With great regularity I see articles published in student newspapers written by some idiot pretending to offer the next generation of college job seekers a leg up on their competition with a list of little known tips for mastering the job interview. These lists are ladened with gems and nuggets of employment seeking wisdom such as, dress appropriately, and look them in the eye when you shake their hand. To which, I would add, don’t stink, brush your teeth, take the aluminum foil off your head, and try not to throw poop at the interviewer. Unless you are interviewing with a deep sea salvage operation, leave your scuba gear at home. Duh? What people really need are the ten interview tips that don’t include the obvious social atrocities.
With the exceptions of choosing the wrong spouse or the wrong cell phone plan, nothing will make your life more miserable than choosing the wrong company to work for. Bad companies, with sociopathic managers and their unholy expectations, can drill into your life force and suck the soul directly out of your feet. Unfortunately, employment interviews are, for most people, pretty stressful situations, and the brain does not work well when drenched in all that adrenaline. As a result, we forget to pay attention to the things that matter to us. We get ourselves into a mode of impression management, where we are concentrating all of our mental efforts on composing and displaying the correct image of ourselves, the one we expect the employer would like to see, and we forget to pay attention to the signals that we should be receiving from the employer.
First, though, let me back up for a moment. Before you even get an interview, try to avoid any dealings with employment agencies. They are either hiding the identity of a bad company, or potentially limiting the liabilities of underhanded hiring practices. They will call you and tell you they have a “client” that you may be interested in working for, so you go along with it. Then, at the interview you find out their client is Satan. Or, Santa. I often get those two mixed up because they both wear red suits and steal from the poor to give to the rich. Santa doesn’t need the representation because everybody, except me, knows who he is, and unless you are evil, working for Satan could be a bit of a downer—long hours, low pay, hot working conditions, and stale doughnuts. Working for Santa could be fun, especially if tickling little people amuses you.
The interview process starts well before you leave your house, apartment, hovel, cave, or the cardboard box in which you currently reside. Take a look in a mirror, or some other shiny surface (remember, spoons make you look like you are upside down, but you are not really inverted, so don’t panic), and ask yourself, “Would I hire me?” If the answer is anything along the lines of, “Hell, no!” you should skip the interview. I mean, if you can’t tolerate being around you, nobody else can, either. Don’t leave the house without your self-confidence and plenty of batteries. Lots of batteries. I always fill all of my pockets with batteries of all sizes, just in case someone hollers out, “Hey, does anyone have a battery!”
Tip #1: Pay attention to everything you see and hear, from the moment you set foot on the employer’s premises, and evaluate how you feel about your observations. The interview process includes what you think of them, not just what they think of you.
It is sometimes difficult to do so, but if you happen to be interviewing with a company that has its own identifiable parking area, take a look at the vehicles you see there. If they are mostly old clunkers with a few really nice new vehicles, chances are that the owners pay themselves very well, but their employees rely on food stamps to make ends meet. If they are all old, everyone is likely expecting the bank to repossess the office furniture at any moment, and they are surprised when their paychecks clear. If all the cars are nice and relatively new, the company has stopped growing. Recent college graduates often have rusty old cars, and it takes them a year or so of working to be able to afford something newer. A growing company will have a mix of new and old vehicles, mirroring a balanced employee demographic of new and old employees.
Are the facilities clean and well cared for, or are they run-down and neglected? Look for a caged panda on display in the reception area. How sterile, or cluttered, are peoples’ desks? Beware of cheap companies trying to make frugal look like it is hip and fun. Do they have desks, or are they grouped around picnic tables and being led in song by Yogi Bear? If so, you are probably going to be either living in your mom’s basement for a while, or picking up extra shifts bussing tables.
On the other hand, an office environment that is opulent or exceptionally nice is just an ego trip for the CEO. Would you rather be making a higher salary, or working in an office with gold plated toilet seats? The sensation of gold on your bum as you go about your business, I will admit, is very nice, but so is being able to afford lunch. You may have to make a choice.
Everyone has a different set of values, and so do different organizations. There is no right or wrong to the choice, but make sure that you are largely compatible with the culture and fit of your potential employer.
Tip #2: They are not doing you a favor by interviewing you.
Employers rely on quality employees to make their businesses succeed, and you have something to offer them. Except if you are a zebra; striped equids are still openly discriminated against in today’s economy.
Were you on time for your interview? Were they? Do they value your time as much as you value theirs? It is not acceptable for them to make you wait for thirty minutes just because they can’t get their day organized. Consider what it will be like working for people who can’t show up to meetings and events on time. If you are prompt and punctual, and they are not, you won’t like them and they won’t like you right back.
