Job interviews have got tougher, and if you haven’t had one for a few years you need to up your game. Here’s what to expect and how to handle it, by executive careers coach Zena Everett
Seventy per cent of UK employers plan to hire more permanent staff this year, and four out of five start their hiring in the first quarter, according to a survey by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. If your 2015 resolution was to find a new job, it looks like the market is in your favour.
That means you could be facing your first interview for many years. And, if an HR department is involved, it could be a daunting, competency-based one in front of an inscrutable panel. How do you get through the process to win the prize?
The purpose of a competency-based interview is to find out if you have the skills, knowledge and experience needed to be successful in the job, based on specific criteria in the job description.
You’ll need to prove this with clear examples. So, rather than being asked Are you a good leader?, the question will be Tell me about a time when you had to lead a team in challenging circumstances.
This type of interview format is more reliable and informative for employers, who want to be as sure as they can about what your performance will be like. With the old-style chatty biographical interview the interviewer was often none the wiser at the end.
The trick is to anticipate the questions in advance and prepare detailed case studies to talk about. Have at least three meaty examples off pat that you can use to cover a number of scenarios. You will be scored for your answers, so don’t worry if one panel member writes the whole time: that’s usually a good sign.
Experienced interviewers will throw in some trick questions to see how quickly you can think under pressure.
You won’t be able to anticipate them all and they vary from smart to silly: How do you cope with ambiguity?; Tell me about a recent failure; When have you had to make a decision that went against your personal value system?; How many manhole covers are there in New York?; How many ping pong balls are there in China?, and so on.
Often there is no right answer, so just laugh, take your time and come up with something. There are no points for saying “I don’t know”.
They could be the elephant in the room, but anticipate the interview no-go areas that people cannot ask you about for fear of being accused of discrimination. You might have gaps in your CV, be older than the person you will report to, have had previous health issues or have family responsibilities that could impact on your work.
Work these into your interview answers early to get rid of any assumptions they might be making about you. You could say, for example, something like, “My children drain so much cash I can’t imagine when I can afford to retire. So I want to work for a growing, ambitious organisation that can keep me challenged for the next ten years.”
If they do ask questions that are close to the line, it is your choice whether you answer them. But see them positively. It shows they like you and want to find out as much as they can about you.
Generally, the tougher the interview, the better the outcome. Interviewers don’t waste time probing candidates who they don’t think will fit in.
An interview is like any other social interaction and research shows that even the most professional, trained interviewers show subconscious bias towards candidates they like. So use your charm with everyone you meet, and make eye contact (even with panel members who don’t return it).
Make a great impact with a clear, well-prepared answer to the opening ice-breaker question about why you’re interested in the job and how it ties in to what you have done in the past.
Be humble but not grateful. They want someone who can hit the ground running and get on with it, not the cheapest person. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, but be yourself on a very good day.
Dress and act like you are already in the role; as if you fit in at the level you are being interviewed for. If you’re going for a promotion panel, dress as if you are in the next role up.
Walk in like the business person you want to be, make notes as you would in any meeting (and bring your research with you) but don’t get lost in a pile of paperwork and leave them looking at the top of your head.
If you get an opportunity to ask questions at the end, try to get them to imagine you are starting the role and they are able to hand over work to you. Ask practical questions to really nail down exactly what will be required of you.
Ask: How will I be measured in my probation period? Where should I focus my attention in the first three months? What could get in the way of me achieving these objectives?
Be wary of asking too much about training and development, because no matter what corporate line they give you about training, they really want someone who can do the job now.
They wouldn’t interview you if they didn’t think you could do it: there are plenty of other applicants they could have put in your place (anticipate that at least 299 other people applied for the job). Don’t share any insecurities you have with them; this is not the place for that. Focus on getting the job offer.