How to Conduct a Successful Interview Part 2: The Interviewee’s Side

After writing a piece about how to conduct a successful interview on the employer’s side, I was asked about what the interviewee should be doing if companies are following my recommended guidelines. If interviewees prepare for a more “traditional” interview, in which they get interrogated and beg for the job, they will be dismissed quickly and probably lose some self-esteem in the process. A reframe of the purpose and dynamics of the interview can enable candidates to highlight how they with the company and what they have to offer.

What the Interview is For: The Candidate’s Angle

By the time you have been invited to interview, you have hopefully researched the company and demonstrated that you have the basic capabilities needed to get the job done. Optimally, you have a good sense of how you will be compensated (though still subject to negotiation), and you like the mission and aims of the company. But, none of that tells you whether you are going to like the environment in which you will be working, or the personalities of the people with whom you will be working. Does the office feel right? Do you think you will get along with your coworkers? Do you think you can be yourself without that conflicting too much with the requirements of the position? You are coming to the interview to find out whether you will enjoy the context in which you will create value through your efforts. The other key reason you are coming to interview is to give your potential employers answers to the same questions, and possibly provide further indicators that you can accomplish what they need you to get done.

Preparing for the Interview

Properly, the company has already told you everything you need to know about the interview. If they haven’t, however, make sure to ask for all of the following:

  • Where the interview will take place (the more specific, the better, because you don’t want to have to call to ask for directions when you’re running late)
  • How you should dress for the interview (e.g., business formal, business casual, etc. If you don’t want to ask, always go for business formal [I recommend following these guidelines to the letter].)
  • Who will be interviewing you (look them up!)
  • Estimated length for the interview (hour, half-day, whole day, etc. — this also helps with your meal/snack planning)
  • What sorts of questions they will be asking and/or what they want to learn about you

That last one raises some eyebrows, even though it shouldn’t. First, it’s rather a waste of people’s time to try to get information out of them that they aren’t prepared to give you in an organized fashion. Second, signaling which information is important allows people to learn more about the company and see if it is a fit. The major concern about sending the questions out in advance is that the responses will be rehearsed and/or inauthentic; anyone concerned about that probably shouldn’t be conducting/attending interviews. If an employer needs to see on-the-spot thinking during an interview, telegraphing that fact will not change the result. If an employer wants people to be able to describe themselves on the spot in response to some ham-handed question like what their spirit animal is, said employer just waved a red flag that it wants employees to be uncomfortable (seriously, when would you ever pull a question like that in a conversation and expect a quick, straight answer that you can evaluate?). To describe oneself effectively and concisely (that is, without rambling on) takes a lot of practice, and expecting someone to do otherwise (and judging their answer!) is disingenuous at best. Thus, if the interviewer is not willing to provide a list of questions, especially after being told that you want to make sure you can cover what they want to know in a reasonable amount of time, seriously consider canceling the interview.

I also find myself fielding a lot of questions about how to present yourself during an interview, and why the guidelines are so conservative. The key focus of the interviewer’s visual attention should be whatever props you are using (including your resume, and any whiteboard/paper/slides you are using), your face, and your hands (think about it: do you really want the interviewer looking anywhere else?). As such, everything about the way you present yourself should be clean, neat, and organized, and therefore not attention-grabbing in any way, which in turn leaves the interviewer to look at the all-important face, hands, and props.

What to Talk About During the Interview

Remember: this is a get-to-know-you event. You want to get to know them; they want to get to know you. So, have a conversation. If you and your interviewer researched each other, as you should have, there should be some common ground for kicking off the conversation, or things that you want to know about each other that can be answered with stories. If you can’t find any casual points, a good starter is current events in your field, work that the company recently did, or some of the cool aspects of your field (i.e., geek out!). Here are some examples (and interviewers can use these, too):

-”Nice to meet you! I saw in your bio that you love parasailing — how did you get into that?”

-”[After the other person gives you his/her name] Yes! I heard about your work on [project] and was wondering if you could tell me [details/the story] about it?”

-”Pleased to meet you! I heard you work in/on [topic/industry] — have you seen/heard about [current interesting field/industry/topic-related news]?”

If you don’t like any of those, you can wait for the inevitable “tell me about yourself,” but make sure you prepared an answer that’s relevant and doesn’t sound like a read-off of your resume or a bio you’ve written somewhere else. A good way to answer that ice-breaker is to talk about how and why you chose this career path, your general trajectory thereon, and maybe a story or two if the person seems interested.

In any case, this is a chance to make a good connection, network, and enjoy being in each other’s company. A key goal in any interview is to expand both your network and your knowledge, so make sure you ask good questions (prepare them in advance), and focus on making a connection. This is a great opportunity to geek out about your hobbies, the field, et cetera, so have fun! (Also, feel free to take notes if you think it is helpful.)

At the end of the discussion, both sides should be inviting any last questions to ensure that everyone walks out knowing what (s)he came to find out.

Dealing with Tough/Inappropriate Questions

Since I get asked about tough or inappropriate questions so much, I am going to get into this even though no interview should have any. For almost all of my recommendations here, I would note that, should they fall flat, you probably don’t want the job.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking to take a moment to consider/compose your answer, especially if the question covers a lot of ground or is very challenging. I can’t think of any realistic situation where an employer finding this problematic is anything but a red flag.

Second, for ridiculous questions, turnaround is fair play! For instance, “Hm, while I think about an answer, why don’t you tell me how you would answer that question?” (I especially love using that if they ask questions like my weaknesses, which superpower I want, or other wacky questions.) Any interviewer who asks you question (s)he isn’t willing to answer doesn’t respect you and is no longer worth your time.

For the illegal questions, such as those involving my demographics, I usually like to give interviewers a chance to backtrack by inquiring, “Why do you ask?” or “What do you mean?” I will kindly not name the university whose interview panel asked me how I could contribute to its diversity, and then failed to provide a definition of “diversity” when I asked what they meant by it (at that point, it seemed like they were asking if I was a minority, and they looked ridiculous doing it). I did something similar when a dean (again, I won’t say where) asked me during an interview, “Why does a guy like you want this job?” Though I was pretty sure he was referring to something demographic, I still gave him an out with, “What do you mean by ‘a guy like me’?” His stuttered answer, combined with the exchange that followed, left him with his foot so deep in his mouth that I called a proctologist for him on my way out.

In some cases, going for a funny or dismissive answer can help. For instance, an HR Consulting firm (of all companies!) asked for my race and insisted on a response, but at that point I was debating between saying, “400 Meter” and “Mixed Race” (i.e., none of your business). I chose the latter, because I could see that the interviewer didn’t have a sense of humor. In all of these cases, I gave the interviewer a chance to get out of the tactical error, and when (s)he failed, I walked out of the interview not at all wanting the job.

To be sure, one interviewer did actually manage to pull up after asking me if I was married, because she actually wanted to know if someone specific was my spouse (and it was someone I could plausibly have known for demonstrable reasons). She also admitted that she had put the question poorly and apologized. That’s a job I would still have taken — people can make honest mistakes.

The Parting

Always conclude with a “thank you” and a handshake (or other appropriate parting ritual), and some indicator of how you will be in touch (not just that you will, but how and when). A thank-you note should follow.

Optimally, the interviewer just became a member of your network who is worth following up with for a meeting regardless of whether you got the job. After all, even if you didn’t, you might know the right person for the job, or the employer may want you for something later, or your networks might be valuable to one another.

After all, it’s not what you know; it’s whom you know…and with whom you interviewed.