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Critical Interview Situations

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Enlisted below are some tough interview situations that might well face you in your job search, and some suggestions on handling them.

PROBLEM

During the latter part of your meeting, the interviewer proceeds to ask you an endless series of questions, many of which are difficult. You can almost feel your adrenal glands at work. Your palms begin to get sweaty. You weren't quite prepared for the rapidity with which these questions are asked, nor for the difficulty of providing clear, concise answers to them.



ANALYSIS/ACTION

While the rapid-fire questioning technique is tough on you, it undoubtedly provides a benefit to your interviewer. It lets him know which of the candidates he sees are able to think on their feet and to think calmly under pressure. Your knowledge of the company that your interview preparation netted you, as well as your familiarity with some of the more difficult questions asked by interviewers, will make it easier for you to think on your feet than it is for the person who hasn't been exposed to these questions before. It's sort of like taking the sample driving test prior to the real thing. There will, of course, be questions thrown at you that you don't have the answers for. When this happens, keep the following thoughts in mind:
  • Answer questions by referring to specific worth points, if you can.

  • If you don't know the answer to a particular question, say you don't know. You will at least be thought of as honest. That may be better than the next candidate.

  • Don't get flustered. If the rapid-fire questions start to unnerve you, remember they'll unnerve the other candidates as well.
If you keep your cool when others can't, you'll be the standout candidate by default. It is a well-known fact that at the Harvard Business School ninety-five out of one hundred first-year students used to fail the first mid-course examination. They failed because the test was designed so that 95 percent couldn't pass, no matter how hard they studied! Why did the faculty use such an unfair test? Probably to see how well students functioned after this kind of trauma. Your prospective boss may be trying to do something similar. No matter how frustrated you feel, don't panic. Remain honest and calm. Keep in mind the most important thing you have to sell: your contributions to sales and profits. No one can take them away from you. Remember that the interviewer who tries to pick a fight is probably looking for someone who knows how to avoid one.

PROBLEM

You arrive at your prospective boss's office in plenty of time for your interview. At the time your appointment is supposed to begin, his secretary comes to the lobby to let you know that he is in a meeting and it is running behind schedule. She leads you to your prospective boss's office where you sit for twenty minutes. Since you are expected back at your office within the hour, with each passing minute you grow more nervous. At the end of a half-hour, the secretary reappears and lets you know your prospective boss will be back in just a couple of minutes. Fifteen minutes later he does come in, extremely apologetic. He asks your forgiveness for the delay and wants to start the meeting rolling.

ANALYSIS/ACTION

If you can delay your return to the office without feeling uncomfortable about it, go ahead with the interview as though nothing had happened. Your prospective boss "owes you one" and he should be sympathetic and well disposed toward you before you begin. On the other hand, if getting back to the office-or to another appointment-is of critical importance, it's a different story. You have, at this point, only fifteen minutes left of the hour you were supposed to have with your interviewer. What should you do with it? Two things: first, level with your interviewer about the time bind; second, try to set up another interview date. Your prospective employer undoubtedly feels a sense of guilt about the situation, and he's likely to grant you another full-length interview if you ask for it. If you can, suggest several specific time periods and let him take his pick. For example: "Which would be best for you, Mr. Jones, next Tuesday morning early, or next Thursday at five?" While you may be tempted to try to squeeze in an interview as long as you are there, don't! You're far better off starting from scratch at another time than trying to conduct a meeting knowing you are going to be late someplace else. You'll be too distracted to do your level best. And even if you think you can hide your concern, it's a good bet that you'll abbreviate your interview in some way. Perhaps you'll fail to probe deeply enough as to your prospective boss's needs. Maybe you'll forget to relate a worthpoint that is cogent to a need he has outlined. In a word, take advantage of the fact that your prospective boss is the cause of the delay, and use this advantage to try for an interview when neither he nor you are under any pressures.

PROBLEM

Your prospective boss likes you. He tells you so. He's impressed with your contributions. He's impressed with you. But, and it's a very big but, your background isn't specifically what he's looking for. In all probability he has met other candidates with experience slightly more in tune with his immediate needs than your own.

ANALYSIS/ACTION

When you face a situation like this, consider taking two steps. First, agree with your prospective boss that your experience isn't as directly applicable as that of some other people who are probably applying for the job. Unless you have forgotten to include some relevant experience on your resume that you are now ready to reveal, there is no point in trying to convince him that your experience is precisely what he wants. He has already decided for himself that it is not. So why antagonize him during the balance of your interview?

Instead, lay out the alternatives for him in a way that perhaps he has not considered. This is not easily done. But you've nothing to lose by trying, so why not attempt it as your second step? Perhaps like this:

As I see it, Mr. Jones, you are confronted by three alternatives: First, you could take on a person like me whose contributions seem to impress you but who hasn't had the particular experience you'd like him to have. Second, you could select a person with fewer contributions to his record but with 'just the right' experience. Third, you could wait a couple of months or perhaps even a year and see if you can't locate an individual with the exact experience and the record of contributions you want. If I've summed it up fairly, Mr. Jones, could I comment about the situation?

If your prospective boss accepts your definition of the problem, you have a fighting chance of talking him into hiring you. You have convinced him that there are drawbacks to each alternative. In your case, not quite the experience he seeks. In the case of the person with the exact experience, not quite your list of worthpoints. In the case of the person with both, an indefinite delay until he's been found. After defining the problem, the time has come to try to persuade your prospective boss that your alternative is the best one. Your strategy is to talk the future-specifically, what the situation might be in a year's time:

Mr. Jones, while I have a little less experience than my competition, in a year's time I think you'll be happier having hired me than the candidates I'm competing against. As my record indicates, you know whatever I've tackled I've done well. In a year's time I believe I will have caught up on the experience, and perhaps even contributed more to your business than my competition, who now has more experience but not more contributions. If you elect to wait for "the" person with a record of contributions as well as the exact experience you seek, you might end up waiting a year to find him. So perhaps hiring me now would be a pretty good alternative. I won't lack for trying!

Obviously this approach won't work every time. But if you are up against a strong bias of "not quite the right experience," you at least have a logical way to attack it. You have found the Achilles heel in the argument that an experienced person would necessarily be better. It's worth a try.
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