Hiring Squad -- Click for more advice
Transcript: Wednesday, June 28 at Noon ET

Hiring Squad

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Lily Whiteman
Career Coach and Author
Wednesday, June 28, 2006; 12:00 PM

Avoid: sweaty palms, white socks, long-winded answers and little white lies to clinch a new and better job. You can learn more about every stage of the job hunt, from recruiting to networking to transitioning to a new career, by checking in with our Hiring Squad this week for articles, tools, live discussions and more.

Lily Whiteman is a career coach and author of "Get Hired! How to Land the Ideal Federal Job and Negotiate a Top Salary." Whiteman has been featured in several publications such as the Federal Times, The Baltimore Sun and the Legal Times. She is also a writer for the U.S. Treasury Department, where she has helped hundreds of professionals of all levels -- from students to executives -- get better jobs. Whiteman has worked at five federal agencies, including the White House Conference on Aging and the Vice-President's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

To learn more about Whiteman, visit her Web site .

Whiteman was online to discuss the various techniques used by government hiring managers .

The transcript follows below.

____________________

Lily Whiteman: Good afternoon! Thanks for spending your lunch time on this chat.

Some encouraging news before we start: The federal government is about to be hit by a "retirement tsunami," according to Linda Springer, the top federal personnel manager. 300,00 feds will retire in the next five years, and 40 percent of feds will retire in the next 10 years. So there are now unprecedented opportunities for getting into the government and quickly advancing.

So send me your questions on how to impress federal hiring managers on paper or in person, and how to move up within the federal system.

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: I always bring extra copies of my resume to job interviews. Is there anything else you think I should bring to interviews?

Lily Whiteman: You can make a vivid impression on interviewers by showing them tangible evidence of your success. For example, I recently coached a federal IT specialist who gave his interviewers print-outs of eye-catching web pages he'd produced -- and thereby WOWED his interviewers. Surprisingly, no other applicants did this. The IT specialist got the job.

Other good show-and-tell items for interviews include your articles, reports, newsletters, PowerPoint presentations, event agendas, artwork, explanatory maps, charts, brochures, catalogues, and photos of machinery that you operate, or photos of products that you produce.

Also bring documents that validate your success -- including enthusiastic evaluations, news articles about your projects, awards, congratulatory or thank-you letters from managers or clients, and academic papers accompanied by your professors' praise.

Another technique that produces great results is bringing to your interviews glowing written references - even without being asked for them. One caveat: Don't damn yourself with faint praise. If your feedback documents aren't very enthusiastic, leave them home.

You can also bring a list of questions and business cards. And collect each interviewer's card. You'll need their contact info for your thank-you letters.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I'm currently job hunting, and hope to be called for some interviews soon. Can you give me some general tips on how to boost my interviewing skills?

Lily Whiteman: A few easy ways to impress interviewers:

1. Your interviewer wants to hire someone who cares about their agency. You can show you care (whether or not you really do) by researching your target organization, and incorporating your research into your answers and into the questions you ask. In particular, research your target organization's mission, culture, achievements and challenges.

2. Interviewers say that most applicants wipe out in interviews simply because haven't prepared to talk about themselves or their target organization. So prepare for common interview questions that are listed on the major jobs websites; those questions are asked ALL THE TIME!

I recently practiced interview questions with a college senior before she interviewed at EPA. After the interview, she said we had nailed about 80% of her questions. She got the job.

3. Your interviewer wants to hire a problem-solver -- not a problem. Showcase your problem-solving skills by describing relevant problems you've solved and goals you've reached, and the associated objective validation you've earned.

4. Interviewers say that applicants commonly sabotage themselves by going negative. So stay positive and upbeat. Don't trash anyone -- including your boss. Provide a positive explanation of why you want to leave your current job, such as the great opportunities offered by your target job.

Also, provide evidence that you're a motivated, self-starter. (Look ma! No cattle prodder.) For example, did you do independent research in school? Have bosses commended you on performance evaluations for working well with little supervision?

5. Roll-play your answers with friends, and practice weaving your key credentials into answers for various question, so that no matter what you're asked, you'll convey those credentials. The paradox of practice: The more you practice, the more spontaneously smart you'll sound.

6. Send a personalized thank-you letter to each interviewer IMMEDIATELY -- even before you change out of your uncomfortable interview outfit. Overnight letters stand out more than emails. (But check that your target agency's mail isn't delayed by security screens.)

99 percent of your competition won't do these things. By contrast, by doing these things, you'll prove that you're the one-percenter who deserves to be hired.

_______________________

San Francisco, Calif.: I'm applying for jobs in the Senior Executive Service (SES). Do you have any advice on what I can do to improve how I come across in interviews for jobs at that level?

