Was That Really an Interview?


By Liz Ryan Too often over the years, job-hunting friends or associates have told me they'd had a stimulating interview with a recruiter or hiring manager -- followed by nothing but silence.

"I can't believe it," is the usual complaint. "That was the best job interview I've ever had. We shared stories, we laughed -- the interviewer loved me. I can't believe I haven't heard from them."

NO TRACTION. Once I got into HR and started interviewing people myself, the mystery cleared up. Too-easy interviews happen for a good reason: There's no There there.

An interview that feels like a conversation between friends has no traction. The interviewer doesn't dig in to find out what your capabilities really are, typically for one of three reasons:

There never was a job opening.

Why wouldn't there be an opening? Maybe it was cancelled or delayed, but nobody told recruiting until it was too late. I've had hiring managers pull me out of an interview to tell me that the requisition had been put on hold. This kind of thing happens all the time, so don't automatically blame yourself when an apparently excellent interview turns to dust during the follow-up phase.

An opening existed, but after the interview was scheduled and before you arrived, it went away or you became a noncandidate.

In the second case, the hiring manager may have looked again at your résumé and decided you weren't right for the job, but the recruiter was too embarrassed to cancel your meeting. After all, there will be other openings -- he might as well meet you now.

Or another candidate may have been so impressive that the hiring manager refuses to seriously consider the other applicants. This sort of thing drives human-resources people crazy, but you can't drag the manager into the interview room. So as a job candidate, you end up killing time with the interviewer, who chats and pretends to take notes -- while avoiding asking hard questions.

This happened to me once. I had a lovely interview with the VP of HR for an advertising agency. Then, nothing. No response of any kind -- just the dawning realization that someone else must have gotten the job.

Later, I learned that the VP had been told that I was 26. No way, he said, she's too young to be an HR director. So we had a nice chat, but I was a noncandidate from the start. I was glad to hear that from a friend who worked at the company. Otherwise, I would have beaten myself up wondering what I did wrong.

There's a job opening, but upon arrival you became a noncandidate.

How can you destroy your chances just by walking in the door? This is where our story gets a little unpleasant. Sadly, I must inform you that for HR people, there exists a life form known as the Third Eye candidate. This is someone who walks in the door and verbally or nonverbally broadcasts, "I am unhireable."

People say first impressions are formed in 30 seconds, but I think it's more like .03 seconds. The Third Eye candidate is so off-putting as to be unequivocally unviable at first sight. The reason could be attire or cleanliness. Or it could be an opening statement such as one of these (all are verbatim, or close, from real job candidates):

"Can I see my office before we begin?"

"You're a lovely young woman, Miss Smith. If I don't get the job, could we have dinner some time?"

"I'm sure you won't mind that I parked in the handicapped space, rather than walk all the way from Visitors Parking. You really should have a job candidates' parking area."

"I should warn you that I'm more of a rebel than a corporate person. I don't have the energy to put up with corporate people, you know what I mean?"

SAVING THE DAY. When a Third Eye candidate opens his mouth, the interview is, basically, over. But in any of these cases -- no real job, no real chance, or Third Eye -- the interviewer still has to be polite and pretend to do an interview.

HR people disagree over the minimum amount of time a candidate deserves in this type of situation. Some say an hour, others say 48 minutes. Others will ask a co-worker to interrupt in exactly 38 minutes (or 42, or 46) for a made-up emergency. "I'm so sorry," the interviewer will say. "I have to cut it short."

So is there any saving the fake interview?

There might be, and it's worth a try. Unless you're the Third-Eye type, you should try to steer the meeting back into true interview territory. After all, you want the interviewer to remember you in case an opening is approved, or in case the preferred candidate turns it down. Even if it feels slightly forward to do so, push the meeting toward substantive subjects.

GOOD IMPRESSIONS. Here's how: You'll say, "In my last job, I did this, and that, and this." The interviewer will say, "That's lovely."

Don't let the thread die there. Ask: "How would that area (say, conducting online focus groups) be relevant in this job?" Since you can't transform your statements into an interview, interject pithy questions here and there. Even if the interviewer is merely whiling away a short hour, you can leave a favorable impression based on your knowledge, intelligence, and enthusiasm.

You want the interviewer to feel, "Gee, I feel bad putting Sandra through this for a job that got cut out of the budget. I wish we had something else for her." If that something else emerges within a few weeks, you want to be the person who gets the call.

And if leaving that impression takes some extra effort, so what? After all, who ever said a job interview should be easy? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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