- Chapter 32 -
INTERVIEWING FOR A JOB
In working with many job applicants, people who were applying to me for work in my organization and those who came to me for counseling who were seeking work, I have been impressed with how many mistakes are made in the interview process. It is only natural for a person seeking a position to want to know all of the prospective advantages of what is being offered, but so often applicants communicate a "What's in it for me?" attitude without any indication, or even thought, as to what they might contribute.
The employers are also interested in what's in it for them. What they are looking for is not just academic credentials or letters of recommendation, but even more important are those elements of character and personality which indicate attitude toward work, toward authority, and toward the organization. In other words: "What kind of employee would this person be?"
Remember that the employer makes the first decision. The applicant may not accept a position if it is offered, but if it is not offered, the game is all over. So, the whole thrust of the interview should be to induce the employer to make the offer.
The following positive suggestions are so basic some might feel that their intelligence is being challenged by my even mentioning them, but, believe me, I have seen them all violated by some very intelligent people. So let me proceed.
ELEVEN SIMPLE RULES
Dress in the manner you think will be appropriate for the interview.
When I first was in business, I called on buyers in wholesale groceries in relatively small Southern cities, in the summertime. Wanting to make an impression, I wore my neatly pressed suit, button down collar, a sincere foulard tie, and equipped myself with a handsome sample kit. Once, when I was waiting for the buyer who was finishing a conversation with someone else, he kept glancing over at me. Then he said, "You look like a darn government man." (Perhaps he had just had an experience with the Internal Revenue Service.) I got the hint. From then on, it was short-sleeved shirts with open collars for me, just as it was for everybody else in their offices and for the other salesmen who called on the grocers. There was a second lesson in this experience. I was wrong in projecting onto others my own ideas and tastes, rather than discerning theirs.
To those who say to me, "Nobody's going to tell me how to dress or how to cut my hair," I respond, "No prospective employer is going to tell you how to dress for the interview. He just won't hire you. People judge by appearances, and although you may think you don't, you do too."
Look the employer in the eye.
Glancing around the room rather than looking at the person gives the impression either of being sneaky or excessively shy, neither of which are desirable traits for employment.
Use the employer's name with reasonable frequency in the interview.
A person likes the sound of his or her name, and using it helps to make an impression. For example, "Mrs. Gates, I am glad you asked me that question, because it is a subject I feel strongly about........"
Shake hands firmly.
Don't give them a flabby piece of flesh. A macho bone cruncher is worse. A successful man in the office-supply business told me that he called on my father many years ago when he was a brand-new salesman, and my father gave him handshaking lessons. "Don't hand me a dead fish. Put some life in it." Mr. Bernard was very grateful for this, particularly as it was done in such a friendly manner. He told me about it enthusiastically.
As a volunteer, I gave lessons to teenagers from the inner city with regard to the job interview, something with which they very much needed help. First, I demonstrated what not to do, as I shuffled into the room, slouched in the chair, stared at the floor, fidgeted with my fingers, and mumbled inaudibly. Of course, they roared with laughter, but they continued to laugh as various members, in practice interviews before the group, did the same things, despite my second demonstration as to how it should be done. With practice, they improved, interviewing each other and practicing hand shaking. As they left, I insisted that each one give me a firm grip, look me in the eye, and say in a good, strong voice, "Thank you, Mr. Bell, for the interview." They were pleased with the experience.
Don't start out by asking what the salary is, and what the pension and health insurance plans are.
This is important. The employer will get around to describing them, or at least he will ask, "Do you have any questions?" Then it is appropriate to inquire about such matters. At first, concentrate on making a favorable impression during the interview.
An example of a flagrant violation of this occurred when a friend asked me to try to help her grandson get a salesman's position. Roger Granger agreed to interview him, but in the telephone conversation in which Roger was trying to set up an appointment, the young man immediately wanted to know: What was the salary? Was there a pension plan? Was there hospitalization? Roger was so disgusted, he ended the conversation saying he needed someone older. The sad thing is that the young man probably did not know what he had done wrong. There is no inducement for an interviewer to point out to failed candidates what their mistakes were. So, they just go on repeating them.