Lily Whiteman: Roll-play answering common interview questions, practice talking about your success stories, and tailor your pitch to your target organization -- just as you would before interviews for other jobs. But interviews for senior jobs are particularly likely to cover your leadership abilities. So prepare to discuss your skill in strategic planning, managing change, motivating staffers, and promoting diversity.

In addition, interviews for senior-level jobs are particularly likely to be conducted by a panel. So when you're invited to your interview, ask for the names and titles of all your interviewers, and google each of them. After you're introduced to each member of the firing squad -- I mean, panel: try to keep track of who is who, and collect each panelist's business card.

When you answer each question, first give the questioner focused eye contact, and then go down the panel and give each panelist eye contact. Try to address the individual priorities/concerns of each panel member. And after the interview, send each panelist a personalized thank-you letter.

Interviews for senior-level jobs are particularly likely to be so-called "structured interviews" -- in which each applicant is asked exactly the same questions. Structured interviews are designed to equal the playing field for all applicants and minimize the personal biases of panelists. So such interviews tend to avoid tangents and are less chatty than unstructured interviews

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: HELP! I've applied for several jobs in various agencies (including the Libary of Congress and the National Science Foundation), and haven't heard back from them. How can I reach a real, live person to check on the status of my application?

Lily Whiteman:

More and more agencies now inform applicants of the status of their job applicants via various electronic mechanisms. But: Grrrrrrrrr! It's so frustrating not to be able to talk to a real-live person when you need to. (In some ways, machines are definitely taking the "human" out of "human resources" -- in the private sector as well as in the public sector.)

So here's how to get around the computers and celluloid voices and reach a real person:

1. Every federal job announcement specifies the name + phone number of that job's contact person. So when you apply for a job, print out a hard-copy version of its announcement - because once the job closes, its announcement will disappear from the Internet.

Feel free to ask your contact person any questions about the opening before you apply. Also, if six weeks or so elapses after the job closes without receiving word from your target agency, feel free to follow-up with the contact person on the announcement.

Don't fear that your questions will be held against you in the competition. The contact person is usually a human resources staffer who processes applications but does not influence selections. Plus, it's their job to answer your questions.

2. Every federal agency has a public affairs or press office that is listed with information. This office can help you connect with staffers in program or HR offices who can help you.

3. Many agencies post a directory with phone numbers on their website.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Is there such a thing as a government career counselor to give individual advice? I'm weary of career counselor services, and need some individual direction

Lily Whiteman: Yes, if you e-mail me directly at Lily.Whiteman@verizon.net, I will refer to some excellent coaches.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I know I'm supposed to practice my answers for interviews. But I'm not sure what I'm supposed to practice -- how do I make my answers sound polished?

Lily Whiteman: Some ways to describe your credentials in impressive terms.

1. Target your pitch to your target. To do so, identify your credentials and success stories that parallel the requirements of your target job -- and rehearse discussing them.

2. Incorporate stories into your answers for common questions like, "What accomplishments are you most of?" and "Describe how you deal with conflict." If possible, each story should cover: 1) A goal you achieved, and why it mattered. 2) Actions you took to achieve your goal, and obstacles you conquered -- including adhering to tight budgets, tough deadlines and fast-changing priorities. 3) Your results and how they improved your organization's operations. 4) Positive feedback you earned -- such as awards; promotions; oral and written praise from supervisors, executives or clients; and evaluations from trainees or event attendees.

3. Quantify your successes. Think in terms of numbers of people, money and time-savings. For example: a) The number of people who use a website you produced. b) The size of the budget you manage. c) The amount of time saved by a web application you created.

4. Cite the high-level executives who approved, praised, used or benefited from your work -- even if they're not your bosses. For example, does your office director approve your documents with few substantive corrections?

5. Identify ways you boosted your office's reputation by helping it win awards, improve its ratings in surveys or audits, earn positive press coverage, or do more with less.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: So many interviewers kick-off the interview with "Tell me about yourself " I always find that the most horrible part of any interview. I never know what to say. I mean, geez, do they want to know about my interest in needlepoint, or what? Do you have any tips for making a good initial impression with an appropriate answer to that open-ender?

Lily Whiteman: Everything you say in your answer to this and other questions should help prove that you're the zero risk applicant. Don't waste time on info that won't get you hired, like where you were born, or your latest basket-weaving coup -- no matter how important such things are to you personally.

Start your answer with an opening salvo like "I'm an expert in or "I pride myself as being a professional who " Then give a logically structured "greatest hits" summary of your most relevant credentials and successes. If you've recently received great performance reviews or other positive feedback, says so. Begin with your most recent credentials and work backwards in time. (Emphasize, "what have you done for me lately?")

Mention degrees and academic honors that relate your target job. Also cover your team-friendly approaches. Conclude by stating, based on your research of your target organization, why you want to work for your target organization.

