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CAREERS / The Way Work Ought to Be

A Match Made in the Interview Room

September 15, 1997|ORI NIR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've shined your shoes, worn your best suit and brightest smile, and applied the correct amount of pressure in that all-important first handshake.

And yet, just minutes into the job interview you expected to ace, you begin to flounder. The interviewer seems to deliberately put you on the spot, asking embarrassing questions about why you left your previous job.

Then there are those probing questions about what you can do for this company. You realize that you've done little research before the interview and that there are large gaps in your knowledge, both about the company and the position you've applied for.

As the tension mounts, you panic. You forget to keep your answers short and crisp and begin to ramble.

You can see your interviewer's smile freeze and her eyes begin to glaze. You both know it's over long before she rises to formally end the interview.

What's gone wrong?

According to the experts, such an unhappy outcome to an interview is all too common. What is meant to be a helpful exchange of information that, in the best case, produces a comfortable match between employer and employee, instead frequently degenerates into an uncomfortable, even antagonistic, encounter. Both sides emerge feeling disappointed, frustrated.

"When it goes badly, it is traumatic, especially for the interviewee," says Tom Moore, a counselor with a county program based in the Northern California city of Weed that tries to place former and current welfare recipients. Moore counsels more than 100 job seekers a month. "Sometimes, interviewees can have all the qualifications," he says, "but because they don't know how to sell themselves, they lose the position."

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Even highly educated professionals who have worked the job market for years often have poor interviewing skills, says Sheila Garb, president of Garb & Associates, a legal placement firm in Los Angeles that represents some 200 law firms.

Garb, who places lawyers, is amazed at how awkward both applicants and interviewers can be, despite attorneys' reputations for being smooth talkers.

She and other placement experts agree that fault often lies with both interviewer and interviewee. Too often, the job applicant forgets essentials, like making eye contact or doing basic research about the company.

"The biggest mistake applicants make is that they come unprepared for the interview," says Norman Meshriy, president of Career Insights, a career counseling firm in San Francisco.

And interviewers sometimes choose to treat an interview like an ambush, trying to trip up a nervous applicant rather than creating a comfortable atmosphere where each side can draw out the other.

"It does not happen very often, because the goal for both interviewee and interviewer is to sell," Garb says. "But it happens sometimes, because some people are just not nice."

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Here is an example of how an exchange between an applicant and interviewer ought to sound. This fictional dialogue happens to be between two journalists, but the questions and answers have universal application and were suggested by career counseling experts and some of the many how-to books on interviewing.

Ned, 32, has been a general assignment reporter for a medium-size metropolitan newspaper for six years. He is both unhappy with his failure to move on to a more challenging beat and tired of daily journalism. He has applied for an editing position at a successful travel magazine. His only previous editing experience was as the editor in chief of his college newspaper.

He needs to convince Beth, the managing editor of Footloose magazine, that he can handle the stress of magazine deadlines and editing responsibilities that will include soliciting stories from freelance journalists, supervising the magazine's small permanent staff and putting together the biweekly publication.

Ned meets Beth in her office, where she offers him a cup of coffee and tells him that she finds his resume interesting. She is warm, friendly and relaxed as she waves him into an overstuffed chair and tells her secretary to hold all calls.

Beth: I see here that you have worked on the Daily Bugle for the last six years. You must know my friend, Charlene Jones.

Ned: Yes, of course. Charlene was my first editor at the Bugle, and she was an inspiration. People like Charlene make the Bugle a fun place to work.

Beth: Yes, Charlene and I went to college together, and she is a great journalist. But if you've been so happy at the Bugle, why are you thinking of leaving?

Ned: I have learned a lot during my years at the Bugle. I have covered hard news, written features on everything from the opera to the oldest woman in Calaveras County, as you probably could see from my portfolio, and I've loved it all.

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