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Your Interviewer’s Expertise and the Employment Interview Format

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Most people tend to believe that the typical employment interviewer is highly skilled and reasonably well trained in the interviewing process; however, the facts do not support this.

Lack of Interviewer Expertise

As a rule, the person who will interview you for a job will not have any training in this process. The vast majority of them are "retreads" from some other area of experience or expertise. It is not at all uncommon for a human resource or personnel director to come to the job with a management or legal background. Such backgrounds may be useful in some aspects of human resources, but they do little to prepare a person for the unique conditions of hiring someone. Still, even if they are trained in personnel management, it is doubtful that the individual has been exposed to any sort of formal education in employment interviewing. (If he or she has, he or she probably has learned a lot of textbook nonsense.) For example, I recently conducted a thorough investigation of business colleges in search of courses in interviewing at the undergraduate or even the graduate level. I found that virtually none were offered anywhere. While communication departments at major universities will sometimes include interviewing as part of other courses, the material is frequently very general and essentially useless as background for hiring.

Now, it is true that numerous management development organizations offer workshops on so-called effective employment interviewing. But in my direct experience, they are not very well attended. Beyond that, the material is generally weak and frequently impractical because it is based on old notions and little meaningful research, lake, for example, that most employment interviewing seminars still stress open-ended questions and "gut" reactions to personalities. Because of this, they don't really help much and the people who attend them leave with the feeling that they are now experts in this area. Of course, they are not. Nevertheless, the fact that most interviewers don't know what they are doing is a significant advantage to you when you show up to be interviewed for a job.

The first thing you can expect is that the individual will be poorly prepared to interview you even though he or she doesn't know it.

The Typical Employment Interview Format

Given that most organizations and their representatives are not very sophisticated when it comes to selecting employees, it is simply enough to predict what you can expect to experience.

The Opening

Normally, you will be greeted with meaningless references to the weather or a sporting event or some such thing. The interviewer has probably been told (one way or another) that it is a good idea to begin this way because it allegedly "puts the candidate at ease." There is very little evidence to indicate that this actually will happen, but it doesn't matter. What should concern you is that it gives you a chance to show off the positive aspects of your personality and gain the upper hand from the outset.

Later we will explain exactly how to handle this type of opening. For now, it is enough to know that this is what you can expect nine times out of ten.

If the employer does begin with an opening of this sort, it is possible that he or she will follow up by describing his or her organization and/or the job itself. In either case, if you listen carefully, the interviewer may give you valuable information about the overall philosophy of the business and even what is expected in an employee.

Take, for example, a client of mine (an extremely well-educated and successful businessman, and president of his own company), who asked me to sit in on a series of interviews he was conducting in his search for an executive vice-president for his firm. He was hoping that I could give him some pointers to improve his interviewing skill.

When the candidate first sat down, the president immediately began to describe his company to the prospective employee.

'You see,'' he began, 'this company is based on a very simple philosophy. We believe that no one person can run a business of this sort without relying on others to help. In a word, it's a question of teamwork. We are successful because we work together, because we truly trust and respect one another. So the person we hire as executive vice-president has to be a team player." He then began to describe the specifics of the job. When he finished, he said, "Now, tell me why we should hire you as executive vice-president instead of 15 other people? What special quality do you think you bring to us?"

Not surprisingly, the man being interviewed eventually ended his long-winded response by saying, "... and I guess because I'm a team player. If you contact anybody I've ever worked with, they will confirm my willingness to work with others toward a common goal. From what you've said, teamwork seems to be a foundation of this company, so I'd fit right in."

When the interview was over, my client said to me that he didn't think he had to look at anyone else; that he had found his man. Naturally, I was astonished and I asked him what he meant?

"This guy is a natural. He's got the credentials. Besides that, he's a team player and you know how important that is to me."

"How do you know he's a team player," I insisted.

"Well, he said so. In fact, he made a strong point about his willingness to work with others."

At this juncture, I explained why the gentleman had felt compelled to claim to be a team player and that he had been told how to respond. It is important to bear in mind that the interviewer in this case should have been aware of the mistake he had made. But he did not until it was pointed out to him.

Not every interviewer will be this obvious in giving you information. But if you listen carefully, he or she will almost always give you clues regarding what he or she is looking for. Even if he doesn't do this immediately (if he moves directly into the questions he intends to ask), you can tactfully interrupt him by turning an answer into a question. That is, you can simply ask the interviewer what he is looking for in a candidate.

The Questions

Once the employer has opened the interview, you can be reasonably certain he or she will then turn to the open-ended questions. Such questions ask for your opinion, your thoughts, and seldom demand any real proof or substantive evidence. So you can answer any way you want.

The questions ramble with little sequence and frequently ask for insane and useless information. For instance, once when I was applying for a summertime job as a janitor in a hospital, I was asked if I had any hobbies. When I answered that "I enjoy painting impressionistic cityscapes," the personnel director stared at me for what seemed like a full minute and then mumbled, "I see. Well, that's nice I guess." Just why he wanted to know about my hobbies, or what they told him about my ability to do the job, I can't possibly imagine. Another time, I was asked by an employer if I had bad habits. Naturally, I told him no and that seemed to satisfy him.

Occasionally, a more sophisticated approach may be taken to the interview process. This occurs when the organization in question uses standardized, closed-ended questions. These types of questions demand a specific answer such as yes or no, an exact number, or even the in-depth explanation of a technical process.

Fortunately, for those seeking employment, closed-ended questions are the exception, not the rule. So there is little reason to expect them.
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