Practice so that your answer sounds fluid and lasts about 90 seconds. (This isn't the right setting for your entire A&E biography!) If you're unsure whether to keep talking, ask, "would you like to know more about any aspect of my background?" This is important because interviewers rate "talking too much" as a common cause of interview failure.

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: I have been a "stay at home" mother for 15+ years. As a member of the "club sandwich generation," I have also cared for multiple generations of my family. I am well-educated, am confident in my ability to learn, and am able to provide unique insights and solutions to often difficult situations and complex problems, but am not sure how to convey this. Sadly, there is a lot of stigma associated with "stay at home" moms, even though society derives tremendous benefit. I have many decades yet ahead and am looking forward to the next phase of my life. I would really appreciate your advice as to how I might start, field interview questions, and feel confident in the job search and interview process.

washingtonpost.com: Leslie Morgan Steiner's On Balance blog about juggling work and family

Lily Whiteman: It's important to get current references, network, and do things that will prove to employers that your skills are state-of-the art. (A Post article addressing the importance of keeping skills current is at: Keep Your Contact Info And Your Skills Current  (Post, June 25)

Depending on your field and your cash flow, some combination of these strategies might be helpful:

1. Identify a high-demand specialty in your field or within your reach, and strategize about how you can gain expertise in it -- through training, consulting work, or temp jobs. I know, for example, an engineer who couldn't find work after a medical leave. So he took some classes on business taxes, and then a lawyer friend of his threw some work his way. That was enough to get him off the ground, and he now does business taxes full time.

2. Consider doing temp or contract work. I've worked with many types of professionals who seamlessly segued into permanent jobs from temp or contract work. (Temp jobs aren't just for receptionists and secretaries anymore.)

3. Volunteer with an organization that interests you. When paying jobs open up there, you'll be in a prime position to get hired.

4. Network via professional and political associations, the parents of your child's friends, and neighbors. Tell your contacts -- in no uncertain terms -- that you're eager to get back in the game. Also, set up informational interviews with professionals in organizations that interest you, and keep in touch with them.

_______________________

Sonoma, Calif.: It seems like every time I have an interview, they ask the question, "What are your weaknesses?" I always seem to give a different answer and I have never been satisfied with the answers I have given. Do you have any suggestions for how to handle this?

Lily Whiteman: My "Washington Post" article on this topic is posted at:

What's a 'Weakness'? A Way to Show Strength (Post, June 25)

_______________________

Germantown, Md.: Do you currently have any seminars scheduled? Or can you recommend any?

Lily Whiteman: E-mail me at Lily.Whiteman@verizon.net, and I can give you some helpful info.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: You never know what you're gonna get from a private-sector interview. Are government interviews more programmed -- are there set scripts, etc., that every interview must use?

Lily Whiteman: Just like in the private sector, common questions frequently come up. So be sure to be prepared for them. Some government interviews also follow structured formats that are designed to level the playing field. Everyone gets asked exactly the same questions in an attempt to remove interview bias. But not all of them do, by any means.

So in a nutshell: Prepare, practice and roll pay before government interviews just like you would before any other type of interview.

One additional important tip: Check recent news stories on your agency before you interview. Most agencies are in the news CONSTANTLY. So be current on their high-profile activities. But try to stay away from anything negative in your interview. If, for example, your target agency is mired in scandal or your interviewer has recently admitted to some "youthful indiscretions", the less said about such unpleasantries, the better.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I've applied for several federal jobs without answering those horrendous KSAs. I didn't even get called for an interview. Do you think my not answering the KSAs doomed me?

Lily Whiteman: Loathsome though those essay questions (KSAs) are, they are the the most important parts of most federal applications. So don't skip KSAs in the hopes that your resume will be sufficient to nail the job. Indeed, most hiring managers will presume that if you don't want the job enough to ruin an otherwise enjoyable weekend cranking out application essays, then you don't want the job enough to deserve it.

Some tips for churning out impressive KSAs:

-- Don't cut and paste your job description into your essays. Instead, describe professional and academic achievements that parallel the demands of your target job. Prove that you're qualified for your target job by proving that you've already done it -- or are trained to do it

-- Include success stories. If possible, explain how you improved your organization's effectiveness, enhanced its public image or reduced costs.

-- Students: cover relevant degrees and courses; academic awards and your high grades; work experience and extracurriculars that reflect your initiative and leadership abilities.

-- Remember: hiring managers won't read your application as if it were a John Grisham novel -- savoring every word, while they sit cuddled up by a roaring fire, sipping wine. Instead, they'll zip through your opus. So craft your KSAs for a quick read by writing for non-specialists who know nothing about your projects and organization, structuring your essay logically, and by using bullets and headings liberally.

-- Online application systems don't accommodate formatting, such as bold and bullets. So create headings with capital letters and create each bullet with an asterisk followed by several spaces. (Tabs are not recognized by online systems.)

-- Solicit friendly fire on your application from an articulate friend who can will help you find and fix typos and hard-to-understand passages.

