Prepare for Pitfalls
How to Get Through Tough Job Interviews
By Tania Anderson - Special to washingtonpost.com
For many people, job interviews rank right up there with dental work and taxes. They can be stressful, unpleasant and even mysterious, not great adjectives to describe an experience that is a crucial gateway between you and your career development.
And seemingly everyone has a tale to tell -- a story of the kooky interviewer, of getting stuck in a room for hours as a parade of people come in to repeat questions over and over again, or of surprise skills tests.
But those situations don't have to derail your job search. We asked a panel of experts to provide tips to help you navigate through some all-too-common job interview perils, and they offered up a host of answers.
Take note: They can help you get to the "other side" -- and maybe even help you land your dream job.
You're sitting across a table from five unfamiliar faces. Question after question is lobbed your way over a series of hours. One interviewer takes quiet notes; another peppers you with question after detailed question. And now the sun is clearly setting outside the office. It can be grueling, but many companies use the multi-interviewer approach to vet job candidates in hopes of ensuring that key information isn't missed.
Luckily, you can prepare. In group interviews, each person is sometimes assigned a role. One may be playing the bad cop, asking you questions about the gaps in your resume. Another might be there to observe body language and fact-check your claims. Looking for these roles can help you direct your answers. "You have to have your act together much more in that kind of scenario," says Robert McGovern, president of online career search service JobFox.
To help stay sharp, take breaks when they're offered and use subtle techniques -- such as deep breathing during breaks, or positive visualizations -- to de-stress. Focus your responses to the person who asked the question, then "work" the whole room by making eye contact with everyone.
Unless you're perfect, there's always a chance that you'll miss a job interview -- maybe you just plain forgot, or maybe your car broke down and you can't make it on time. To make up for the flub, call the interviewer as soon as possible -- before the interview is to start, if possible -- and take full responsibility.
"Most employers would be understanding," McGovern says, though if you get a second chance you may attract extra scrutiny -- was this a one-time error, they may wonder, or are you a risk to make a similar mistake with an important client?
"You would have to convince me that you're not going to do this again and you're not going to blow off a customer," says Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of the career center at George Washington University.
When your second try comes around, take extra pains to get there on time -- you don't want to develop a reputation as a scatterbrain.
The Test Run
Preparing for a standard interview is one thing, but what if an employer wants you to come in and spend a day working in their office? Many organizations try job seekers out to see how well they fit with the team and to get a sense of how their brain works, so this may happen to you.
Sound daunting? Relax -- companies are unlikely to spring this on you when you walk in the door. Once there, keep things simple: Address tasks in a logical fashion and be courteous to those around you. Prepare as much as possible, but remember you won't be expected to know their products or marketplace inside out. "It's often about 'Can you do the job and will you be a natural part of this group?'" says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
Don't expect to get paid for your time. Just chalk it up as a piece of the interviewing process.
The "Oh-My-Gosh, This Isn't What I Thought It Was" Interview
The job description made it sound so appealing. Your skills matched. The location was perfect. Even the salary was reasonable. And then, 10 minutes into the interview, you realize that taking this job would mean a life of misery.
While your instinct might be to head for the hills, continue the interview as if you still want the job. "You need to really finish it strongly," says Challenger. "You never know whether [the job] might turn into something different."
If an organization likes you enough, he adds, they might be able to work with you to find another, better, position -- and you would always rather be in a position to turn down a tangible job offer. You're unlikely to get one if you blow off the interview: "You do not want to embarrass the interviewer," says McGovern. "Because to them, it's, 'Why did I waste my time with you?'"
The "Screen Test"
You've always loved talking on the phone, and you look great in photographs. But can you manage an electronic job interview without becoming a deer in the headlights?
