How to Interview (And Save the World) in Three Easy Steps

As you all know, I’ve been doing a fair bit of job searching lately. Moreover, I’ve been having a better-than-expected rate of success. No offers yet, mind you, but I’ve gotten invitations to do interviews (on the phone and in person) and complete exercises for the different positions. Or, what I think of in my job hunting experience as “positive response.”

A positive response isn’t just a job offer (those are, as everyone knows, hard to come by), it’s a sign that you put together a nice cover letter and resume, and consequently stood out more than the run-of-the-mill applicant. One of the jobs I applied for even put it in round numerical terms: your application was in the top 15%.

I’ve got a decent bit of interview experience for someone my age. This predates the blog but in the summer of 2009, I applied for over fifty jobs, interviewed for about fifteen, and was finally (after four months) offered two positions, in what was probably the most demoralizing season of my life so far. But that’s okay. It was a learning experience. And I’ve been putting it to good use, in grad school and now this fall.

But the advice I have regarding interviews isn’t for applicants. It’s for employers. It’s not drawn from one experience, but several (none of them recent, thank zombie Jesus!), and I’ve noticed the problem often enough to think it might be a trend.

There are a lot of bad interviewers in the world, folks.

I think it’s partly a symptom of the times. There are a lot of applicants. A lot of people who want jobs. If you’re a prospective employer, it can be overwhelming. Exhausting. Who wants to deal with these people anyway?

The thing is, I think some organizations and companies have forgotten that an interview is a two-way process. You’re not just interviewing me; if I’m doing my job as an applicant, I’m interviewing you. Or at least I would be, if I wasn’t desperate for work. And eventually that will be the norm again. It won’t be just the applicants proving themselves, praying that they’ll finally be able to pay their bills. And employers are going to have to step up their interview game.

My tips:

1) Read the damn resume. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into an interview room and been met with the same bland request to describe my background. I’m sorry, this is a redundant question. You’re holding my background; it’s laid out for you in black-and-white (and Century Gothic, in my case). The better approach here? Ask me specific questions. About the volunteer work I did in college or the project I mention in my cover letter. If you’re checking for consistency, you’ll get a much better sense of it than by making me recite my credentials (if I made them up, I would still know them). And it’ll give you a better sense of the skills I actually have. “How did you deal with this? What did that entail?”

2) Let the applicant ask questions. It’s only happened on a few occasions, but it’s worth mentioning. The interviewer runs through their barrage of inquiries and then says, “Well, thanks for coming in–we’ll be in touch soon.” No. If an applicant has done their homework, they’ve read up on your organization/company and they’re probably curious. The same way the interviewer should come in with specific questions, so should the applicant. You’re not just satisfying the applicant either; you’re also finding out if they’re the kind of person who can do a little research and engage in critical thinking.

3) Make it a conversation. More than anything, I think this is key. And the utter lack of it in the current economic environment is, I think, one of the strongest signs of the imbalance between employers and applicants. You’re not interrogating a suspect; you’re trying to figure out if this is a person you want to hire, someone you could work with. Putting them on the defensive just creates an unpleasant atmosphere and you don’t learn half of what you need to know. Does that person have a sense of humor? Can they think on their feet? And most importantly, are they an extraterrestrial robot sent to undermine the very fabric of our society?

Basically, I think the interviewing process succeeds when the interviewer and the interviewee treat each other like people. Otherwise we risk dehumanizing what is already a difficult process.

And possibly endangering the human race as we know it.

What’s your worst interview experience? Your best? What would you want a potential employer to ask you?

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