More advice on answering KSAs and many example KSAs that have helped people land jobs are provided in my book, "Get Hired! How to Land the Ideal Federal Job and Negotiate a Top Salary."

_______________________

San Francisco, Calif.: How is the application process different in the public sector from the private sector?

Lily Whiteman: The process for landing federal jobs is similar to that for landing other jobs. These are the steps: 1) Finding a target opening. 2) Applying. 3) Getting interviewed, if you're a finalist. 4) Hopefully receiving an offer - and then negotiating salary.

But the federal job application process is still distinguished by three main features: 1) Resumes for federal jobs are required to include some details not required for other types of jobs. (See ww.opm.gov/forms/pdfimage/of0510.pdf.) 2) Applications for most federal jobs include essay questions (called KSAs or ECQs). 3) The federal hiring process is generally slower than non-federal processes. But more and more federal agencies are filling openings within 45 days -- which is comparable to the private sector.

A common misconception to clear up: There is no civil service test anymore. I repeat: The civil service test is history!...finito!...passe!...morte. Nevertheless, several companies charge big bucks for helping job-seekers pass a civil service test that doesn't exist. So please, don't fall for scams involving civil service exams.

Tests are currently required for only a few types of federal jobs, including Foreign Service jobs and transportation screening jobs.

_______________________

Mclean, Va.: Do you have a list of temporary placement agencies that work with government agencies? I am a project manager looking for a temp/contract position.

Lily Whiteman: E-mail me at Lily.Whiteman@verizon.net, and I can give you info on that.

_______________________

Oakland, Calif.: When your interviewer asks you if you have any questions, are there any particular types of questions you should ask?

Lily Whiteman: Even if you already know more about your target agency than you want to know, ask questions. Why? Because applicants who ask insightful questions come across as motivated and intelligent. By contrast, those who don't ask questions come across as well you get the idea. The important thing is to ask questions that reflect your initiative, intellectual, curiosity and knowledge about your target organization.

A few sample questions:

1. "Most organizations are continually changing and evolving. How would you like to change this agency or encourage it to evolve?" (Then explain how you would support such change.)

2. "What would be my first projects on this job?" (Then mention why such projects would interest you and how you could contribute.)

3. "In my research about this organization, I learned X. But can you tell me more about Y? "

4. "I read X about this organization's culture on bestplacestowork.org. Do you agree with that?"

Another tip: If you have an important credential that you weren't asked about, preface your questions by saying this, "I do have several questions. But first, if it's OK, I'd like to mention some of my important qualifications that we haven't yet covered "

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: If you have an interview but don't hear back from your interviewer, should you just let it go, or should you call them?

Lily Whiteman:

Don't interpret silence as rejection. More often than not, silence merely reflects the benign neglect of a harried manager who will respond to you if politely nudged.

A case in point: I know a federal accountant whose promising interview for a management job was followed by weeks of stoney silence. After three weeks, the accountant apprehensively called his interviewer. The response? The interviewer confessed that he had forgotten about filling the job -- and then offered the job to the accountant.

Here's how to minimize the amount of time you spend twisting in the wind waiting for your interviewer's decision: At the end of your interview, say "When would be a good time for me to follow up with you?" Then, if you don't hear anything by the specified, call your interviewer. (Phone calls provide more opportunities than emails to gauge your interviewer's level of enthusiasm, and to ask follow-up questions.)

If your interviewer has not specified a follow-up date, and you hear nothing after 10 days, I would give him/her a call. If you don't reach your interviewer when you call and you don't leave a message, you can keep calling till you get him on the phone. But if you leave messages, you're back to twisting in the wind, waiting for his/her move.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I'm an accountant applying for a job at the Treasury Department. One of the KSAs asks me to describe my communication skills. I'm an accountant -- not a writer or a speaker, so I don't really understand what they are getting at. Can you give me some advice on how to tackle this question?

Lily Whiteman: They don't expect Shakespeare - they just want assurance that you can smoothly interact with colleagues, and convey your results to your superiors and customers. So provide examples of your oral and written communications that testify to your skills -- accompanied by descriptions of the size and type of audiences they targeted, and any associated positive feedback.

You can divide up you answer to the communication question under hearings labeled "Oral Communications" and "Written Communications" and provide appropriate examples under each category. For example, your oral communications might include PowerPoint presentations to managers for decision-making; presentations at staff meetings; and your contributions to strategic planning sessions. Your written communications might include your contributions to quarterly or annual reports, project summaries, memos, and announcements you've written for the Internet.

If you have any publications say so. And if you did well in any communication courses in college or graduate school, specify them as well. Also, if you produced a major document -- such as a thesis -- describe it.

Another way to think about those KSAs; Ask yourself how you would answer the question if it were asked of you orally. That should help fire your imagination. Your written answer should probably just be a more polished, organized version of your oral answer.

