Jobs: Interviewing more complex in today’s hiring market

You finally got a call for an interview. With so many applicants in the job market, that’s quite an accomplishment. But you have only cleared the first hurdle; you haven't completed the race.

Today’s interviewing process is longer and more complex. Companies can afford to be choosier with so much talent available.

“Good interviewing skills are paramount to your success in landing a job,” said Wally Boehm, vice president of consulting with Talent Connections, an Atlanta-based recruitment and professional services firm.

A few rules have changed since the recession. Corporations are still looking for the right fit, a candidate with the skills, professionalism and personality for the job and company culture.

“They still see initial phone-screening and face-to-face interviews as the best tool for discovering fit,” Boehm said. “Only in today’s cautious hiring market, you’ll find that the critical decision-maker is often a team of people.”

For midlevel positions and above, you can expect multiple interviews with recruiters, human resource managers, supervisors, your future direct reports and other co-workers.

“Collaboration and team-building skills are in high demand. Companies want to know if you have the social and leadership skills to work effectively with many types and levels of people. With more diversity in the workplace, they also want someone who respects everyone,” Boehm said. “They’re seeking a high level of professionalism and people who can work in ambiguous and changing environments with less supervision.”

To place three top-level executive positions for a Toronto company last year, Boehm initially phone-screened 45 candidates selected from countless resumes. If you’re going to stand out from a field of 20 to 30 equally qualified candidates, interview preparation is critical, he said.

“You first have to know yourself very well,” Boehm said. “You must understand your strengths and weaknesses. You need to know what makes you tick, your sweet spot or what you do best, what environment you thrive in and what makes you come alive. Write it out and be prepared to talk about it with enthusiasm.”

Knowing yourself will enable you to develop good answers to often-asked questions, such as "Tell me a little about yourself," as well today’s preferred behavioral interview questions. Behavioral interviewing is based on the idea that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

“Expect questions about solving real or hypothetical situations based on what you’ve done in the past, how you did it and what were the results,” said Richard Meuris, a partner with Nick Pierce & Associates, an Alpharetta-based executive search firm that serves the financial services and industrial manufacturing sectors.

You’ll respond better to those types of questions if you’ve thought and written about key situations from your background ahead of time, he said.

“You must thoroughly research the company and the job. Study the company’s website and use several search engines to find out news and financial information,” Meuris said. “Use your network and LinkedIn to find people who can give you an inside view of the company structure and culture.”

Review the job posting. Link the requirements to your own capabilities and career goals. Find out about the people with whom you’ll be interviewing.

“An interview should be a two-way street," Meuris said. "They’re checking you out, but you should be weighing the situation and asking, ‘Is this is a good place for me and my career?’ ”

Recruiters will give you pertinent information, but if you’re on your own, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask questions.

“Ask for the name and positions of your interviewers, and about the interviewing process,” Boehm said. “Explain that you want as much information as possible so that you can be prepared. Informed candidates are always more successful.”

Knowing the background of your interviewer will make it easier to establish a personal connection during the interview. Understanding the job and its requirements will help you ask discerning questions, even make suggestions.

“Too often in this market candidates are desperate for work and don’t think it’s appropriate to ask questions. They’re hesitant to probe or be critical about anything in an interview," Meuris said. "But hiring managers value candidates who are confident, questioning and show an ability for strategic thinking.”

The stigma of being a displaced worker has largely been removed since 2007, Meuris said.

“But recruiters and companies are very interested in what you have done since you lost your job,” he said. “Be honest about your situation, whether you’ve been consulting, waiting tables, taking classes or volunteering. It’s better to show that you’ve been proactive than just sitting around.”

Boehm said that with preparation, it’s easier to know your "value add," that quality that makes you stand out as uniquely suited for this position.

“The company knows that you have the skills and qualifications on paper," he said. "They’re looking to see if your form and substance measures up. They want to know that your core values and professional character line up with what you’ve accomplished because it’s all about fit.”

Some behaviors are automatic red flags to hiring managers. Avoid them.

Dishonesty: "Don't ever lie in an interview. Companies will fact-check your resume and references. If you didn't really graduate from college, they'll find out," Meuris said.

Not understanding the company: "Information is so easily accessible that companies expect you to have done your research," Boehm said.

Blanket agreement on everything: "If you're too eager to please or overly enthusiastic, hiring managers may sense desperation, which is a turnoff," Meuris said.

Negative attitude: "Don't criticize past employers or companies, or express bitterness at being laid off. Keep a positive, upbeat attitude," Boehm said.

Avoid fluff answers: "If asked for your greatest weakness, don't say you 'work too much' or any of the stock answers. Give a real trait that you needed to improve from your last performance review, and note how you and your previous boss were working to close that gap," Meuris said. "If asked about job hopping, don't say, 'No one stays in a job that long these days.' It doesn't answer the question or show any career direction. Instead say, 'Let me walk you through it,' and briefly describe the progression of your work history."

Find a way to make your age an asset: "Young and no experience? Talk about how hard you'll work and how quickly you catch on," Meuris said. "If you're three years to retirement, talk about what amazing things you'll do for the company in that time and how you'll train your successor. Shift the focus to a positive."