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When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s easy to wonder how the standard hiring process — a résumé screening, job interview questions, and a reference check — will tell an employer what you’re really like. How are employers able to figure out whether or not to hire you based on such limited contact with so many different candidates? What do they think about and watch for during a job interview, but never say out loud?
The truth is, to some extent it’s a crapshoot. Some employers are better at hiring than others, and there are a lot of untrained, inexperienced interviewers out there who are more or less winging it. There are even interviewers who think they can glean deep insights about candidates by asking them what kind of tree they’d be, or what animal they’re most like, or other pet questions with zero correlation to how well the person would do in the job. (I once worked with someone who was convinced she could tell everything she needed to know about a candidate by whether the person accepted a proffered beverage at the start of the interview.) There’s not much you can do as a candidate if you run into one of those.
But here’s a run-down of some ways that reasonably competent interviewers try to figure out what you’re really like and whether they want to hire you. (I’m leaving aside the obvious factors here, like whether you have relevant work experience and a reasonably pleasant and professional demeanor, which you should assume are always in play.)
Job interviewers will take your résumé at face value — unless you convince them otherwise. They assume that what they see is what they’ll get. So if, for example, all your work history is in field X and you recently got a master’s in X but you’re applying for a job in field Y, they’re likely to assume you’d really prefer a job doing X — and are likely to be skeptical about hiring you for something they don’t think you’re particularly interested in. If that’s not the case, it’s incumbent on you to explain why you’re making the shift. Or if, say, you’ve never stayed at a job for longer than a year or two, savvy interviewers will figure that you’re not likely stay with them for much longer than that either. If you don’t want your interviewer to take your résumé at face value, you’ve got to proactively and explicitly present a different narrative. (In that job-hopping scenario, it might be something like, “I’ve been working in an industry known for frequent layoffs, so I’m deliberately looking for something where I can stay a long time” or “I’ve moved around a bit due to a family situation that has since been resolved, and I’m eager for more stability in my career now” or whatever is plausibly true in your context.)
If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind interviewers’ love of “tell me about a time when…” questions (like “tell me about a time when you solved a conflict with a client” or “tell me about a time when you made a mistake”), the belief underlying them is that the best way to gauge how people will act in the future is to find out how they’ve actually acted in the past. It’s easier for job candidates to bluff their way through a decent answer to a hypothetical question (“How do you think you’d handle a high workload?”) but harder, at least in theory, to B.S. the details about a time that you actually did something (“Tell me about a time when your workload in your last job was at its peak — how did you stay on top of it all?”). Plus, getting you to talk about something you know really well — like a project you actually worked on, rather than a hypothetical — is a good way to get insight into how your brain works and how you operate.
How clearly and directly do you answer questions? Are your thoughts well organized? When you don’t know the answer to a question, are you forthright about that or do you try to bluff your way through? Do you drone on for ten minutes in response to a basic question that only requires a quick response? Do you pick up on conversational cues (such as an interviewer who’s trying to get you to wrap up that ten-minute response)? Even if the job itself doesn’t require especially strong communication skills, you’ll presumably be working with a boss and co-workers who will want to communicate with you and are hoping to hire someone who will be easy to talk to.
When you talk about challenging pieces of your current and past jobs, do you sound intrigued/excited/driven by the prospect of solving problems and accomplishing something? Or do you sound more like you’ve chosen to just stick to the bare minimum? This is often the difference between an okay candidate and a great one. People who get genuinely enthusiastic when they talk about navigating through obstacles, and especially people with track records of successfully tackling ambitious projects, are the holy grail of interviewees.
I’ve always been interested to see how many job candidates act as if only “official” contacts, like interviews, count and completely let down their guard at other points in the hiring process. They’ll be professional and polished with their interviewer, but be rude to the receptionist or divulge way too much about how much they drank last night to the person who walks them to the elevator post-interview. Or they’ll submit a flawlessly written cover letter, but be weirdly sloppy in all their email communications. Savvy hiring managers are watching everything, not just what you say in the interview room. That also means they’re paying attention to things like how quickly you respond to requests for writing samples or references (which doesn’t mean you need instant turnaround, but it’s going to raise eyebrows if you take five days) and how you communicate around things like interview scheduling.
Interviewers are human and most want to hire people who seem genuinely enthused about the work, or at least reasonably interested in it. And if you’re up against equally qualified people who seem excited about the job while you seem like you could take it over leave it, that can be a tie-breaker (not in your favor). This can be particularly tricky for people who are naturally more low-key and don’t wear their interest on their sleeves. If that’s you, you don’t need to fake pep or perkiness, but try making a point of sprinkling a few statements like “This seems fascinating” and “The role sounds great” into the conversation.
Good interviewers will ask for references from people who have managed you previously, and will ask those references questions that probe pretty deeply into what you were like to work with, where you excelled, and where you needed more support (that’s reference-speak for weak spots, and framing it that way often gets references to speak more candidly than a point-blank request for your weaknesses would).
None of this an exact science, though, and hiring managers frequently get it wrong. It’s not uncommon for interviewers to be stumbling through the process just as much as job candidates are, which can be unsettling to realize — but also strangely liberating, since it means you shouldn’t take it terribly personally when an interview doesn’t result in a job offer.
Now that you know what to expect, here’s how to survive an awkward job interview and what questions you should make sure to ask a job interviewer.
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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.