First and foremost, congratulations! You've landed a job interview, and that's half the battle. My friend Jenny, the VP of human resources and talent acquisition at digital agency Red Interactive, is back for her third installment of Career 101 (see: Part 1, Job Search and Part 2, Resume and Cover Letter). She'll explore how you can walk away from your job interview feeling great – along with appropriate ways to follow-up to ensure you make a lasting impression.
The final installment of Career 101 will be next Tuesday, where I'll compile the questions you've left for Jenny so make sure to check back on March 3rd to read her answers.
The Phone Screen
Excellent work: your resume has made an impact and you're onto the next stage of the hiring process. Though a phone screen may seem like an extra step between you and your dream job, there are benefits that can work in a candidate’s favor. The first benefit is obvious, which is, that the other person can’t see you.
Bear in mind that a phone interview is no less important than an in-person one. Making a connection with the person on the other end of the phone is your ticket to a face-to-face interview, so prep for it. Read through the job description, look at LinkedIn profiles of people at the company, get very familiar with the industry, read recent press, and even check their Glassdoor profile (which I would take with a grain of salt). All of these things can help provide a more full picture for you so that you can answer to the interviewer's set of needs.
Do your research on the type of interviews the company conducts (you can often find this information online, ask people you know who work there or have interviewed there, or ask the person coordinating the interview if there is anything in particular you should be prepared to discuss). In almost every case, keep in mind that you are likely being evaluated on much more than your past experience. The evaluator is likely making assessments on your communication style, aptitude, problem solving ability, interpersonal skills, career goals and motivation, how easy you would be to work with, presentation skills, etc.
Before crunch time, I recommend making a list of questions and then practicing your answers to those questions. When coming up with your answers, remember that there should be a balance between selling yourself and being honest about your experience. Honesty is key because you want to end up in a role that is right for you. If you strategically prepare for your interview, you should be in a good position to give answers that both highlight your skills and acknowledge areas where you might have room to grow.
The following list of prompts is certainly not complete, but might be helpful to use while you're prepping for your interview. Even if you aren't asked any of these questions verbatim, these will help direct your thought process and act as a bank of answers for other questions.
“Tell me about your current role and what you’ve been doing there.”
- Here, address your day-to-day tasks and bigger picture goals and initiatives. What does your team look like?
“Tell me about your career trajectory. How did you find yourself in your current role?"
- Talk about how you landed each role, why you selected it, what you learned from it, and why you made the decision to move on. If you have short tenure in particular roles, be ready to articulate why.
“Tell me about your motivation for looking at other opportunities outside of your current role.”
-The purpose of this question is to understand your career goals and your motivation for wanting to work at our company specifically.
“Tell me about your optimal role.”
- Feel free to address this question both in terms of what you want next and where you see yourself eventually.
“Are there certain types of clients/teams/technologies that you’d love an opportunity to work with?”
-Tell me about a dream project/client/opportunity. This a chance to show me your knowledge of our company or the industry while giving me some insight into the type of role that would be exciting to you.
“Tell me about a time when you really knocked it out of the park."
- In your prep work, think of three times you really went above and beyond. How did you overcome an insane deadline, rally a team around an impossible goal, or accomplish something great? I prefer candidates who give credit to their teams and know how to share in the glory.
"Tell me about a time at work where you failed, or made a mistake. What happened and what did you learn from it?"
- Arm yourself with three situations that went horribly wrong and know what you learned from them. I’m typically looking for your response to a situation versus your breadth of challenging experiences.
Practice your answers and feel free to keep notes in front of you (that's the beauty of the phone screen). In almost any role, the way you communicate is key, so answer questions clearly and concisely. Make sure that you're actually answering the question that is being asked (sometimes it's tempting to jump in and answer what you anticipate the interviewer is asking). Also, while this sounds like an odd suggestion, if you tend to have lower energy on the phone than in person, do phone interviews sitting in front of a mirror. It may seem awkward at first, but the facial expressions you make in the mirror should be the same ones you would make if you were meeting someone face-to-face.
Prepare interesting, thoughtful questions. These may be the things that you’ve identified in the first stage of your job search process that are important to you. These questions are an opportunity for you to learn more and articulate your interest in the company. Some examples:
“How long have you been at the company? What do you like the most about it?”
"Typically what kind of tenure do you see in this group?"
"When you think about employees who have been really successful in this role (or in this group), are there any common traits or characteristics you've noticed?"
"How does the company build culture? Are there any regular activities or events that promote culture within the organization?"
"I'd love to learn a little more about why this role is open. Are you replacing someone who was in the role? Or is it a new role?"
"What are some the challenges the organization is facing?"
Feel free to close the phone screen by asking about next steps and timing. I also recommend keeping the recruiter or HR contact in the loop on your job search. If you love the company and the opportunity, but you're getting close to an offer somewhere else, drop them a line to let them know.
The In-person Interview or The Skype Interview
If you’re scheduled for an in-person interview, I understand how nerve-racking that can be. Before you come in, ask your company contact if they can share with you a list of the people you'll be meeting. Do some research.
In addition to the questions you’ve practiced for the phone screen, be prepared to discuss sensitive topics in a way that doesn’t seem evasive or off-putting. For instance, if you hated your last boss, don’t say that. There is a diplomatic way to say just about anything. For example, you can say, “I was thankful for the opportunity, but I didn’t share in the vision of the company, and had a hard time aligning my professional goals with the goals of the key stake holders.” Being able to reply this way takes practice, and I’d highly suggest that you don’t wing your answers. Really think about why you left your job. Even if the answer is that “it sucked," that doesn’t help me understand why you’d be a good fit at my company instead.