Don't ask a series of detailed questions about the job.
The employer certainly has to give some description of the position or the interview would not make sense, that is if you have not learned it already from the advertisement of the position or from your own investigation. However, it is wise not to quiz him at length. Remember that the employer has probably had to tell the same story over and over again to other applicants, a point to which I can testify, and he would like to get on with the interview. Again, as with the salary, this information will come out, and if the applicant is in the top running and it comes to the point of mutual consideration, all the appropriate questions can be asked.
It is at the time when you have been offered the job that a complete understanding should be reached with regard to requirements, and all aspects both positive and negative. Trying to renegotiate at a later date is very difficult. However, in learning these aspects, it is important not to come across as making demands. Frequently, on some matters, it is better to find out what you need to know from other employees, rather than by quizzing the prospective employer.
Communicate a positive attitude.
How is this done? Clearly it is by what is said and what is asked. Such statements as, "I would like to make a contribution to the best of my ability." and "I want to be part of the team," can be worked into the interview at an appropriate time. Now, this may sound cornball to sophisticated MBA's, but I submit it won't to the employer, to say, "I want you to know, Mr. Humphries, wherever I work I plan to be a conscientious, loyal employee, and to the best of my ability try to help to achieve the goals of my superiors and of the company." How does an applicant distinguish himself from all the others? A statement like this would stick in Mr. Humphries' mind, because I can assure you no one else interviewed had said anything like that!
It is important that the candidate say such things sincerely which calls for some personal introspection. Memorized statements which don't fit in with other elements of character and personality that the person is projecting come across as fake.
DON'T say, "I want to get into management."
There was a garden party at which the usual social conversation was taking place. The president of a large book-publishing company asked a young man what he wanted to do upon graduation. "I want to get into management." This touched off the book publisher, who gave him some excellent advice with sufficient authority so that it should have had the proper effect, "You young people want to come in and start making decisions right away. How can you be a manager when you don't know anything about the company? It takes a long time of being with an organization before you can understand its policies and be in a position to decide anything."
Jim Saunders, who is a vice-president of one of the largest firms in our area, said that he gets so annoyed at the expectations and attitudes of people applying for jobs that if someone came in and said, "I want to start at the bottom and work up," he would hire that person immediately. But if this happened, Mr. Saunders would certainly give the applicant a position based on his or her qualifications. It is the attitude demonstrated by the potential employee which is important.
Don't overstate your goals.
Similar mistakes are made on job application forms as in interviews. Some universities and career counselors urge graduating MBA's to describe their five-year objectives in their applications. I believe that is a great mistake. How can a person who has never worked for a particular business project what he or she will be doing five years later, especially as, when the resume is being composed, the applicant knows a limited amount about the nature of the company doing the hiring and what future requirements might be. These MBA's struggle over this, but, from the number I have read, they make it clear they expect rapid advancement in managerial positions. They do not consider themselves employees, but executives-in-training. Yet employers are more likely to be looking for employees.
An employer would be more impressed with this type of expression, "Five year objective: To achieve as high a position as is justified by my performance and ability, taking into account that I plan to demonstrate loyalty and conscientiousness and a desire to help achieve the goals of the company and my superiors." In other words, it is not what the applicant expects or wants, but what he or she earns by performance.
One friend, Gene Marx, a graduating MBA, revised his objective to read: "To serve and contribute to your company in whatever manner I can, based on your direction, as a result of the skills I have developed, and which are described below."
Contrast this to another application which I received, and which read: "PROFESSIONAL OBJECTIVES: Responsible managerial position offering excellent advancement opportunity." This young person had been without a job for several months.
Do as much research as possible on the company for which the position is open.
