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Interview Protocol Police

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It never fails. I finally find the perfect candidate on paper for that oh-so-difficult job. When I greet her, she looks the part, and her handshake and eye contact rate a 9 on my scale of 1 to 10 (score!). We're past the introduction phase when all of a sudden I notice she is toting a venti-sized Starbucks coffee cup in her left hand. She doesn't ask for a coaster or place the napkin that's wrapped around her cup on the table. Before I move from our initial break-the-ice small talk, the super-sized cup (which I later find out is a venti skim, extra-hot, no-foam latte) tips over and spills on the newly shampooed carpet in the conference room. My assistant comes to the rescue to clean it up. Not only does the interview get off to a shaky start, but I don't even get a humble apology. Perhaps she was embarrassed, or maybe she was too stubborn to express regret. I finally come to the conclusion that she was completely oblivious to the fact that bringing the coffee cup into the interview (whether it spilled or not) showed poor protocol.

Protocol, etiquette, or just plain good manners are pivotal to conducting business with confidence and flair. Candidates, and people in general, are often embarrassed to be caught using proper protocol because they are afraid to be classified as stuffy or passé. I guess it's better to be considered tacky, sloppy, and wacky. As far as I'm concerned, exercising proper protocol is as effective as wearing the power suit. This article focuses on gaffes that have prevented candidates from displaying exemplary business protocol, thereby costing many jobs. Read on and identify yourself in scenarios where you now say to yourself, "Oh, so that's why they took a pass."

Interview etiquette is one of those things you don't need to spend extra money on, though you do need to spend extra time thinking about it. Keep the protocol police away by refraining from making some of the most common blunders I've witnessed throughout my interviewing years.

Keep It Light
Yourself, a briefcase, tote, and portfolio (with résumés and references) is about all you need for the interview room. Shopping bags full of purchases or other tchotchkes make you look like you ran out of closet space and need to carry your belongings wherever you go.

Food and drink are really thoughtless and inappropriate, especially if you're just bringing for yourself. Besides causing you to be extra careful not to spill them, food and drink come with their own set of smells that will linger long after you've left. That said, if you're offered a beverage (e.g., water, seltzer, or even coffee or tea) or a snack by the interviewer, you should accept it. Doing so shows openness to your recruiter's hospitality; in addition, it will guarantee that you will not be rushed out of the interview, as it gives you time to bond with the recruiter over a drink, even if it is only water. By the way, if a coaster is placed under your glass, be sure to place the glass on top of it after you've taken a sip or two. Be conscious of not ruining the furniture. The general rule here is to travel light so that you have room to acquire things that are given to you: drinks, snacks, brochures, and other types of company paraphernalia.

All That Is Wet
All outerwear, hats, umbrellas, and rain or snow boots should be left outside in the reception area. Carry dry shoes with you and change in the restroom. If you weren't aware it would rain and you have on regular dress shoes, be sure to clean them off before you go in, so as not to make a total mess of the floors. Again, you don't want to bring too much stuff into the interview room. In addition, excessively wet clothing, accessories, and footwear is apt to ruin upholstery and wood finishes. Be conscious of such soggy details.

Nervous Habits
Whether it's nail biting, nose picking, knuckle cracking, hair flipping, or crotch fondling, it's often about nerves. There is nothing more unsettling than interviewing a twitchy person. Some candidates become human instruments by anxiously whistling, restlessly finger snapping, or impatiently finger and foot tapping. Keep a pen in your dominant writing hand at all times (don't fondle it), with your second hand on top of the desk with palms down flat. Feet can be anchored by crossing your ankles or placing your bag between them without letting the bag hit the ground. Nervous habits are difficult to break, but at the very least work on keeping them in check by securing the parts of your body that are apt to play a faux pas symphony.

Timing Is Everything
While overstaying your welcome makes you look oblivious and self-indulgent, checking out the time either by looking at a wall clock or constantly catching glimpses of your watch makes you appear like you're not interested in the position. If you aren't interested and this is your passive-aggressive way of showing it, remember that such behavior is irreversible. I'll share a quick story of a candidate who did this and was thoroughly sorry she did.

I sent the candidate to one of my well-known jewelry clients and she consistently checked the time on her watch throughout her 30-minute interview with the human resources manager. The client's feedback was positive about her regarding all other fronts except on how rude she was to constantly break her eye contact to look at her watch. When I debriefed the candidate, she admitted to doing so while also confiding that she knew she had already clinched her first-choice interview and that they were already checking references. Somehow, her first choice never did make her an offer and it turned out that my jewelry client was her second choice. I tried to smooth out the mishap but no matter what I said, the client just couldn't get past her rude behavior.

Overstaying your welcome can be equally bad. Look for signals like the interviewer standing up and starting to walk toward the exit door. That should be a clear sign that she has ample information to reach a decision about you. Don't think that a short interview means that you've been dismissed as a candidate, because sometimes it's quite the opposite. Sometimes, it's the candidates I'm on the fence about that I keep longer because I need to pinpoint the exact reason for my apprehension before they walk out the door.

Cursing and Swearing
Cursing and swearing are not smart ways of emphasizing your feelings and emotions. "This job sounds bleeping awesome" may sound like you've really expressed your desire for the job-to you only. To me, it sounds like you are not to be left alone with a high-net-worth client. Who knows what else is likely to come out of your mouth? Swearing is vastly disrespectful. Interviews are not a place for bringing up body parts or their functions as a form of casual expression. In addition, racial and religious slurs are a glaring display of your bigotry and intolerance toward social diversity. Be aware that religious slurs can be as innocent as mentioning Jesus, Jesus Christ, or God in your everyday vocabulary.

Gum Chewing
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times1 reports that "Studies have suggested that something about chewing gum reduces stress, improves alertness and relieves anxiety." That may be so, but as far as business protocol goes, chewing gum is ranked high in candidacy fatality rate. There's no way of hiding it under your tongue or on the side or roof of your mouth. If you need to keep your mouth moist, drink water. If you have bad breath, brush your teeth.

Mind Your Manners
Whenever my daughter is off on a playdate, the last words I whisper in her ear as I kiss her good-bye are "Mind your manners." I tell the same thing to my candidates, because manners are something many people seem to outgrow. You may believe that just because your interviewer is your contemporary as far as age, level of experience, salary range, and the like, you no longer have to use "please" and "thank you." Nothing could be further from the truth. Respect is something that everyone is worthy of getting. You'll be surprised at how quickly it will be reciprocated.

Equal Protocol
Courteous behavior should be exercised by all-regardless of gender or age. For all of you men out there, don't feel emasculated if I open and hold the door for you. It is my office and I am leading the meeting, so I am showing graciousness by opening the door. By the same token, women should not feel dominated by a male recruiter who is well mannered, but don't expect him to be that way just because he's a man. Also, don't expect the chivalrous act of having assistance with your coat unless your arm is broken.
As far as whether you should rise to your feet whenever someone you are about to meet or be introduced to walks in, the answer is, yes, you do rise to your feet. This should be done regardless of your gender and regardless of the gender of the interviewer who walks in. The main reason for this is that you always want to shake hands while standing up; therefore, standing up upon a recruiter's arrival or departure shows respect and gets you on your feet. In addition, your behavior toward an interviewer who is your junior or senior in age should not be affected in any way. Refrain from addressing me as "sweetheart," "honey," "darling," "Lizzy," or any other diminutive pet names just because I'm close to your daughter's age. The trick is to think of the business and specifically the interview playing field as an equal one. Don't have the expectations you would in a social arena, and be courteous to show good pedigree no matter what your socioeconomic status is or has been in the past.
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