Nobody wants to work with an arrogant douche, so don’t be that. Represent what you have to offer and place an appropriate value on your skillset. It is easy for recent graduates to assume that, since they have limited work experience, they have limited value to an employer. Youth, vitality, a creative point of view, and imagination are more valuable assets to an awake organization than years of experience working with a stapler. Besides, not all things perpetually improve with ongoing experience. I was toilet trained before I was two, but just because I have been pooping in a toilet for a greater number of years than someone else doesn’t mean that I am any better at it.
Looking for work can take a serious toll on your ego and self-esteem. Perseverance in the face of adversity is a desirable quality in an employee. Don’t forget to mention that you have some of that during your interview.
Tip #3: Ask to meet other employees, and find out how they feel about their work environment.
Be sure to say hello and introduce yourself to people as you walk through the office to get to your interview. Ask people how they feel about the place, and be sure to get their names, but not in a way that seems creepy, like in the picture to the left. Really, that is not an appropriate way to shake someone’s hand. What is the other guy doing there, with that stupid grin on his face? The whole scene looks rather rapey and uncomfortable.
Sometimes, your interviewer will give you a tour of the office and introduce you to people, which is a good sign that you are being seriously considered for the position (the only date I introduced to my parents was the one I married). Avoid the temptation to make fun of your host to their coworkers as they walk you around the place, even if they are wearing a hairpiece and speak with a lisp. If you decide that you would like to work in that environment, after the interview send the interviewer an email thanking them for their time, and mention the names of the people you met, saying how much you enjoyed meeting them. When the time comes to make a new-hire decision, the input from these people can make a difference.
Tip #4: Interviewers will lie about themselves and the organization they work for in order to chuff themselves up, so ask them to give specific examples of when the things they are telling you they do were demonstrated.
During an interview, employers are inclined to tell you what a friendly workplace they have to offer, how much money they spend on training, and what an awesome job they are doing as managers. Friendly can mean anything from the receptionist brings cookies on Fridays, to we hardly ever have knife fights in the hallways anymore. What do they mean by friendly? Do people go to lunch together? Are there regular social events for employees? Get specific examples and make sure their answers are acceptable to you. Oh, and training is the first thing cut from a departmental budget to constrain administrative costs. If they promise you an annual training or education amount, get it in writing, preferably in the form of a certified check.
Tip #5: Bulletin boards and notices in the lunch room are good indicators of the work environment.
So, for twenty minutes, now, they have been telling you about all of the community oriented volunteer work and employee social events that the company sponsors. When you asked for more details, they waved a paw in the air and said, “Well, just last week we did a thing with some people from that place where the people go when things happen to them.” It sounded convincing, but you are not entirely convinced. Verification may be found by an inspection of the notices and announcements that you see posted on bulletin boards and in the lunchroom.
Are they announcements and invitations to social events and planning committees for community activities, or are they warnings and threats to employees posted by the office fascist? Typical lunchroom missives include, All food items left in the refrigerator will be thrown out Friday morning, Employees are responsible for washing their own dishes, Do not cook popcorn in the microwave, and Do not make coffee after 4pm. Who, exactly, is responsible for posting these dictatorial signs I am never certain. Why we should adhere to them also bewilders me. I usually take them down when no one is looking. Especially the signs in the washrooms that read, Do not flush paper towel down the toilet. Sometimes I add, or midgets.
The postings on the walls are a reflection of the culture of the people who work there. If you find the signs to be personally offensive or outright condescending, then you should say so during your interview. Only jerks and dumb people need signs telling them how to behave in the workplace, and nobody wants to work with jerks and dumb people.
Tip #6: Be wary of the fallacy that work is supposed to be fun.
Face it. Work is work. That is why it is called work, not playtime, and why you expect to get paid for doing it. An organization that spends too much time on office foosball will lead you to the unemployment line just as quickly as indulging in too much cocaine.
At the end of the day, you want to go home to your family and friends having the sense that you accomplished something meaningful. As much as you may like your coworkers, and maybe you are even friends with a few of them, they are not the people who are closest to you. If they are, you need to discover life outside of the office. Why would you spend time away from your loved ones to hang out with a bunch of people that, on a good day, you can just barely manage to tolerate?
At one of the office locations of a company that I used to work for there was a pool table in the lunch room. Whenever I visited that office, for meetings and the like, the sound of pool balls clacking against each other resonated throughout the building for the entire day. The fact that this office had the lowest productivity in the whole company certainly had something to do with their non-stop pool tournament. Eventually, the office was chopped up, sold off, and everyone laid off. I doubt that any of them found work as professional pool players.
