A Job Interview Is Not an Audition

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Photo by Daniel McCullough

A colleague of mine recently received an entire sheet cake from a job candidate seeking an interview. The, um, icing on the cake? The candidate’s resume, printed across the top of the massive dessert.

Stunts like this are more common than you might think.

Over the years I’ve heard stories of candidates sending singing telegrams to hiring managers or purchasing targeted Google Ads that urge employers to hire them. I once had a candidate build a website that mimicked our Meet the Team page, preemptively inserting herself into the role she applied for (pretty solid as far as job search stunts go, btw).

When someone really wants a job, they will do just about anything to land it.

And look, I get it. We spend a huge part of our lives working and our jobs have a major impact on our quality of life. Sadly, a lot of people are miserable at work, so when they get a whiff of an opportunity that sounds remotely fulfilling, they understandably pull out all the stops.

But while I applaud the creativity behind such efforts, sometimes exerting so much energy just to get an interview can make it easy for a candidate to forget why they are there. By the time the interview finally happens, any pretense of vetting the opportunity is out the window and the interviewee switches to audition mode.

Unfortunately, a job interview isn’t American Idol or the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Sure there is a prize at the end, but you have to decide if you actually want it. If you do get the job you have to, you know, keep coming back each day to do the job.

This is an easy trap to fall into no matter how you get a foot in the door. Whether you pose as a window washer and post copies of your resume on the outside of the CEO’s corner office or you simply get invited to come in to chat with HR, it’s important to remember that a job interview is not an audition.

A job interview is conversation.

When you arrive at your interview, clutching fresh copies of your resume and fussing over your trendy (but not too trendy) new outfit, you will probably be a little nervous.

That’s okay (it would be weird if you weren’t) but you must remember to do everything in your power to keep the interview conversational. You need to prove to everyone that you have what it takes to do this job, but you aren’t just there to perform tricks for judges. You are also there to determine if you think you can (and should) do this job.

For some, this will be more natural than for others, but a great place for anyone to start is by asking questions early and often. Do more than just ask the obvious ones too, like “What’s a typical day like?” and “Describe your ideal candidate?”

Not only are these questions trite, they do little to help you determine if the opportunity is right for you.

(Once, when a candidate asked me one of these, I asked why they wanted to know and they replied “I don’t really know, I just Googled questions to ask at an interview and these came up”. While I appreciated his honesty, he did not get the job).

Try things like “So why do you love working here?” or “What is the biggest pain point you are trying to solve with this hire?”

That second one is borderline cliche, so the key is to follow it up with something like, “Interesting, so what have you done so far to solve this?”

Whatever questions you go with, you need to prepare and have plenty handy, but remain flexible (you know, like in a conversation).

The process goes something like this:

Step 1: Ask questions you actually want to know the answer to.

Step 2: Listen to the answers.

(Repeat as necessary)

Steering the interview toward a two-way conversation between peers serves two purposes: It helps you assess the opportunity and it shows you are knowledgeable.

A job interview is not unlike a first date. During either, coming across as desperate or cocky is an absolute dealbreaker. In movies it’s heartwarming when a “down on their luck” candidate begs for a job, promising to work harder than anyone else if they can just get a chance. In real life it’s just depressing.

No one wants to hire someone that depresses them.

When I first started interviewing candidates, I was given no real training on how to do it, so more often than not I just leaned on the habits I acquired during my first job as a newspaper reporter.

I grilled candidates, asking question after question trying to uncover their “story”. If they interrupted or tried to take the conversation in a different direction, I got annoyed.

Later in my career I would excitedly talk and talk about the opportunity and the company, leaving the candidate little room to sell themselves (or ask me anything they might have actually been curious about).

Eventually I learned to strike a balance in my interviews and grew to respect candidates that acted like a peer engaging in a two-way exchange of information. I also learned that conversational interviews were a much better predictor of candidate success than those that wowed me by answering all of my questions “correctly”.

But this took time, and depending on the interviewer and the company culture, you may run into situations where it is nearly impossible to make the interview anything more than an audition.

In which case, you probably don’t want to work for those people anyway.

A job search-and interviewing specifically-is an emotional, stressful endeavor. Never lose sight of the fact that while you may be trying to win the prize of a new job, you too are quite the prize for employers.

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Written by

Talent Strategy @Mailchimp. Previously HR @KingOfPops. Get my “52 Books to Boost Your Career” reading list here http://eepurl.com/dBP299

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