This serves three purposes: 1) The company may have such disadvantages that the applicant would do well to withdraw politely; 2) It can save time in the interview, for which the employer would be grateful, if the applicant knows a great deal about the company already; and 3.) Most importantly, the interviewer will be impressed by the initiative shown in one's having done such an investigation. It is surprising how few people even think of this strategy.
If a firm is listed on the Stock Exchange, any stockbroker can supply a printed description of the company and what it does. Even better, if you have time, write for an annual report; listed firms are obligated to respond to such a request. If it is a local firm, as many inquiries as possible should be made. Frequently, friends and contemporaries can be identified who either work for the firm in question, or know about it. For instance, if it is a bank, the younger employees of other banks know a great deal about institutions such as theirs. A person can get much better information from such sources than from the official spokesperson of the company itself.
This investigation is similar to visiting a prospective college. Listen to the sales pitch of the officials, then have lunch with the students. They will give out the real information. Our daughter, Bee, attended Concord Academy because the students at three other schools recommended it.
When my brother Jim was at Harvard Law School, he wanted to work for a firm in Washington. During vacations, he talked to a large number of young lawyers in DC asking for advice. He was interested in what type of law was practiced, what the senior partners were like, but, more than anything, the prevailing ethics. At the end of this, he went to see Mr. Welch Pogue, showed him his veritable book of research, and said that his firm was the one for which he would like to work for. Jim was hired and became the only young associate at the time, but years later when he retired, he was the most senior partner, in terms of years of service, with what had become one of the largest law firms in the world.
It is possible to work into an interview one's knowledge about the company, such as, "That water purifier which you have added to your boat supply line sounds great." Or, "Your firm certainly has a fine reputation. I would be proud to be part of it."
Doug Moore worked for a large American firm selling oil field equipment all over the world. In doing so he interviewed British engineers as potential employees. He said they were bright and well educated, but and not imaginative. Not one bothered to find out about his company before the interview. He reported, "If just one of them had said, 'Those safety valves that your company manufactures to be used in cross-country desert pipe lines sound great,' he would have turned into my prime prospect."
A young man wanted to get a job with J. P. Morgan, an old and prestigious investment banking firm. A wise man suggested to him that he drop everything for three days and bury himself in the New York Public Library and read everything he could get his hands on about the company. Not only did he get the job but the Vice President who interviewed him said, "If I ever want to know anything about J. P. Morgan, I will come see you."
Most companies now have websites on the Internet. You can learn a lot about a company from its website. In many cases, the URL of the company's home page will be the name of the company or its abbreviation. Try typing the company's name or common abbreviation into the "Location" box in your web browser, or use a search engine such as Yahoo, Excite, Lycos or Netscape to locate their web page. These pages provide a wealth of information about the company and the products or services they offer.
Once you've found the company's home page, look for a link to their employment page. Many companies (including many smaller ones) have web pages listing employment opportunities with that company.
Think in terms of what the employer is looking for.
Yes, they are interested in your class rank as well as the courses you have taken, and they would like to know about your work experience, even if this only involved summer jobs indicating initiative on your part. But they are more interested in personality and character traits. For example, a brilliant employee with a fine academic record who can not accept orders or instruction or creates relationship problems with other employees is certainly no asset.
On the deeper level, employers are interested in loyalty and integrity. It is amazing to me that some young people enter a training program without any thought of working for the company and without any consideration of the cost and effort put into trying to have them become valuable employees.
Once I hired a young man to work at our candy factory after getting his assurance that he wanted to become a permanent employee. He went through the usual training program and began to perform the task for which he was hired. However, at the end of the summer he told me he was quitting to go back to school.
I asked, "Didn't you say you wanted to be a permanent employee?"
Without any embarrassment or restraint he replied, "I had to tell you that or you wouldn't have hired me."
So much for integrity!
A final reminder: Employers are put off by applicants who demonstrate too high a level of expectation, who make demands, and who demonstrate only an interest in what's in it for them, rather than what they can contribute.