_______________________

Germantown, Md.: Hello. My name is Kathleen and I am an attorney who works for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. I have worked there for about 12 years, before that I worked for a Congressman for two years right out of law school. I telework two days a week because I was recently diagnosed with MS and the hour and a half commute to and from work in Washington has proven to be just too much. For this schedule I seemed to have paid a high price. I am never considered for promotions and my personal confidential business has been used by my supervisor as a reason supporting (in memos specifically naming me and my diagnosis)for more staff. I am extremely productive however, receive no cooperation at all from anyone in the office. I feel trapped, even though I would love to move to an agency closer to my home (DOE or NIST) but have no support from management. I am 40 years old- just starting out-- and again very productive but currently feel trapped in a toxic environment with no professional growth potential. Eagerly looking forward to your advice.

Lily Whiteman: I'm very sorry about your medical problems, and your boss should definitely NOT be discussing your situation with others. Moreover, official federal policies are encouraging agencies to promote tele-commuting -- not penalize those who use it.

It sounds like it's time to look for another job. You're not trapped -- because you don't need your current office's support to move on. You have great credentials and a record of productivity. So all you really need is time to conduct your search and persistence.

When asked by interviewers for references, explain that you don't want your boss to know about your job search; they will understand such caution, which is common among job-seekers. Then, refer your interviewers to other current managers, colleagues, or clients, previous bosses or references from previous jobs.

Here are some ways to find openings:

-- Keep checking USAJOBS.gov and the websites of your target agencies. Also arrange informational interviews at your target agencies.

-- Try to arrange a detail for yourself at a target agency or in another office within your agency. Since you're not getting along with your boss, he might support the idea.

-- Ask former bosses and colleagues you've worked with on inter-agency workgroups for leads.

-- Participate in the Bar Association's Government and Public Sector Lawyer's Division (abanet.org/govpub), and its DC chapter (http://www.fedbar.org/dc.html).

Another good way to spread your name around and to enhance your reputation without relying on your current boss is to publish articles in professional publications.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I'm a recent college grad, and I'm about to start my first "real job" -- which is in the public affairs office in a government agency in DC. Can you give me some tips on how to make a great impression and immediately establish a good relationship with my superiors?

Lily Whiteman: It's important to give your ALL when you start a new job. After all, it's a lot easier to make a good first impression than to repair a bad first impression. (You can relax and start slouching after a few good months.)

Some ways to cultivate a great reputation:

1. Finish assignments quickly and eagerly, even boring ones. (No long faces!) If you anticipate missing an important deadline, warn your boss ahead of time; don't blind-sight him/her.

2. Show initiative: Instead of waiting to be assigned projects, volunteer for juicy ongoing projects. Also, identify new projects that would fill important needs and volunteer to do them.

3. Ask your boss, "How can I make a bigger contribution here? If I can take something off your plate, please let me."

4. Be there when no one else is: When your office is short-staffed, tell the powers-the-be that you're available to pitch in. A HUD policy analyst did just that on July 3, when almost everyone else had already left for the holiday. Her reward? By the end of July, she was promoted to a special assistant to the assistant secretary whom she had helped.

5. Work late or on weekends, if you're asked to do so. (But collect the comp time.)

6. Be the tireless, unflappable trouble-shooter during crises.

7. Follow the action: a) Interact with senior level managers as much as possible. You'll thereby impress power-brokers who can fast-track your rise through the ranks. b) When possible, work on your agency's high-profile, controversial projects; your contributions to such projects will be more appreciated than your contributions to back-burner projects.

8. Last but not least: purge from your vocabulary this phrase: "that's not my job."

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Do the uses of application methods like Quickhire expedite or prolong the hiring process? How accurate are these questionnaires in selecting the best candidate for the position?

Lily Whiteman: These systems are helping the government speed the hiring process. More and more agencies are filling positions within 45 days.

But bear in mind that online apps are very hard to read for hiring managers. That's because viruses travel via formatting -- so most of these systems don't accept formatting, like bold. So these apps print out like featureless and hard-to-read -- like the medical inserts with prescriptions.

So you have to work extra hard to make your application stand and easy to read. And the easier your app is to read, the more likely it will get read in its entirety -- and the more likely it is to impress and be remembered. Here are some tips:

1) Use bullets liberally -- with an asterisk and some spaces. Online systems don't accept tabs so don't use them.

2) Write in short paragraphs. Keep each paragraph to only a few sentences.

3) Use lots of headings. Create them using caps.

4) You can create lines by repeating a character, like a plus sign or a dash.

I provide more tips like these in my book, Get Hired!

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: I have worked for four years in public relations and communications, and would be interested in moving into the government (want to serve my country, fight for American values, etc.!), either on the Hill or within the Administration.

