharing too much information about negative experiences will lose the opportunity, guaranteed.

Are you acting up? Not only do you have to be mindful of what you say, but you have to watch what you do, as well. You can send non-verbal clues that can knock you out of the race. “Things like shaking your leg, or looking down when answering questions, nervous habits like touching your nose or eyes, reveal that you are not relaxed. You want to exude confidence,” says Haering.

Don’t fidget or play with your hair or “look like you're leading the orchestra. Don't wave your arms like you're bringing in a 747,” says Murphy. On the other hand, you don't want to fall in love with the chair. "Be attentive, engaged, alert,” she adds. Posture counts; sit up straight, but don’t be stiff.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get At some point in the interview, you're likely to be asked if you have any questions. If it's the first round, you probably don't want to bring up salary and benefits, but you will want to ask questions that reveal your long-range interest in the position, and that invite the interviewer to provide deeper knowledge of the company. For example, a few questions to have in your arsenal include: “What is your biggest challenge over the next 12 months?” “How do you see this position contributing to the team?” “What concerns do you have about my abilities?” (and then address them).

Don't be shy about asking questions, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking your questions are silly. For starters, “Ask your interviewer about him or herself. How was integration into the company for them? You want to get a sense of whether there are a lot of new people, or if most have been there for 20 years,” says Ford.

If asked a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t fake it. Ask the person to rephrase or expand on the question. If you’re still unable to answer it, just admit you don’t know. Be especially careful if you’re in a technical interview with a potential co-worker, who will be primarily focused on testing your technical knowledge. Potential co-workers can be very harsh graders. Believe it or not, executives are more concerned about your ability to learn, your energy level, and your leadership characteristics. Always be honest and direct about your actual experience; misrepresenting your skills will harm you.

Is this what you want? If by the interview’s close you decide you are very interested in the opportunity, express it. Close strong with a statement such as, “I really like what I’ve heard today and would be interested in exploring this opportunity further” or, “I’m interested in joining a team like this one; what’s the next step in the process?” Hiring managers say time and again that they tend to hire people who are excited about working with them. So reinforce your interest both verbally and physically at the close of the interview. Remember to end with a firm handshake.

Always send a thank-you letter to all parties involved in the interview process. Keep it short and simple and, if you’re interested in moving to the next level, express the fact. An email is an acceptable means of sending a thank-you note. Just have another person read it to check for spelling and grammar before you press send.

Excited or not, however, after every interview you have to ask yourself a single, all-important question: “Is this the right job for me?”

There are some red flags that the position or the company may not be a good fit for you. For example, you can have the right set of skills and experience, but if you’re in the wrong environment, you won't thrive. “Assess what really matters to you,” says Kleiman. “Are you at a time in your life where you don't want major challenges? Do you need a place that is family-centric, where you can leave to go to a soccer game [if you need to], or where you can work 60 hours a week, but you can be flexible?” he explains.

“Get a strong read on the person you will report to. Do they seem distracted during the interview? They can't find your résumé, they seem ill-prepared? Does it seem like the position is important to them?” asks Haering.

What is the company's policy regarding professional development? Do they contribute to continuing education courses, workshops, and the like? Do they have mentoring programs, affinity groups, or other kinds of support for employees?

Brannon suggests asking for the opportunity to talk with would- be members of your peer group within the organization. “You want to get an understanding of what the firm is like, what are the opportunities for growth? There shouldn't be any opposition to you speaking to employees. If there is, then you might think twice.”