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Myths and the Reality of Interviews

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You are not going to get that new job without having an interview. Even when an opportunity arises directly out of networking or a speculative application, rather than through an advertisement, headhunter or agency, there will be an interview. It may be less formal, but do not be fooled by that. No one is going to invest tens of thousands of pounds a year in you without checking you out. Nor, if you are sensible, will you accept a new position before you have found out as much as you possibly can about the company, the job, your boss, the way your performance will be measured and so on.

Before a senior position is offered and accepted there will, in practice, normally be not one, but two or three interviews, sometimes even more. The length of an interview can vary from 30 minutes or less to several hours. There is just as great a variation, too, in the interviewers you will face, both in their approach and in their quality. What is more, while some organizations rely on interviews alone, others use tests, assessment centers, presentations, report writing and a variety of other aids to the selection process.

The bottom line, however, is that each time you attend an interview, you are in a make or break situation. The future of your career, to an extent your whole life, depends on the outcome of the brief amount of time you spend in that inevitably artificial situation. Perhaps it is this that has given rise to the many myths which surround the interview - myths which need to be exploded if you want to get ahead of the competition and increase your interview success rate.

The Big Fight

The first, and most dangerous, myth is that the interview is a contest between you and the interviewer, the object being to score points off your opponent. While an interview may be challenging - indeed it is in your interests, if your strengths are to be brought out, that it should be - there is a world of difference between a stimulating discussion and a punch up.

The outcome of a properly conducted interview should be the same as that of a successful negotiation: win-win. The negotiations which get locked into a situation in which one party is perceived as beating the other are the ones that have failed. All too often, in fact, their ultimate outcome is not even win-lose but lose-lose, with neither party really gaining anything. A professional interviewer will aim not for confrontation but rapport, and you should be prepared to reciprocate. The two of you can then use the limited amount of time at your disposal productively, rather than wasting it by playing silly games.

The Gestapo

Another myth, favored by the less combative, rather more defensive, kind of candidate, is that the term, interview, is really just a euphemism for 'interrogation'. They ask the questions, you answer them.

Anyone who suffers from this misconception should substitute 'meeting', not 'interrogation' for the word 'interview'. To treat the interview as a one-way process is a fundamental error. If the process is to work effectively, then it must operate on a two-way basis.

In a sense, of course, it is easy to see how this myth arises. You are summoned to their offices. The interviewer seems to be in control of everything from the layout of the chairs to the length and structure of the session. You seem to be at a disadvantage right from the start.

If this is how you feel about interviews, try adopting a different approach. Imagine that you have been invited to someone else's home as a guest. Since it is their home, you naturally observe the basic courtesies. You arrive when you said you would, let them show you in. wait to be asked to take a seat and so on.

They show you the same courtesies, offering tea or coffee, making sure you are comfortable and outlining the program they have arranged for you. Then you both get on with enjoying each other's company.

Enjoying? What - an interview? Yes. Why not? If, when you say goodbye, both you and the interviewer can genuinely say, 'I enjoyed meeting you', then you probably succeeded in establishing the kind of rapport which is the bedrock of a good interview.

The Stress Interview

So, is there really no such thing as a stress interview? Given that senior executives need to be able to cope with stress, do interviewers not try to simulate it in an attempt to see how well you cope?

The short answer is that the stress interview is talked about far more than it is actually used. Professional recruiters know that the way people deal with simulated stress in an interview is a poor predictor of the way they will actually respond to stressful situations in real life. The pros also know that they have far more to gain by making you feel relaxed and opening you up, than by putting you on edge and making you defensive. If they do challenge and probe in the course of a discussion, this will normally be done in a firm but fair way.

You are more likely to experience stress when you meet an untrained interviewer. Although the majority will be affable, probably displaying more warmth than the brisk and efficient professional recruiter, it has to be said that a proportion of people who get to the top do behave in a manner which is overtly aggressive, even boorish and downright belligerent. Regardless of whether this is simply put on in order to test your mettle, or whether it is how they always treat people, the golden rule in responding to such behavior is to remain calm, courteous and businesslike. Never allow yourself to be dragged down to their level.

You should also keep your cool if you encounter a problem like finding, on taking the seat which is offered to you, that the sun is shining right in your eyes. Rather than getting paranoid and assuming that it is a deliberate stress ploy (it probably is not), simply move the chair, explaining politely why you are doing so, or ask the interviewer to pull the blind across the window.

Turning the Tables

Having examined the myths about interviewers, let us turn for a moment to the equally prevalent misapprehensions which exist about the behavior of interviewees.

It is often said that the person who gets any given job is not necessarily the most suitable candidate, but the one who per-forms best at interview. To be fair, there is an element of truth in this. However well qualified you are for a job, you can ruin your chances if you blow the meeting with the potential employer or the recruitment consultant.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that you can wheedle your way into a job for which you are totally unsuitable just by becoming a slick, practiced performer on the interview stage. It is very much the same as the situation which exists with CVs: poor presentation can ruin good content, but a polished presentation will never make up for a lack of underlying substance. What is more, just as recruiters are put off by over-glossy CVs, so they are suspicious of interviewees who come across as too smooth or glib.

But Don't be Passive

This does not, however, mean that you can just sit back and wait for the interviewer to draw out all your strengths. Even professional recruiters, working to a carefully prepared plan, may miss key areas. The risks with line managers, who may well have had no training at all in interviewing skills, are very much greater.