The wording of sensitive situations is strategic. You are giving the interviewer insight into your sensibilities and your judgment, along with trying to highlight your strengths. For some candidates, that comes naturally while other people struggle with it. If there is a question that you haven’t prepared for and it leaves you a bit tongue-tied, don’t just blurt out an answer for answer’s sake. Instead, take a second. Say, “That’s an interesting question. I’d love to think about it a second.” Or, “My first inclination is to say [fill in the blank], but I’d love to circle back to that at the end of our conversation.” Then, write down a note and remember to come back to it when the interview is winding down. My favorite interviews are candidates who are able to speak to high-level concepts along with details of the job in a concise and clear manner.
Interviews can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. Remind yourself that it’s temporary and be engaged and active at every step so every single person you meet gets the same energy throughout the day. It would be a shame for the people who met you in the beginning to love you and the last couple of people get a tired, toned-down version of you.
The Nitty Gritty
What to Wear
Feel free to ask the HR person what the dress code is. Be polished, be hygienic, and look put-together. Make sure your fly is zipped. Most importantly, dress in something that’s appropriate AND comfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, you will be picking, hiking, or tucking during the entire interview and makes you seem THAT much more uncomfortable. I’d also suggest you wear shoes you can walk comfortably in. You may get a tour of the office and you don’t want to be teetering (I once had a candidate who tripped and latched onto my arm to prevent herself from falling during an office tour. I didn't mind, but she was mortified).
Be on time or a little early. Please account for things like parking, finding the office building, using the restroom, or getting a glass of water, especially if you’re doing a panel of interviews. If you are late, then you may not be able to meet with some key decision makers. To that end, don’t show up an hour early and just hang out. I’d say come into reception around 15 minutes early.
People actively ask me if they should bring copies of their resumes. I always say yes, it can't hurt. If your industry is old-school and traditional, you may need professional resume paper and a resume holder, but most modern companies are fine with a print-out on regular computer paper. There are also ways to get creative; for instance, if you work in a green industry, print on recycled paper or print double sided. These types of details show your enthusiasm about your industry or the prospective job.
Prepare a couple of questions to ask the people you interviewed with. I like smart questions about my industry, or even lingering conversations about why you’re passionate about what you do. And if you’re an entry-level employee, you don’t have to fake asking high-level questions. It will come off being inauthentic so don’t be afraid to ask if there is something about the industry you’d like to know. Something like, “I know this is an entry level position, so what are some of the things you like seeing on resumes?” If you are entry-level, use this as an opportunity to educate yourself about the position as well as yourself for future success.
Some Red Flags
There are certain things you should be aware of so that you’re not knocked out of the process prematurely.
1. One of the big red flags for me and my team is over-sharing. Generally speaking, if what you are saying to me is not something that you'd share with a client and it doesn't serve a strategic purpose, then consider not sharing it with me. I think sometimes candidates feel proximity with the people who usher them through the interview process. But keep in mind, even if we are familiar, we are still evaluating your sensibilities.
2. If you are a more senior candidate, don’t answer the question of “What other types of companies are you looking at?” with a myriad of industries and job titles. I want to know that you are targeted in your job search and if it’s not narrowed down, it’s a red flag.
3. Don’t forget the names of the people you just interviewed with. If you’re not great with remembering, write down the name of each person you meet. When the HR person comes back in post-interview, don’t say, “I liked the guy with the blue shirt.” Instead say, “I really enjoyed talking to Gabe, because he spoke to [fill in the blank].”
4. Treat everyone as respectfully as you would the most senior person in the company. This goes for the receptionist and the entry-level recruiter. Being respectful speaks volumes and if you aren’t, I hear about it.
5. At our company, we talk about salary from the get-go, even in the initial phone screen. I'm upfront with our candidates and I expect them to return the favor. This, obviously, will vary vastly from company to company. For me, when a candidate doesn’t want to share their last compensation (or it feels like they are posturing), it raises red flags. My preference is that people are transparent. I’d rather hear:
“I am currently making $XYZ but I’m hoping to making $XYZ.”
“I’m new to the industry and I'm hoping you can provide me with a little guidance on what the range is for this role?”
“I’m entertaining a couple of other offers and $XYZ is where they are.”
Follow – up
At the end of your interview ask, “If there are any other questions that I have, is there a good way to reach out to you directly?” Maybe say, “I appreciate you taking the time,” then reiterate your enthusiasm and close with, “What can I anticipate as the next steps along with the timing for next steps?” Ask for business cards, or ask your HR contact to forward along email addresses of the people you met with.
Follow up with an email the day of, or next day. Within the follow-up, ask whether they’d like to schedule next steps and provide your availability. A written note or thank you card is a nice touch, but certainly not necessary. My recommendation is that unless there is something you specifically talked about, please don’t send things like cookies, donuts, or flowers. You want your merits to be the reason you get the job.
That being said, we’ve gotten really interesting follow-up thank you notes that caught our attention and made the candidate memorable. One such candidate custom-created a thank you RED website. I thought it was very cool, very specific, and very creative. If your thank you “gift” doesn’t show what you’re capable of, don’t send it.