Tip #7: Avoid answering the stupid canned HR questions that they got from Wikipedia, and challenge the capabilities of the person asking them. If you can find these questions on the internet, you can find the best answers, too.
The first question they will most likely ask you will be something along the lines of, “Hello. How are you doing today?” Do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of this introductory interrogative. They don’t really want to know how you are doing, it is just a polite way of starting a conversation. You should practice a pat answer along the lines of, “The very best. How are you today?” In spite of any sympathy or interest that may be demonstrated by their question, do not respond with comments such as, “Well, I had a lot of phlegm in my throat when I woke up this morning, and it took me quite some time to clear it out, but I am all good now.” Or, “I had this feeling of dread when I arrived here today, but now that I am looking at what appears to be your face, I am overwhelmed by sadness.”
Stock questions, such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years” can have tricky answers. They think they are going to find out if you have any sort of career plan in mind, or if you are as unmotivated as a sack of potato chips, but in reality they are only going to find out if you have previously memorized the answer online. When you find the interview going down the path of the overused rhetorical questions, you should try and put a stop to it. I have found that answering, “Retired”, “Acquitted of murder,” “One day short of five years sober,” “Face down in a pool of blood or vomit. I am not sure which one, the fortune teller I went to was vague on the specifics,” often leads to an extended moment of awkward silence that can only be filled by the rustling of paper. Perhaps a better answer might be, “Why? What do you intend to do to me?” but nobody likes it when you answer a question with another question. You could try, “In five years’ time, I expect that working in a 3×5 foot cubicle for nine hours a day, six days a week, will have deadened my soul and crushed my spirit. Depleted of my will to live, I shall longingly yearn for Death’s sweet embrace, but alas, I will be too squeamish to take matters into my own hands.”
If they ask, “How do you handle conflict?” You answer, “Certainly not with a gun. No, sir, I learned my lesson the hard way. I am not going to do that again.” “What did you enjoy the most about your previous job?” “The time I said ‘Screw, you! I quit!’ to my boss right after they fired me for backing the company truck over the owner’s dog…and by dog, I mean wife.”
The last time I was asked such unimaginative pointless questions, I responded, “Is there perhaps someone better who should be interviewing me? Because, I don’t think you are quite up to the challenge, and I fear that my subtle nuances are lost on you. I am a really complex multidimensional individual, and you seem rather…simple.”
Tip #8: Ask lots of questions that are meaningful to you, and not the stupid canned HR questions that you looked up on Wikipedia, or found elsewhere on the internet.
As I have already stated, companies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with all varieties of cultural values, political beliefs, and management philosophies. The only way you can find out if a company will be a good place for you to work is if you ask questions that relate back to what you hope to find in that environment. Are they organized and overly anal, or are they lackadaisical and completely lost? There is no right answer, so just think of which one you are and try to find compatibility.
Before going to an interview, make a list of the personal and work values that are important to you. It may be a difficult thing to do, personal assessments usually are, but start by imagining yourself in the workplace. Then, think about the situations or conditions that will be most beneficial to your contentment.
Do you function well in disorganized chaos, or do you need to have a clearly laid out immutable work plan for the week ahead? Do you want to work as part of a large and diverse group of people, or do you prefer working alone? Are you hoping to work for a smaller company where you can be more intimately involved with the long-term strategic planning, or would you feel safer in a large company that offers better benefits and an opportunity for an international experience? If you would prefer to avoid working with zebras, you should ask the question, “Are there any zebras working here that I will have to deal with?” Write all of your questions down on a piece of paper, a sheet of plywood might be hard to get through the front door, and take them with you to the interview.
Personally, I always avoid discussing salary during an interview. Even when asked about my salary expectations, I respond with, “I am sure that we can come to an agreement once a decision has been reached.” Neither side wants to go first in announcing their financial position. If you say a number and it is too low or too high, you may not get the money you deserve, or you may accidentally price yourself out of a nice new job. If they say a number and it is too low or too high, you may be offended and walk away, or they might end up paying you more than you otherwise would have settled for. Typically, if they are a competent employer, they already know the market rate for your particular skills, and they are in a better position to show their hand first. However, compensation includes so much more than just money, so be sure to consider the entire situation.
Examples of good questions:
- Tell me about your internal processes and the infrastructure that supports them.
- How is job performance measured and recognized? Does effort result in performance?
- How often are people expected to work beyond the number of hours in a typical work week?
- What is the company’s organizational growth agenda, and how do they expect to make it happen without overstressing existing resources?