All too often the decision makers, the people who have the final say in which candidate to hire, are notoriously bad interviewers. They frequently fail to prepare for the meeting, in many cases not even reading your CV thoroughly, let alone thinking about how they are going to structure the interview in order to elicit the required information. They do too much of the talking themselves and ask closed or leading questions when they should be using open ones.

If you are to overcome the problems posed by the clumsy amateur, you need to be extremely well prepared, having a clear idea of exactly what you need to get across and making sure that none of your key selling points are missed. Never fall for the myth that the interviewer can be relied on to do the job for you.

The Truth, the Whole Truth

Another myth, perpetuated by writers of articles about the recruitment business, is that candidates can, and often do, lie their way to interview success. There are, no doubt, some who try it. Very few succeed.

Professional interviewers spend every day of their lives sorting fact from fantasy, true substance from hype. To get one over on them, you have to be an extremely good liar. Very few people indeed are that good.

One of the problems is that once you start lying it is difficult to stop. The first lie leads to a second, the second to a third and so on - until, sooner or later, you trip yourself up. That leads to the next problem. Get caught out once, even on something relatively insignificant, and nothing else you say will be believed. It is just not worth the risk.

Being economical with the truth, on the other hand, is a different matter - at least, to an extent. If there are topics you would prefer not to have to discuss, then clearly you do not raise them.

If a difficult subject does come up, the situation is more complex. In general, it is best to say no more than you have to and to change the subject as soon as you can. On the other hand, you have to avoid making any discomfort you feel obvious to the interviewer. Like dogs, interviewers smell fear and, once they get their teeth into something, they will not let go.

Being Smart

Another school of thought says that there is a far smarter approach than telling lies. All you have to do is to anticipate the awkward questions you are likely to be asked, prepare clever answers to them and then trot these out at interview in response to the appropriate cues. This theory has become part of recruitment folklore, which is where it belongs, because its rel-evance to reality is, at best, decidedly limited.

In spite of this, the concept does get perpetuated by journalists. There has even been a whole book published on the subject, entitled Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Martin John Yate, Kogan Page), which lists over 100 questions ranging from the fairly sensible to 'What would you say if I told you your presentation this afternoon was lousy?'

There are several reasons why mugging up pat answers to what one writer describes as 'the tough, sneaky, mean and low-down questions the interviewers love to throw at you' does not work in practice.
  • Pat answers sound just that, and this will do you absolutely no good at all.

  • Most interviewers do not ask catch questions.

  • If a question seems tough, it is most likely to be because your interview preparation has paid insufficient attention to the company, the job and your own relevant background.

  • Thorough interview preparation would be a far better use of your time than trying to memories over 100 questions, let alone the smart answers to them.

  • You will, in any case, never predict everything you might be asked. If you rely on having all the answers, rather than on a sound knowledge of your own CV, you are likely to get thrown by the first question you have not anticipated.
While you will never be able to foresee every question you may be asked, you should put yourself in the interviewer's shoes and try to predict the key areas they are likely to concentrate on. Some of these will be determined by the requirements of the job in question, others by your own CV. Any reasonably competent interviewer is obviously going to want to discuss your career progression, your reasons for leaving jobs, your aspirations for the future and the extent to which you fit the specification for the post you are being interviewed for. The ability to discuss matters like these confidently is what you need to concentrate on, rather than clever replies to smart questions.

A Confidence Trick?

Mention of the word 'confidently' raises a further issue. The last thing many people feel when they attend an interview is confident. So what do you do? Put on an act? Pretend to be some-thing, or someone, that you are not?

The idea that you should do that is just one more myth. The candidate who walks in with a cocky, 'I'm God's gift' kind of manner is going to get off on completely the wrong foot. Inter-viewers expect candidates to be a little nervous initially, and consequently allow for this by taking deliberate steps to break the ice and relax them. In fact, if you do not feel slightly-keyed up before an interview, you probably will not give of your best. As a famous stage personality once said, after years and years of appearing before the public, 'The night I don't have butterflies in my stomach before I go out there is the night I ought to give the business up'.

Too Keen?

A related issue to that of confidence is the matter of how much enthusiasm you display. There is an argument which says that it is wrong to appear over-eager at an interview because this weakens your negotiating power if you are eventually offered the job.

The only grain of truth in this is that you should not actually appear desperate. People who have been out of work for some time, especially those who have heavy financial commitments or who believe themselves to be victims of ageism, can fall into this trap. Even if you actually are beginning to feel desperate, you will certainly do yourself nothing but harm by letting it show.

This does not mean, however, that it is smart to go to the other extreme and project an attitude which suggests that you really do not care a toss, and that, if they want you to join their organization, they had better make all the running. This is another example of playing silly games, which will not help you one bit.

In any case, do remember the three basic items on any interviewer's agenda: can you do the job, will you fit into the organization and do you want to do the job? It is not uncommon for interviewers to ask, towards the end of the meeting, why you are interested in the position in question. Unless you have been displaying a reasonable amount of enthusiasm, you may find it difficult to give a convincing response.

Winning Ways

If you want to succeed at interviews, there are three basic principles to follow.
  • First of all, forget all the tricks and games.

  • Secondly, be yourself. By all means show your best side, rather than going out of your way to draw attention to your warts, but do not try to be something you are not.

  • Finally, remember that the only way to be certain that you will present a positive and confident image when it comes to the crunch is to invest the time and effort beforehand in making sure that you are really thoroughly prepared.
"The most vital stage of preparation is research."
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