What are the best ways to find jobs like this? I am coming at it from a specialized background, and when I've looked for Hill jobs, it seems almost none of them are ever actually posted, and the federal government's site is rather lacking in that type of specific job too.

Lily Whiteman: 1) Check USAJOBS for public affairs specialists, communications specialists and writers. Also check the websites of agencies that interest you -- because not all agencies are required to post their announcements on USAJOBS.

2) Check the websites and hard copy editions of ROLL CALL and THE HILL.

3) The Senate and the House each have their own websites with jobs listings. You can find them via google searches.

4) The Senate and the House each have their own brick-and-mortar jobs offices that place professionals. These offices have listings that are not posted on their websites.

5) Check with your reps from your home state.

6) Several agencies, including Politemps, place communications professionals in associations, lobbying firms, Congress and federal agencies.

_______________________

Charlottesville, Va.: Everyone recommends researching your target organization before interviews. But where are some good places to research government organizations?

Lily Whiteman: Don't even THINK about going to an interview without researching your target organization. Here's why: When Diane Sawyer interviews applicants for internships on "The Today Show", she asks them if they've ever seen her show. Believe it or not, many of them say "no" -- a fatal mistake.

If you similarly show up at an interview with no knowledge of your target organization, you'll come across as apathetic as those hapless "Today Show" applicants - and you'll probably have about as much success as they do. By contrast, if you prove to your interviewer that you're knowledgeable about your target agency, you'll win them over in a BIG way.

It won't take much time to research the mission, culture and achievements of your target agency. Some informative resources:

1. Your target agency's website: Review the agency's annual report, press releases, high-profile speeches and career section. (All agency websites are linked to firstgov.gov.)

2. Bestplacestowork.org: This site discusses the culture of federal workplaces.

3. Results.gov: This site shows how agencies rate on the President's Management Agenda.

4. Search for articles about your target agency on washingtonpost.com, governmentexecutive.com, governmentleader.com and federaltimes.com.

5. The archives of Washingtonian magazine: Every fall, the magazine covers the best places to work, including federal agencies.

6. Run google searches of your target agency and your interviewer.

If possible, during your interview, congratulate your interviewer on recent recognition earned by your target agency. Also feel free to say to your interviewer point blank, "During my research of your agency, I learned X."

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Hi Lily,

I applied for a federal job several weeks ago, but the closing date for applications is still not past. Once the job is closed for new applications, any rule of thumb on how long it takes for interviews to start? I've applied for other jobs, but this federal job is the one I really want. I've never applied for a federal position before so I have no idea how much time I should give before moving on, or if I can even call them to find out? For example, if they are interested in my application, is it reasonable to expect a call within a week of the closing date, a few weeks, or is it unheard of to go more than a month before getting a call? Thanks!

Lily Whiteman: This can vary greatly. I know people who've been snapped up within a couple of weeks -- and then some agencies take months. Call the contact person on the announcement of your job and ask them what's up. But also, keep applying to other jobs. Keep as many logs on the fire burning as possible.

Good luck -- I know that feeling well of just dying to be called for the perfect job! But even if this one doesn't work out, another one will. So keep plugging.

_______________________

Denver, Colo.: Have federal salaries caught up with private sector salaries? And do salary negotiations in government work the same way as in the private sector?

Lily Whiteman: Most feds now make at least as much as their private sector counterparts. Plus, many agencies pay up to $60,000 in tuition reimbursements. And the job security, pensions and benefits of federal jobs are unparalleled during this era of downsizing and pension scandals.

But be aware that federal salaries for the same job can vary from agency to agency. (Hot lead: entry-level starting salaries at the Government Accountability Office approach $70,000.)

The first rule of salary negotiations is not to bring up salary or benefits until you get an offer. Why? Because before you get an offer, everything you say should be aimed at attracting an offer. And talking about money won't help your campaign. But once you get an offer, it's the employer's turn to woo you and twist in the wind, awaiting your decision. So the time between when you receive and respond to an offer is the time to discuss salary and benefits.

Warning: Your interviewer probably can't offer you more than the upper limit of the salary range defined in the job announcement -- but below that ceiling, they have latitude. So once you get an offer, say something like: "I'm very excited about this job. But do you have any wiggle room in your offer?" And then give a reason why you deserve more -- either because of your excellent credentials, your salary history or a competing offer.

If you're a currently in the Civil Service, you can probably get a big raise by moving to the Excepted Service. Also, ask your hiring manager to commit to giving you a Quality Step Increase once you've proved your mettle on the job.

Uncomfortable about negotiating? Remember: For just a few minutes of uncomfortable negotiating, you may boost your salary by tens of thousands of dollars, or more, over your career. Is it worth it?

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How would you prepare for situational questions so that your answer is specific and not so hypothetical?

Lily Whiteman: You can tie the hypothetical situation to something that has actually happened to you. For example, if they ask you how you deal with conflict or how you deal with stress or how you prioritize when you have many important deadlines at the same time, (all common questions, say "I can tell you just how I did deal with that situation when..."