Examples of not-so-good questions:
- How long do I have to work here before I can file a sexual harassment lawsuit?
- Will I be expected to come to work everyday?
- If I took my two weeks vacation immediately, and then resigned when I returned, would I get paid for the entire month?
- How much notice will I be getting before the random drug test?
- I have a lot of allergies and a plethora of OCD-related medical problems. Will you be able to accommodate all of my special needs and constant complaining?
- Is it company policy to verify all submitted expense receipts?
Tip #9: If the process of interviewing you seems overly complex, the company is managed by people with poor decision making skills who live in constant fear of taking a risk and making a mistake.
Some large companies actually take pride in having such a ‘selective’ interview process that requires applicants to submit to a lengthy and time consuming gauntlet of interrogations by almost everyone in the organization. The reality is that they suffer from a decision making paralysis, and they are trying to cover it up with snobbery. Once you start working there, you will quickly discover the unwritten policy of not making any decisions, only approving of someone else’s decisions. Your work performance will ultimately be negatively affected by the lack of decidership.
The best companies to work for will have a hiring process that consists of more than one, and no more than three interviews. If they hire you after only a single interview, you will be working for a place with kneejerk reactions to every situation; it will be all panic, shifting priorities, and a whole bunch of yelling. If they still have not offered you the position after three interviews, they are either afraid or unable to make a decision, and if you value strong leadership in a management team, you will want to tell them to end the process.
The first interview may come in the form of a telephone call from someone in HR asking you a few questions about your background, willingness to travel or relocate, and other stuff not directly related to the position, but important to the organization as a whole. The second interview should be with the person you will be directly reporting to. If, during this interview, you are introduced to and vetted by other members of the department or team, they should now be in possession of sufficient information to make a decision about you. Sometimes, however, other people may not be available during your second interview, and a third interview will be required.
Do not accept any work offers without having the opportunity to meet some of your future coworkers. If you do accept under such a circumstance, others in the department will be hostile to your presence, since they were not involved in the decision making process, and they will do whatever they can to undermine and hinder your ability to be productive. Congratulations! You have just gained admission to a caustic work environment that will make you bitter and angry, inevitably ending with you rage-quitting.
Tip #10: Although it may seem great when they talk about it, there is a potential downside to flex hours and working from home.
The more people a company has working from home, the less office space they need, and the less money they will be spending on cubicles and toilet paper. When you work at home, it can save them money on rent and all sorts of other things, and perhaps you should be receiving additional compensation for doing so. Also, you are more likely to work longer hours when you are working from home, and there is a secret expectation that you will always be available for work related discussions at any hour of the day or night. When you work from home, it makes leaving the office and going home for the evening impossible. In spite of the fact that you are now working at 7:30am instead of commuting to the office, there will be the perception among your coworkers that you are spending most of your time watching Ellen DeGeneres. Work that is invisible will go unrecognized and unrewarded.
Having the option of working from home during inclement weather, or family related situations, is always a good thing, but being expected to work from home all the time is not so good. You are cut off from the daily social interaction that is required for people to thrive, and your lack of visibility to the management eyeballs has the of effect of limiting your future career potential.
Flex hours can come in a couple of forms. The most insidiously dangerous of which is the, we don’t really care when you work, as long as the work gets done. If they really don’t care when you work, then there is no back-pressure on them to ensure the work demands are reasonable. You may find yourself working all sorts of evenings and weekends as unpaid overtime just to satisfy a workload that you never agreed to. If you fail to complete the work in the allocated time, the perception will be that you must not be working hard enough.
Flexible hours are a little bit different, as long as they are not taken to the extreme. It might be better for you to avoid heavy traffic by working from 10am – 6pm, instead of the usual 9am – 5pm. If you work from 7am – 3pm, you can avoid putting your kids in an afterschool program. Having a level of flexibility over the hours that your workday spans can alleviate many different types of problems or conflicts with personal schedules.
With great flexibility comes great responsibility: I used to work with someone who would claim that he came in at 6am, and so he would leave at 2pm. It was a royal pain working with him because he was never available for afternoon meetings, and he was in the office so early in the morning that he was usually there all by himself. One morning, I went in to the office at 6am just to see if he was really there. He had actually been arriving at about 7:50am, a few minutes before the others, and pretending he had been there since 6am. There has to be an appropriate level of control and oversight on peoples’ workday, and a certain amount of time overlap is required for everyone to be productive.
One final point, don’t take career advice from people who are not where you want to be. You would not take financial advice from a poor person, so why would you take career advice from people who are not working at the level where you want to be?
So, there you have it. The ten tips beyond the usual ten tips. Proceed with caution.