Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Interviews - a partial list of dont's

Sometimes the best advice is what not to do.

I often refer to a bell-curve when I talk to people about interviewing: a few answers to questions are superior, some a great, most are good - fair, some are poor, and few are horrible. The key is to avoid being poor and horrible! The fair and good answers can be compensated for by great and superior results on resumes, interviews, and reference checks.

So here is a partial list of don'ts:

- avoid the 10-20 minute answer to "Tell me about yourself". This is where you give your elevator talk, a quick 2-3 minute description of your key professional achievements and your key interests that are supported by actions. I have had ice-breakers that take 30 minutes since the candidate will not stop talking. They start somewhere around age 6, tell me about their paper route, and describe a messy divorce.  I then need to rush them through the interview since I have someone booked right after them. And I have already made up my mind….

- avoid the royal WE. The company is hiring you so they want to know your actions and the results of those actions. I often will interrupt someone mid-sentence and ask them, "I am interested in what YOU did. Can you focus on that?" A bit harsh but too many people fall in this trap.  We all work with colleagues and many of us work in teams.  Describe your contribution, your role (facilitator, innovator, scheduler), your actions.

- avoid "amazing" stories. If your behavioural based answered involves Las Vegas, people with 6 fingers, miracles, fast cars then often your positive actions and the results get lost in the story. I can still recall some of these stories, like when one person told a story for over 20 minutes about how she was a bus driver transferring prisoners and the bus broke down and she improvised feeding them since they were hungry, then it started to snow...

- avoid your default stress behaviour. Believe it or not, I can be lousy at interviews. Really lousy.  When I am stressed, such as when I really want something really bad, I talk very loudly, talk a lot, brag, and overstate. My strategy to mitigate my default stress behaviour is I lay-off the coffee for 2 hours before the interview & I write down SHHHH on a piece of paper in front of me at the interview. This helps ground me and makes me mindful. Some people are mumblers, some people are likers (like you know, like I was...), some people whisper like a mouse, some people answer in 2 sentences – I believe we all have a stress behaviour that can derail our interview performance.

- avoid critical instances. A killer question for some can be "Tell me about a time you dealt with a conflict". Many people will answer with a conflict that involves a conflict so strong that it was never resolved and that does not show any positive personal actions or results. Pick examples from your past with a lesser conflict but one where the actions you took solved the conflict.  Avoid fist-fights and conflicts with photocopiers.

- avoid too much of the distant past. Some interviewees loved a job 10 years ago and have lots of examples where they showed initiative, good judgment, solved key problems & then use that work experience in every answer.  When I interview, I am mostly focused on what you did in your most recent job. The best candidates are those whose jobs build on each other or who continually enjoy and challenge their career.

- avoid poor dress. This is an obvious one but there are some times I have been shocked - Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, t-shirts, torn jeans. I have even been able to tell if someone is in their pajamas during a phone interview!

- avoid stories that can not be supported. In my view, the best examples a candidates gives in an interview are the same ones in their resume and the same ones that reference will also recall. This makes the examples more factual and more reliable. Start with a resume focused on actions and results. After the interview, share that resume, the job ad and your key achievements with your references.

- avoid answering your phone during the interview. True story - during one interview a young man's phone rings. He takes it out of his pocket, answers it, puts his hand over the mouth piece and says to me "Do you mind if I take this?" and proceeds to have a 5 minute phone conversation in front of me.

- avoid answering too quickly. I typically ask complex questions with more than one part. Candidates that rush into an answer rarely address all the factors.

- avoid not taking notes. If the question is complex, some quick notes will guide you through your answer. I never trust a waiter who does not write down my order and I never trust a candidate who doesn't write anything down.

- avoid the casual phone interview. Many people treat phone interviews like phone calls. They take the pre-arranged, up to one hour phone interviews in food courts, elevators, cars, planes, and even in bed. I have heard the toilet flush too many times to be comfortable with.  A seasoned interviewer can tell if you are distracted and unprepared. 

And lastly avoid under preparing. Interviews typically involve an examination of your past, an investigation of your key behaviours, and possible a test of your problem solving. 99% of the time, the factors used to determine a qualified fit for the job are in the advertisement. Read and re-read the advertisement. Be ready with a story from your past related to statements such as "we are looking for a team player with excellent customer service". Be ready to answer a hypothetical question about team work by researching key elements of team work on the firm’s web-site or even on Wikipedia.  

There is no excuse for not being prepared.  An average employee cost well over a million dollars over a 20 year career.  The interviewer will be prepared to do due diligence – are you prepared to be worth that much?

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