And try to relate your previous experience as closely to expected situations that are likely to occur on your target job. The more specific and concrete -- and the less abstract, the more impressive and memorable your answer will be.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I'm looking to relocate to the Midwest and want to work for the Feds. I've been reviewing jobs on OPM for over a year now, but so many jobs outside of DC are only open to currents Feds, or, even more restrictively, current Feds at that particular agency. Do you have any statistics on how many jobs are open to the public outside of the DC area? It seems like it's much tougher, and close to impossible, to become a Fed outside of DC. It's very discouraging!

Lily Whiteman: Don't have any stats on that, unfortunately. But because of the retirement wave, more and more high-level positions are opening up for non-feds. And only 85% of the federal workforce is in DC. Most of the rest are in other large US cities.

If a particular agency appeals to you, start cold-calling office directors and go for informational interviews. You can create your own "inside track" that way.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I have just graduated high school and am excited to be starting my freshman year of college in September. I want to ensure that I am able to find summer jobs and/or internships that will provide meaningful experience to enrich my educational and career goals.

Can you please provide specific suggestions: how to find meaningful summer positions and internships as a college student; and what I can do to set myself apart from others and give myself an edge, when applying and interviewing for these positions. I appreciate your advice.

Lily Whiteman: The federal government is currently rolling out paying internship programs almost as fast as Starbucks is opening up new cafes. Opportunities are available for students and recent grads in museums, laboratories, courts, parks and offices located throughout the US. Some programs operate year-round, and others operate only during the summer.

Here is a fantastic tip for impressing intern managers that an intern gave me: Ask the program director of a program that interests you for the contact information of previous interns, and interview those interns about their experiences. Then, convey in your application your resulting program knowledge and enthusiasm for the types of experiences offered by the program.

Here are some application tips from the director of a federal internships program: In your application, 1) Express your commitment to taking full advantage of all opportunities offered by the program. 2) Provide specific examples of your successes and ask your references to do the same. 3) Emphasize any classes (and high grades), research experience, previous jobs, and extracurriculars that relate to your target job. Also emphasize any leadership positions you've held, like serving as a team captain or organizer of campus events.

The best websites for finding federal internships are:

1. science.gov/internships

2. scied.science.doe.gov/scied/erulf/about.html

3. http://see.orau.org

4. nei.org/index.asp?catnum=3&catid=757

5. http://education.ca.sandia.gov/internships/index.lhtml

Also, check the career websites of agencies and other federal facilities. Another lead: The Environmental Careers Organization places undergrads in federal facilities.

Note too that internships are offered by many non-federal organizations that work with the feds. These include the Partnership for Public Service, the National Science Foundation, the National Parks and Conservation Association, Friends of the National Zoo, and international organizations, such as the World Bank.

_______________________

Philadelphia, Pa.: I've read that Master's in Public Policy degrees are useful for working in the federal government. Is it better to get the fed job first or get the MPP? I've heard some people actually have MORE trouble getting a fed job with the degree! Thanks for any thoughts on this.

Lily Whiteman: I know of many people with public policy degrees who are feds. Plus, although you don't need an advanced degree or even a college degree to land a federal job (depending on the job), the more degrees you have, the better positioned you are for senior jobs and to move up in government or other sectors. Education is always a good thing. So I don't think that rumor is true.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: At my agency, there is a lot of talk about moving to a pay-for-performance system for evaluating employees. Do you have any advice on how to make your boss appreciate and reward you under pay-for-performance systems?

Lily Whiteman: The basic principle here is that you know you're doing a great job; make sure that your boss knows it too by doing the following:

1. When a client, colleague or manager gives complements your work, respond with something like: "I know my boss would like to hear how satisfied you are with my work. Would you mind sending him an e-mail telling him what you just said to me? And could you please cc me on that?"

2. Store hard-copy versions of all documents that validate your success in a file. These documents should include praising and thank-you emails; your transcriptions of oral praise; annual performance reviews; positive evaluations from training's you've run; and awards.

3. Maintain an up-to-date list of your achievements. On your list, describe how you went the extra mile by, for example, smoothing tensions within hostile workgroups, and adhering to tight deadlines, tight budgets, and hectic travel schedules. (If you don't remember your successes, nobody else will.)

4. Throughout the year, give your supervisor copies of documents praising you, and tell him/her about oral praise you receive that is not delivered directly to him. Then, several weeks before your annual review, give your boss a list of your accomplishments with relevant supporting documents.

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: Can you comment on getting a job with the Federal Reserve? The Fed bank websites ask for online applications with a regular resume and no KSAs. How is this different from hiring practices at regular agencies?