Experts admit that such interviews are some of the toughest to do because it's harder for the job seeker and the interviewer to make a connection. The phone interview is commonly used to weed out candidates that employers don't want setting foot in their offices. And the video interview can be used for companies or interviewers that aren't local.In both situations, set yourself up to succeed. Prepare an environment where there are no distractions. In a phone interview, interviewers can pick up voice modulations and sense if someone is preoccupied, so turn off the TV or monitor and bury your BlackBerry in the back yard.
And while it's OK to wear your pajamas for a phone screen as long as you speak professionally and crisply, dress is much more important for video interviews. Experts recommend wearing contrasting colors but not stripes: "They tend to shimmer on TV and be distracting," says McGovern.
The Road Trip
It's the job of your dreams, in the city of your dreams -- but you're 500 miles away and they want to meet you in person after you dazzled them during several phone interviews.
So who pays? It's appropriate to ask who should make and pay for travel arrangements. They might offer to cover none, some or all: Employers aren't required to pay. If you can't afford the trip, suggest a video interview. Another option might be to schedule several interviews in the same city with other companies. (If they do pay, take it easy on the travel budget; your spending may influence their decision.)
As to logistics, try to make sure your flight or train gets in with enough time to get you to the interview without stress. Leave several hours after the interview is expected to conclude -- you don't want to feel rushed about travel during the interview, and if things are going well and run long, you may be grateful for the flexibility.
Finally, use those first introductory "How's the weather?" moments to your advantage by seeming involved from the outset. Do a little research on local sports teams or learn a unique feature about the town or city.
"You're not supposed to be an expert," says Philip Flaherty, manager of alumni and employer relations at George Washington University, "but it shows you're interested in the company and you've taken the time to do background research."
The Guy Who Doesn't Ask Questions
When you've expended time and energy preparing to tell a potential employer your story you can be in a bit of a pickle if they don't seem interested in listening. Maybe they're preoccupied; maybe they'd rather talk about themselves; or maybe they just stick to small talk.
Whatever the case, they're hurting your chances if you don't get ample opportunity to demonstrate why you're the right person for their job opening.
"Most managers are poor interviewers," says McGovern. "The more candidates understand that, the better off they are." To combat that, come prepared to discuss four our five topics that help you illustrate why you're right for the position whether you're asked about them or not. If you're not getting useful questions, try changing tack and saying, for instance: "Maybe I can tell you about the accomplishment I'm most proud of."
Then proceed as if you'd been asked to share the tale. The alternative, to leave the interview having shared no useful information about you, is far worse than a few awkward conversational transitions.
You're used to insults from aggressive Beltway drivers, but not job interviewer. But here they come: First, a slight jab at your lack of experience. Then a second barb -- a question about your ethnic background.
Maybe you laugh nervously, or maybe you start to wonder if you'd rather just walk out and forget you were ever interested in the position.
Job seekers who are confronted with a rude interviewer must decide quickly whether the insults have crossed their personal line. Setting matters of discrimination aside, sometimes the interviewer uses jabs to test a candidate's breaking point: The hiring manager may believe the position requires a person who can operate under pressure, maintain diplomacy or work with difficult individuals.
Take a breath and think. "If it seems like this is the boss' style, you might say 'This is not going to be a place for me,'" says Challenger. "Or it might be best to weather the storm and try to pass the test."
You did your part: You laid out your outfit, practiced answers with your roommate and told your boss you had a dentist's appointment. You arrived 10 minutes early and waited. And waited. And waited. At 30 minutes past the interview time, your interviewer is nowhere in sight and their assistant clumsily apologizes.
Count to 10 and hold back the insult you'd like to utter -- then respond as graciously as possible in communications with the interviewer. "The key is to not embarrass him or her in any way," says Challenger. "If they remember that meeting with you with embarrassment or guilt or a little sense of discomfort, then you lose."
McGovern even suggests throwing the interviewer a lifeline, giving them the chance to redeem themselves with an e-mail along the lines of, "Clearly I must have made an error or there must have been some confusion. I'm still very interested in the job. I would love to reschedule. Here are some new times and dates that work for me."