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How to survive a job interview

It is always good to be invited to a job interview; it means your CV is doing its work and getting you noticed. Doesn’t it? Rod Bailey, ExecutiveSurf’s CEO, says it might not; “Often interviews are set up straight on the basis of a social media profile.” 

Bailey says: “I have an idea that the world is going keyword crazy. As such, interviewers will probably have found you in the first place via a keyword search and they will probably be interviewing you through keyword criteria; they might, for example, want to know if you have US GAAP experience, or knowledge of an SaaS implementation – they’ll want to tick the boxes. So you need to be quite specific and study what employers want and tailor your presentation around what you know they’re looking for. But be careful; they will Google you – you can’t make stuff up.” 

So, however the employer found you, you now face the daunting prospect of at least one interview.

 Common sense should dictate how you approach an interview; first impressions are irreversible; you should obviously arrive on time, well dressed and greet your interviewer properly, with a firm handshake, good eye contact and their correct name.

Bailey says: “Do not be fooled by informality. Ties and suits may be going out of fashion and the rules may be relaxing, the location may be a coffee shop, it may feel like you are talking to a friend, but that’s no excuse for poor presentation, woolly answers, or a lack of sharpness.”

 A good candidate will come across as focused, attentive and well prepared. A poor candidate will not know enough about a company and come across as uninterested and uncommitted. 

Key to a good interview is creating a rapport with your interviewer, by matching your communication style with theirs; be attentive and take your time over your answers. One candidate seriously misread his interviewer, challenging him to an arm wrestle.

Most interviewers complain about candidates not switching off their mobile phone before the interview, but it is not just candidates who can blow an interview; interviewers can too, sometimes with dire consequences. 

Companies obviously use interviews to find out as much as they can about an applicant, but HR professionals need to be very careful about asking certain questions, which may contravene anti-discrimination laws and are illegal. 

In the UK, employers can ask if you have the correct papers to work in the country, but are not allowed to probe into your specific place of birth, as this might be construed as a company hiring on the grounds of nationality or ethnic background. 

A job applicant can never be asked about their religious beliefs. 

An interviewer cannot make reference to a candidate’s marital status, children or sexual preferences, all of which could be grounds for discrimination, as are any questions about age.

An employer may ask you to explain a significant amount of time off sick from a previous job, but may not question you over a disability and whether or not it would affect your ability to do the job.

A company can set out rules in a staff handbook regarding alcohol, drugs and tobacco in the workplace, but cannot ask a candidate any questions regarding their lifestyle choices; whether they drink or smoke, for example. 

It is illegal for interviewers to ask anything related to any arrests or convictions, but for some jobs they can run a CRB check (Criminal Records Bureau), nor can they ask questions about weight or height, unless the job comes with a minimum height requirement. 

While this is commendable, in practice an employer with prejudices can refuse someone a job for any reason, simply by saying someone more suitable was given the position.

Although not illegal, there are some questions that have been so overused that any candidate on being asked one of them, should leave the room immediately. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

No company can guarantee a job for five years; it is a pointless question and if you have to answer it, it’s probably best to say: “I’d like to be happy and productive, working in a role, where I am appreciated and valued.” 

Another classic of the genre is, “What are your weaknesses?” Everyone knows the stock response is: “I’m a workaholic”, but an interviewer will more likely get the truth about you by asking you to describe your strengths, rather than admit to what you are bad at. 

“What particularly interested you about our company?”

This is another disingenuous question, because the truth is probably that this company is the only one who called you for an interview, not that you have unlimited opportunities and they were the most dazzling company you could find. 

A good interviewer does not need to rely on these stock questions; they will set up a business conversation that should get you excited about the job opportunity, show them how you would fit into the role and provide you with lots of information. 

Nerves can play a role in interviews and it is the interviewer’s responsibility to put you at your ease. Alessandro Tosi, ExecutiveSurf’s Italian director of strategy, says: “The main challenge for me is balancing the stress. I try to be as friendly as possible, to put the candidate at ease, so I can see their real personality.” 

“The problem is that you could be surprised at how bad a performance can be when the candidate is faced with greater stress at the interview with the final employer. I had a candidate who was marvelous at interview with me, but at the next interview, he was faced with a very tough German CEO, and he turned into Colin Firth in the King’s Speech.” 

Alessandro says interviewers should be aware of different market sensibilities. “In Italy it used to be considered vulgar to talk about money. A senior fashion industry buyer told me she could not answer my question about her compensation, as it was a ‘personal’ matter and nothing to do with me.” 

An interviewer will give you the opportunity to ask questions and it is important that you have some prepared, otherwise you will appear passive and uninterested. If a candidate does not ask questions at the interview, they may avoid asking questions on the job.

Not asking thoughtful questions is the easiest way to fail a job interview and the opportunity to do so is your chance to shine. Of 150 recruiters questioned, this was their biggest bugbear, ahead of criticism of a past employer, inability to take criticism, poor personal appearance and cynicism. 

So, to fail a job interview, arrive late, keep your mobile on and select from the following questions; “When do I start?”, “What does your company do?” or “What is your policy on drugs?” 

Nigel Phillips

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