Lily Whiteman: The majority of job applications require KSAs but not all of them do. Many online apps also feature short answer questions, multiple choice questions to define your qualifications, or short essay questions. The object of the game with those types of questions is to rate yourself as highly as possible, to rate yourself as highly experienced as possible -- without lying. Everything you say should be defensible. But this is no time for modesty, either!

_______________________

Vienna, Va.: How do I know what 'GS Level' is appropriate for me to apply for? What are the general steps within each level?

Lily Whiteman: The website of the Office of Personnel Management (opm.gov) and some of the links on USAJOBs have info on this.

_______________________

Gaithersburg, Md.: How difficult is it for a person without a college degree but with 15+ years experience to get a job with the gov't? I have yet to get a response to any positions I have applied to though my experience and the job description are a good match.

Lily Whiteman: To a large degree, the job search is a numbers game. That's because many federal jobs get dozens of applications. I know lots of very qualified people who had to apply to many jobs before getting in. I also know lots of people who get in right away. A lot of it is just luck -- if you are sure you're applying to appropriate jobs for your background. So apply to as many jobs as possible.

But it may also be helpful for you to get some objective feedback on your application. Ask a friend or colleague to look over your application, or consult a federal career coach. A new pair of eyes can really give you an entirely fresh perspective on your approach and on the way you're describing yourself in your application. If you email me at Lily.Whiteman@verizon.net, I can refer some very knowledgeable coaches who have excellent track records.

But it may also be helpful for you to get some objective feedback on your application. Ask a friend or colleague to look over your application, or consult a federal career coach. If you email me at Lily.Whiteman@verizon.net, I can refer some very knowledgeable coaches who have excellent track records.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How do you recommend dealing with announcements that are very vague on job responsibilities and duties? How do we know we qualify for these jobs?

Lily Whiteman: This is very important: I'm glad you asked that question. Examine the description of the opening on the announcement very carefully. Consider every responsibility described in that description as a question, "Can you do this task?" And the more ways you answer in your application "Yes I can do this" by showing that you've already done it, are trained to do it, or are a go-getter who will learn to do it, the more impressive your application will be.

In other words, use the description of your target job as a guide on what specifics to emphasize in your application.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: My daughter, a recent college graduate, has been working for EPA for the last year (my thanks to your book for actually helping her land the job). She likes the job well enough for now and greatly appreciates that she has such a nice job. However, her long term goal would be to work in another area at EPA. The problem is that she works in a small office and doesn't meet many EPA employees outside her own immediate office. In addition, she is not the most outgoing person in the world. Do you have any suggestions as to how she could network?

Lily Whiteman: Everyone says: "it's all in who you know." But a more apt saying would be: "it's all in who knows what you can do." And the more people outside your own office who know what you can do, the better able you'll be to move up and out of your organization. One way to make pivotal contacts in other organizations is to seek opportunities to work on inter-office work groups, and to contribute to government-wide professional groups.

Several types of government-wide groups exist. They include those whose members:

1. Address a particular subject: For example, Capital Communicators (capitalcommunicatorsgroup.com) and the Federal Communicators Network (fcn.gov) sponsor activities for federal communicators. And groups for government web content managers are listed at webcontent.gov.

2. Belong to a minority group: These include the National Organization of Blacks in Government (bignet.org); the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives; and the American Indian Program Council (aipc.osmre.gov).

3. Belong to a particular demographic: These include Young Government Leaders (youngovernmentleaders.org); the Senior Executives Association (govresults.com/SEA.htm); and Executive Women in Government (execwomeningov.org).

4. Address public administration: These groups include the American Society for Public Administration (aspanet.org) and the National Academy of Public Administration (napawash.org).

A few more pointers for networkers:

1. Many government groups are poorly publicized, so ask around and check the web.

2. Stay in touch with former colleagues and bosses. With time, they will rise through the ranks and move around; they may be able to hire you down the line.

3. Nurture your network all the time -- not just when you need it.

And in regards to shyness: Many people can overcome shyness with some concerted effort. For example, I know a lawyer who conquered his shyness by reading about cognitive therapy techniques in self-help books, and then practicing these techniques by initiating conversations with strangers at parties. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a clinically proven way to change your thinking about situations in order to change your responses to them.)

Another method is to use positive imagery to overcome mental obstacles, as athletes do. A great book on this technique is "In the Mind's Eye: The Power of Imagery for Personal Enrichment," by psychologist Arnold Lazarus.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How much hiring in the government do you think is based on having a connection or who you know?

Lily Whiteman: Some of it is. But I've worked with hundreds of people who got into the government with no inside pull. (And I did so myself). So I know it happens all the time. So keep applying. Also, by networking, you can make your own connections.

_______________________

Lily Whiteman: Unfortunately, my time is up now. Gotta go before the gong bell rings! Sorry that time didn't allow for me to answer every question.

Thanks for participating in this chat, and good luck in landing an ideal job.

-- Lily

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity