10.3: Job Interviews and Follow-up Messages

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Identify successful strategies for job interview preparation.

2. Explain how best to answer standard and behavioural job interview questions.

3. ENL1813 Course Learning Requirement 2: Plan and deliver short, organized spoken messages and oral reports tailored to specific audiences and purposes. (A2, B2, H2, I2, M2, S2, T2)

i. Use effective and engaging language and non-verbal behaviours (A2.2)
ii. Use verbal and nonverbal techniques to enhance spoken messages (I2.4, M2.4, R6.2, S2.4, T2.4)

In Ch. 9 above, we discussed how the job application process is basically a communications test that begins with a low-difficulty written component in the cover letter and résumé, and ends with a high-level oral exam in the interview. Among other things, the interview helps the employer get to know the job applicant better and confirm that they are who their résumé and cover letter say they are. It places the burden of proving the résumé’s claims on the applicant by inviting them to speak anecdotally about them. The most successful applicants will use the interview questions as opportunities to connect their experience and qualifications to the requirements of the job at hand as stated in the job posting. The successful pitch convinces the employer that the applicant, as the solution to the problems associated with the job vacancy, is not only a good match for the role and its duties, but also a good fit for the culture of the workplace. The employer wants to confirm that the candidate will get along well with management, coworkers, and customers, which the employer can get a sense of only through conversation.

Advice about how to succeed in job interviews is about as varied as there are people offering advice on job interviews because every employer is different in how they conduct interviews and what they want to get out of them. This variety makes preparing for job interviews tricky. A job interview can be as informal as walking in to speak with a store manager without so much as a résumé. It could be as formal as a three-stage process with a pre-interview phone screening, two-hour interview in front of a panel asking the same questions of each candidate, and a follow-up hour-long interview with questions specific to the leading candidates. A rigorous interview process may have pre-interview screening procedures such as personality tests, written and oral language proficiency tests, background investigations (e.g., college transcript, criminal records check), consultations with previous employers, and even personality-assessing video games (NPR, 2013) to ensure that the employer doesn’t waste hours interviewing candidates unfit for the role. The interview may involve demonstrations of skill such as solving a complex engineering problem on a whiteboard. It may be conducted via web conference. It may be an unstructured conversation about something completely different from the work at hand and take place in a coffee shop. It may be in an off-site hotel room or in the actual workplace itself. The only consistent element in all of this variety is that you’ll have a conversation with employer or their representatives.

Given the variety of types of interview, how can you possibly prepare for one? Let’s consider this question with regard to what’s common in most interviews and the employer’s motivations in finding the perfect candidate for the role. Of course, you can’t necessarily count on the employer being an excellent judge of character in an interview because, looking around the professional landscape, you can see various degrees of incompetence and repulsive personalities among employees; they all presumably managed to beat out other candidates in convincing employers to hire them in interviews. If you’re unsure how it’s going to play out, though, the best you can do is assume that your interview will be rigorous and prepare to “wow” them with your knowledge of the company, position, and yourself. Let’s consider what you can do before, during, and after the interview to increase your chances of landing a job offer.

Job Interview Topics

10.3.1: Pre-interview Preparation

When you get a call or email for an interview, congratulations! The employer is officially interested in you because you meet the basic qualifications of what they’re looking for, but so do several other people—your competition—so don’t celebrate quite yet. So now what? How do you do it better than them and rise to the top of the pile?

Between the moment you find out about the interview and the interview itself, you must do everything in your power to build the confidence necessary to answer questions convincingly so that the employer has no reason not to hire you. Confidence starts with knowing your stuff, so the first order of business is to review and build upon whatever research into both the company and the position you did for the written portion of your application. Whereas that research supplied the information you needed to select the experience and qualifications you assembled in your targeted résumé and cover letter, the research you now do will have to be extensive enough that you can draw upon a sound understanding of the company and the role to be able to answer any reasonable question about them off the top of your head.

10.3.1.1: Research the Company Further

Of the questions you can anticipate in the interview, you can definitely prepare for those about the company itself. They might be as simple and blunt as “Tell us what you know about our company” or as strategic as asking you how you would best serve the company clientele in a certain situation. Since the first rule of business is to know the customer and what they want, the employer will want to ensure that your priorities are in line with its own, which is to supply the customer’s demand. If you have no idea who the customer is and what they want because all you did to prepare was skim the company website, the employer might just end the interview right there. You must therefore research as much as possible who the company serves and go beyond the company website. Does the company’s revenue come from other companies (is it a business-to-business supplier or contractor?), the government, or the consumer public? If the latter, get some solid information on their demographics. Are they primarily:

  • Men, women, or both?
  • What age? Children, adolescents, young adults, 20-35 year-olds, middle-aged adults, the elderly, or all ages?
  • What are their life circumstances? Are they wealthy, middle class, or of limited means? Are they young parents or pensioners? Etc.
  • What are their motivations? Are they filling a want or a need? What feeling are they trying to achieve with the product or service the company provides?

Once you have a good idea who the customer is, you can imagine some scenarios of customer interactions, especially to prepare for the interview’s behavioural questions (see §10.3.2.4 below).

You can find an excellent summary of the company’s priorities in its mission or vision statement if it has one. Many companies will have such a statement on their website, usually in the “About” page. Though these are usually very polished with marketing language, memorizing and being able to paraphrase them in a way that makes it your own will suggest to the employer that your goals in getting this job align with theirs, and that you will therefore be a good fit.

Of course, some standard information on the company is also necessary. Start by asking yourself:

  • How big is it? Is it a single-location small business, a franchise stretching across a certain region of the province or nation, a governmental agency, or a multinational corporation?
  • When was it founded and how has it changed over the years (e.g., has it changed ownership, changed its focus, diversified its product line, merged with other companies, etc.)?
  • What are its current challenges?

For this latter point, start by Google-searching for news items or ads in local or national news outlets. If you find that the company is embarking on some major newsworthy initiative or contract, chances are the position has to do with it. Whenever an employer prepares to spend money by hiring someone to do a job, it’s to solve a problem, which in general is not having someone to do a certain set of tasks that would help achieve their business goals. Find out what that problem is in great detail so that you can convincingly pitch yourself—i.e., your skill sets and talents—as its solution.

Another way to do this is to get some inside information by asking around. If there’s someone within the company whom you already know or can approach via networking to get some valuable “intel” (intelligence or information) on what the company culture is like and what the employer would therefore be looking for, then you could cater your answers to that profile. This isn’t so much disingenuous as it is catering to the audience, which, as we’ve been saying since §2.2, is the essence of all good communication.

10.3.1.2: Research the Position Further

The previous subsection’s advice about finding someone inside intel on the company culture pertains also to the position. If someone in the department where the position has opened up knows something about why that is, you’ll want to take them out for coffee and a chat. The more you can discover about the motivations of the employer in hiring for that position, the better you can cater to those needs.

Absent insider help (or in addition to it), your next recourse is simply to study the job posting very closely and annotate it. For every point it describes in terms of required qualifications and skills, as well as a description of the job duties the successful candidate will perform, write notes about how your own work or educational experience prepared you to do the same. Otherwise, write notes about what you can say if your experience hasn’t prepared you to perform those duties. Write your responses to each in terms that you would actually say to the employer if they asked you for evidence proving that you have the qualifications, skill, or ability to do the duties listed.

screenshot of Government of Canada Job Search websiteIf the job posting is vague, you could instead research the role itself, the skills required to perform it successfully, and what duties it involves. A good place to start is the Government of Canada’s Job Bank Explore Careers by Essential Skills database. Every profession has a page that lists the following:

  • The types of documents you would be reading, writing, and working with (literacy)
  • Math skills (numeracy) involved
  • Oral communication skills (oracy)
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Technology you would be working with—both hardware and software
  • Additional Information

Closely studying every word of this would furnish you with a thorough idea of what the job entails and thus with material you can use in the interview to answer questions knowledgeably.

10.3.1.3: Anticipate Questions and Prepare Talking Points

Now that you’ve started a set of notes based on the job posting, continue building on it in a question-and-answer format. Come up with as many questions as you can think of that the employer could ask. The more job interviews you do, the more you can add and adapt questions for particular job types. We will explore some standard questions in §10.3.2.3 below and behavioural questions (§10.3.2.4) you can adapt to the profession at hand. Taking the time to work out your responses to these possible questions will help enormously if you refine and study those responses. If you do this well and the employer asks the very questions you anticipated, then your answers will roll off your tongue with confidence. You will look magnitudes better than the candidates who didn’t prepare and have to stall to think about their responses before speaking. Those who don’t prepare tend to poorly articulate their thoughts as they figure out their wording as they go, and then regret their answers afterward, realizing that they could have said it better or included a clinching detail that didn’t come to mind at the time. When you work out those details ahead of time, however, answering perfectly off the top of your head will make you look like an in-demand expert.

As part of this preparation, write and memorize an elevator pitch with four-to-five key talking points that would best convince the employer that you’re perfect for the position. Vague, open-ended questions such as “Why should we hire you?” or “What will make you successful in this position?” are your cue to hit those key points starting with your best selling point and working on down. Focus on your qualifications, experience, and the skills that best match with what the employer is looking for as stated in the job posting. Phrase them as brief, easy-to-follow stories. If you can summarize these coherently altogether in a minute or two—the time that it would take to accompany the employer up an elevator—and they genuinely recommend you well to the position, you do the employer the favour of giving them all they need to make a confident decision about your suitability.

If you don’t get the opportunity to hit those key points served on a silver platter in one question, your job is to look for opportunities to make those pitches throughout the interview. If you’re genuinely well suited to the position, your chances are good that questions will lend themselves to at least some of those points. They may even ask at the end of the interview if you have anything else to say, in which case you can cover any of the points you hadn’t so far found an opportunity to mention, as well as reiterate your main selling point or two in order to keep them fresh in interviewers’ minds when you leave.

10.3.1.4: Rehearse with Mock Job Interviews

Of course, preparing a set of notes is useless if you lack the time to study and rehearse your responses in a mock job interview situation, so manage your time effectively and schedule mock job interviews throughout the week prior to your actual interview. The more comfortable and familiar you are with the interview dynamic of someone asking you questions and you responding, the more confident and articulate you can be for the real thing. Enlist a trusted partner, family member, friend, or even an interview coach from Algonquin College’s Employment Support Centre to ask questions you anticipated, as well as some you haven’t so you can practice thinking on your feet.

Help from a friend or acquaintance who is an employer themselves would be especially helpful because they can draw on personal experience to advise you on what works and what doesn’t from their managerial perspective. Their honest feedback will be invaluable as long as you accept and implement their constructive criticism. You may also get a sense yourself of what works and what doesn’t, but having someone else to talk to about it and work it out will do wonders for your interview preparedness.

10.3.1.5: Plan Your Attire

With dress being a form of nonverbal communication, be as strategic in planning what you’re going to wear to your interview as you are with what you’re going to say. When people make up their mind about you within milliseconds of looking at you, wearing a well-fitted suit or office-appropriate attire is crucial because, as with any communication, you must adapt your style to the expectations of your audience. Though you may think that a nice suit is essential in any job interview, there are types of jobs, such as in the trades, where wearing a suit might suggest that you won’t really fit the workplace culture. If you’re applying for a finance-industry job on the thirty-third floor of a Bay Street Toronto skyscraper, on the other hand, a shabby, ill-fitting suit will immediately suggest failure and the interview will be seen as a waste of valuable time.

For a good sense of how people in a workplace dress on a daily basis, go check it out for yourself. If the style of dress is casual, what would be considered unprofessional in any other place (e.g., in a tattoo shop), or if it’s a uniform, dressing slightly more formally than that is probably a good bet. Of course, if there’s any way to find out what the employer’s actual expectation is, such as calling someone in the Human Resources department, go with whatever they say.

Whatever you wear, don’t forget to wash, iron, and even have it dry-cleaned if necessary. Polish your shoes. Plan out and coordinate accessories. Try everything on ahead of time and solicit the advice of your partner, family, roommates, or friends. Apply the same scrutiny to the rest of your controllable appearance including your hair and skin (e.g., shaving) so that you leave no details unattended on interview day. One off-detail might be the one that the employer gets hung-up on and remembers about you, whereas you want everything about you to be as impeccable as the résumé and cover letter that got you this interview in the first place. A consistently high-quality presentation will suggest to the hiring manager that you’ll be that way in the position they’re hiring for.

10.3.1.6: Build Your Confidence

Many people consider job interviews among the most nerve-wracking situations in their life. Given that your livelihood and self-esteem depend on successfully passing the interview, such a high-pressure situation is sure to produce some (if not a great deal of) anxiety. Though this is a normal, healthy reaction, you simply cannot resign yourself to acting nervous in the interview itself because doing so threatens to spoil your chances of success. Just as confidence is contagious by the process of social mirroring (see §10.1.3.1 above), so is nervousness; if you appear nervous, the hiring manager will be nervous about hiring you because your behaviour suggests that you feel you’re not equal to the task, that you’re an impostor punching above your weight for even applying. If you answer questions confidently, on the hand, and build trust by looking the employer in the eye as you explain yourself, they’ll be confident that you’ll perform just as well in the job itself. What can you do, then, to help build the level of confidence that you need to succeed in the interview?

The social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains one particularly promising strategy nicknamed “fake it to make it” in a well-viewed TEDtalk. Cuddy bases her advice on  credible research into the effect whereby you can achieve certain emotional states by the actions of your body. Just as an athlete strikes a victory pose when they win and feel powerful, you can trick yourself into feeling confident by striking power poses before your performance. Either way, the confidence hormone testosterone increases as the stress hormone cortisol drops. Though it may feel silly, locking yourself in a bathroom stall and striking some powerful Superman or Wonder Woman poses has been clinically proven to help interview performance and positively determine employer choices. A short workout has the same effect, though you don’t want physical exertion just prior to your interview to make you appear sweaty lest that be confused with nervousness.

Besides this simple, no-cost “life hack,” your only other best bet for increasing confidence is to know your stuff inside and out. When you’ve rehearsed your interview repeatedly and get to the point where you can answer anticipated questions confidently and eloquently, as well as control for every other detail regarding your appearance, you should feel on top of it. With this confidence, you should feel ready to nail the interview and land the job.

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10.3.2: Job Interview Performance

Once you’ve done all you can to prepare, you’re now ready to take the interview by storm. Your goal here is to thoroughly impress the employer so they have no doubt whatsoever that you’ll be a sound investment. Just as you refuse to buy a product that is even slightly defective (e.g., you wouldn’t buy a computer with a key missing or a slightly cracked screen), the employer will be careful with the money they’ll pay the winning candidate to do the job. They want perfection, but if they can’t find it, they may either accept something slightly less or just re-post the position to keep searching for someone closer to what they’re looking for. Knowing that your livelihood’s at stake and that employers don’t hand out jobs quite as easily at the professional level as they did your first entry-level job at Tim Hortons or Subway, you have to make your interview performance impeccable. You’ve only go one shot at it, so you want to take care of every last detail. Yes, it’s possible to win a job competition if your performance falls short of the advice given in the subsections below, but you should at least aim for the perfection described below if you want to increase your chances of success.

10.3.2.1: Arrive Early

Don’t leave something so important to chance. Aim to arrive an hour or so before the interview is scheduled in case there’s a traffic jam or other unexpected snag on the way. If it’s a smooth ride and you arrive early, use your time wisely. Go to the washroom and, while you’re in there, try out some of Amy Cuddy’s power poses to help build your confidence (see §10.3.1.6 above). If you’re then seated in a waiting room, ensure that you have good posture. Keep calm by breathing deeply; count to five slowly while inhaling and the same while exhaling. Get in the zone by focusing on the points you prepared to talk about, rehearsing them in your head. Be self-aware of your nonverbals. If the employer entered the room right then and looked directly at you, would they see someone who looks nervous, intense, bored, frustrated, zoned-out, or excited? Only the latter will make the strong first impression that will set you on the path to success.

10.3.2.2: Make a Strong First Impression

As the ad slogan cliché goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Recent studies show that in fact we make up our minds about people in about a tenth of second and tend to focus on details that confirm that first impression thereafter (Willis & Todorov, 2006). This means that some of your success comes down to what you look like the moment you walk into the room or the hiring manager enters the waiting room to call you in. Though there’s not much you can do about the shape of your face, you have plenty control over the grooming of your hair, skin, and of course your style of dress as discussed in §10.3.1.5 above. What makes the most difference, however, is if your smile conveys a sense of enthusiasm for what’s about to go down.

After first sight, the first-impression sage continues with your nonverbal behaviour as you get up and approach the employer, giving you crucial seconds to confirm their already-positive impression or sway them toward a more favourable one. Smiling is key as it conveys warmth and friendliness, which is what most employers will want you to be around coworkers and customers for operations to go well. Next, greet them with a friendly “Pleased to meet you” (or the like) and shake their hand firmly but not aggressively. A limp handshake will give the impression of being a pushover without any confidence. A crushing, vise-like grip, on the other hand, will say that you’re foolishly trying to dominate someone who is in fact secure in the dominant position, or that you’re over-compensating for feelings of inadequacy. If the interview is before a panel with several other interviewers or assessors, say your greetings and shake their hands as well. Introductions will probably go around the panel, in which case take care to remember their names because they will be really impressed by your people skills if you can repeat their names when parting at the end.

The moments when you are led to your place at the table or desk for the interview itself are also crucial for the manners you display. They’ll assess for how you might behave around coworkers and clients, so if you engage in pleasant small-talk in a way that shows off your social agility, and even wit if you can say something genuinely funny in there, you’ll be on a good footing going into the interview proper. If you come off as awkward by botching your timing and speaking at the same time as the interviewer or responding weirdly, you set yourself at a disadvantage that will be difficult to recover from. The same will happen if you appear overly shy with one- or two-word answers to the employer’s attempts at small talk. On your way to the interview, you may wish to prepare some witty things to say about your trip over or the weather when the need for small-talk arises, but be able to deliver them naturally at the expected moment.

Finally, wait for the employer’s cue to sit down at whatever chair they designate. As you thank them for the seat, you may also set an appropriately polite tone by thanking them for the opportunity to speak about the position. Express gratitude that they’re generously giving you their valuable time despite their busy schedules.

10.3.2.3: How to Answer Standard Questions

You never know exactly what an employer is going to ask you during the interview because they rightly going to rely on the element of surprise to test how well you can think on your feet. Luckily, however, there are several questions you might expect to hear variations of because most employers have the same or similar motivations, and therefore tend to ask a similar set of questions. Preparing responses to these questions ahead of time, as advised in §10.3.1.3 above, will help you articulate your answers smoothly during the actual interview. While still anticipating having to adjust your answers to whatever spin the employer puts on these standard questions, you can avoid the awkwardness of having to entirely work out your responses as you go.

Before we look at these, let’s consider for a moment what depth you should go into with each response. Before employers begin asking questions, they often explain the structure of the interview and possibly provide you with a printed list of questions or, if not, say how many questions and how much time you have for the whole interview. With these two pieces of information, do some quick math to determine approximately how much time you have to answer each question. If you have an hour for 15 questions, for instance, you can ball-park around about 3-4 minutes per response when you factor in the time it takes for them to ask each one. Knowing this, a 30-second answer to any of the questions will disappoint the interviewer with nowhere near the level of detail they expect. On the other hand, rambling on for five or more minutes will hurt you unless you’re responding to the most important question, the one that allows you to make your main pitch. Just remember that you’ll need to steal some time from less important questions later.

How do you stretch out an answer to 3-4 minutes if that’s how much time you have? Provide specific evidence. Even if you don’t have that much time, the more specific your responses are in terms of the evidence they provide the employer, the more truthful they sound. Back up everything you say with anecdotal evidence informing how you came to that conclusion. Try to link your answers to your evidence with the word because. If the employer asks how you would deal with a certain problem related to the profession—how you would deal with a workplace accident that seriously injures a co-worker, for instance—first say what you would do. Next, follow it up with “because that’s how we trained to deal with a severe trauma injury in my 20-hour Workplace Safety course at Algonquin College” or “because that’s what the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires us to do.” Show that you benefited from your training and do your job by the book when required.

Let’s now consider some typical questions, what motivates the employer to ask them, what they hope to hear, what responses will effectively ruin you, and what responses will tilt you favourably toward winning a job offer.

10.3.2.3.1: “Tell us about yourself.”

  • “Why should we hire you?”
  • “Why do you think you’ll be successful in this position?”
  • “Have you done this type of work before?”
  • “What experience has prepared you for this position?”
  • “How have non-employment experiences prepared you for this job?”

Open-ended questions tend to have the effect of catching those who aren’t expecting them off guard; the unprepared interviewee might be temporarily paralyzed as they figure out where to start. When asking such a vague question, however, the employer really wants to see where you go with it. They prefer to see you describe yourself as a professional who will solve whatever problem they’re hiring someone to address. A slightly disappointing answer will immediately digress into irrelevant personal details, such as where you were born and how old you are (details you should avoid divulging for the bias they may invite), before coming around to your professionalism. A profoundly disappointing answer will carry on into hobbies and personal interests without even getting around to your professionalism.

On the other hand, if you begin by saying that you’re an accountant (if the job is to be an accountant) who has 10 years’ experience doing the very job that the employer is hiring for, you’ll immediate give the hiring manager confidence in your sense of professionalism. If you continue from there to list your skills that match up with what the job posting described as required, explaining what combination of education and work experience taught you those skills and helped develop them into competencies, the employer might be tempted to offer you the job right then and there.

10.3.2.3.2: “Why would you like to work here?”

  • “Why did you choose this profession?”
  • “What do you like so much about a [job title]?”
  • “Tell us what you know about our company.”
  • “How can you best serve our most typical customer?”

If you answer this open-ended question with the obvious “the money” or something else self-serving such as “Because I think it’ll be a good career move,” you’ll immediately scare the employer into thinking that you’re too self-involved to have priorities inconsistent with the company’s. What they want to hear is something along the lines of their mission or vision statement and consistent with their own business goals. If your only motivation is what’s best for you, they’re going to think that you’ll just use the job as a stepping stone and leave as soon as something better comes along, requiring them to go through this tedious hiring process all over again six months.

Take this question as your cue to compliment the company and demonstrate what you know about them. Show that you’ve done your homework into both the company and position, and be specific in saying what you like about them, their products or services, and their workplace culture. If you can work into your answer how you’re going to be the solution to their problem, and if you can focus on how you see yourself serving the clientele as your main priority, you’ll be on your way to getting a job offer.

The absolute best answer will also convey passion for the work you’ll do. If you give the employer the sense that you absolutely love to do this kind of work and that  you’ll be a happy camper doing it at their workplace, you’ll give them confidence in you as a sound long-term investment. They know that employees who enjoy the work are more productive and loyal, whereas those who drag themselves into work and are miserable in their role are an unproductive drag on operations. Expressing your passion for the work in a very enthusiastic tone will give the employer a great deal of confidence in you. Continuing that positive vibe throughout the interview will work in your favour when the interviewer reflects on which candidate would best succeed in the role.

10.3.2.3.3: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

  • “What would your previous managers say are your best and worst qualities?”
  • “Are there any reasons why we shouldn’t hire you?”
  • “What experiences in this line of work have challenged your commitment to it and what experiences have bolstered your commitment to it?”

How you answer this tricky question, especially the “weaknesses” part, can either make or break  you. Throughout the interview, you’re doing everything you can to avoidi giving the employer a reason to not hire you, but you can’t answer this question without providing them with at least one. Omitting a weakness would show an inability to follow instructions, which no employer wants in an employee. There’s no way around it. So how can you answer this without ruining your chances? Follow this three-part message organization:

  1. Strengths
  2. Weakness + improvement on the weakness
  3. Strengths

You can add more strengths at the beginning and the end depending on how much time you have, but don’t add more weaknesses. The idea here is much like the indirect approach or “poop sandwich” constructive criticism (see §4.1.2 or §8.3 above and §11.1.4.2 below) in that you surround the bad news with good news. Don’t lead with a weakness because doing so appears to prioritize your flaws above your strengths if they’re the first to come to mind. Don’t end with a weakness because that will sit with the listener when you finish talking, leaving them to mull over whether they really want someone with that kind of weakness. Instead, surround your weakness with strengths in the skills that the employer listed as required in the job posting, as well as personal qualities attractive to any employer, such as conscientiousness, the ability to learn quickly, and a positive attitude. Use this as an opportunity to summarize some of your 4-5 key points mentioned in §10.3.1.3 above, but be concise about them.

Think of your weakness as an area of improvement, not as a permanent disability, so that you can pivot from the weakness into the strength of self-improvement. If you give the employer a deal-breaker weakness that you’re unable or unwilling to improve upon, such as being too lazy or slow, having an intense hatred for people, or a serious addiction to alcohol or drugs, you give them too strong a reason not to hire you. If you go with the cliché answer of “I’m a perfectionist” thinking that you’re disguising a strength as a weakness and that the employer will appreciate someone who focuses on the details and stops at nothing to do their best work, they’ll see through the ruse because they’ve heard it all before. From a manager’s perspective, the problem with perfectionism is that it takes too long and is a liability at crunch times. If you use perfectionism or something like it as your weakness, follow up with an explanation of what you’re doing to improve on it. You could say that you used to be like that in high school, but crunch times in college have helped you make great strides at figuring out when it’s appropriate to move on from things of lesser importance when they’re 90% perfect so you can spend extra time on the things that really matter.

As another example, if you say that your weakness is that you tend to procrastinate too much, follow it up by saying you downloaded and follow an app that organizes your day to include limited time for relaxing diversion when you’re typically at your least productive so that you’re more productive before and after. That way, you can pivot to strengths such as having good time management and self-awareness.

10.3.2.3.4: “Why did you leave your last job?”

Like the previous question, this one can be a trap if you answer in a way that makes you look like a poor long-term investment. When an employer wants to know that you’ll commit to them, don’t give the sense that you’re chronically unfulfilled by your jobs or that you got fired for something awful you did. If your actual reason is that you didn’t get along with management or coworkers, ranting about them here will give the employer the sense that you have problems with authority and will be similarly difficult in this workplace. Instead, answer with a narrative arc that positions your previous job as a pathway towards the job you really want: the one you’re competing for here.

10.3.2.3.5: “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?”

  • “What are your short- and long-term goals?”
  • “What are your career plans?”

When the employer asks what your short- and long-term goals are, they’re hoping you’ll commit to them and the profession you’ve chosen, as well as hear some ambition for upward movement. They’ll be unimpressed if you say that your ultimate goal is to work for another company (so you’re just going to use them as a stepping stone) or another career. They may also feel sad for you if your goal is to still be doing the job they’re hiring for after five years. They likely started at the bottom wrung themselves and worked their way up to the managerial, decision-maker position they’re in now, so they’ll respect someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to do the same. They may also think that they themselves will be moving on up from their current middle-management position to more senior positions, which will open up their current positions to be filled by the people who are now entry-level like you. Saying that you want your path to be something like theirs so that you’ll look to them as a mentor can be both flattering and assuring that your loyalty will be to their company.

10.3.2.3.6: “Do you have any questions for us?”

Employers recognize that a job interview is a two-way street. They’re assessing you at the same time that you’re assessing them. Though they hold the balance of power because they have the money you’re after, which gives them the right to ask the majority of questions, they’ll usually give you the opportunity to interview them briefly at the end. Having nothing to ask will look bad because it suggests that you lack curiosity and haven’t given much thought to the position and the company. Asking what your starting salary is will be considered rude, as will asking about other benefits; these are details to work out when they offer you the job, not during the interview. Asking what a typical work day looks like will also suggest that you don’t understand the position well enough to perform it.

If you researched both the position and company in your preparation, however, you will have inevitably seen things that piqued your curiosity or confused you about what the company does and what the position entails. Show that you did that research by asking those questions. If you see that the company engages charitably with community, for instance, ask how you can get involved. Asking what opportunities for advancement within the company suggests that you have ambition as well as loyalty to the company, and that you want to grow with them. You can also achieve this effect by asking about the company’s short- and long-term strategic directions. Asking practical questions such as if there job involves training program in the first month shows that you have begun considering the realities of the position. Finally, asking when you can expect to hear back from them about their decision is fair for planning purposes.

10.3.2.4: How to Answer Behavioural Questions

  • “Have you ever had to deal with a difficult co-worker, manager, or customer (or, in college, a difficult classmate or professor)?”
  • “Describe how you took an innovative approach to solving a difficult problem in your last job or in college.”
  • “How have you showed initiative or creativity in your previous job or in college?”
  • “How do you manage your time effectively during crunch time? Would you sacrifice the quality of your work to meet a deadline or opt to meet expectations for quality but deliver the product late?

One type of standard job interview question deserves special consideration because of the strategy required to answer it. The behavioural question asks either what you have done in a certain situation or, if you haven’t encountered it previously, what you would do if you found yourself in that situation in the job you’re applying for. The employer is here assessing for how you solve practical workplace problems, ideally by following some known formula for success or procedure with predictable outcomes. A very common such question is how you have dealt with a difficult co-worker, manager, or customer. The wrong answer would be any of the conflict responses described in §11.2.6-8, as would speaking harshly about the person you select to tell your story about. You must remain strictly positive throughout the interview to avoid inviting any negative impressions. Though some employers may state their expectations for how you structure your answer, those who don’t will be impressed if you divided your answer into the four parts given in Table 10.3.2.4 below.

Table 10.3.2.4: Answering Behavioural Questions

Answer Part Example
1. Describe the situation Yes, I have encountered a difficult co-worker. I was the delivery supervisor of an organic grocery home delivery service. Dave, one of the warehouse workers, was upset about something and acting out, especially by taking pot-shots at the manager, Karin. The manager wasn’t having any it of it and was prepared to fire him.
2. Explain what you did about it I chatted with Dave about it and it turned out that he had some good ideas about how to improve the warehouse operation—especially his part of it—but a personality clash with the manager meant that she didn’t take him seriously and wouldn’t listen to him. As a supervisor, I depended on good relations between both the warehouse and office staff, so I just went into full conflict-resolution mode, arranged for the two to sit down and listen to each other’s concerns, and mediated to ensure the conversation stayed civil.
3. Explain the result of your actions As a result of their conversation, they came to an amicable solution whereby Karin would let Dave implement his ideas on a trial basis for a few weeks and Dave would cool it with the anti-authority delinquency and apologize for the insults. His ideas improved the warehouse operation’s efficiency measures by 15% and were adopted as an ongoing practice. After that, they got along just fine or at least tolerated each other.
4. Assess whether you would do the same again in the new workplace and what you learned by the experience Given a similar situation here at Company Z, I would certainly do the same thing. It proved the productive power of listening to each other and talking out your differences as a opposed to bickering and drastic measures that would lead to losing valuable perspectives.

If you can say in response to the question, “Honestly, I’ve never had to deal with a problem co-worker, manager, or customer because I’ve only ever had really positive relations with all,” stopping there would score poorly in the employer’s evaluation. It’s up to you to take the initiative to say, “. . . but if that ever did happen, I would probably apply what I know about conflict resolution,” and then proceed to explain what you would do in the hypothetical scenario. What’s important to the employer is that you have a plan and are aware of best-practice procedures for dealing with whatever situation they put you in.

10.3.2.5: Assess the Employer and Possibly Dodge Illegal Questions

Though you may enter the job interview feeling that they hold all the cards and the power is entirely theirs to accept or reject you, it could just as well go the other way depending on how in-demand you are and how desperate the employer is. An interview is a two-way exchange where both employer and job applicant have the opportunity to get to know each other better, and you might find that you either like or don’t like what you see just as much as the other way around. This means that while you’re trying to make yourself as attractive as possible to win a job offer, be on the lookout for red flags suggesting that they’re not the kind of employer you’d be happy working for, especially if you’re good (or lucky) enough to have multiple job offers to choose from.

One sign of trouble that’s easy to spot is if the interviewer asks questions that they are required by law not to ask a job candidate. Questions that produce responses that can be used to discriminate against the candidate are a Ontario Human Rights Code violation. Such questions include anything about your:

  • National origin, ethnicity, or religion
    • Exception: employers can ask if you are legally permitted to work in Canada
    • More exceptions: if the organization serves a particular community and needs to hire within that community (e.g., a First Nations counsellor to serve indigenous youth or a service worker who speaks the language of a certain minority group highly concentrated in a particular area)
  • Age
    • Exception: if the organization serves a particular age group and needs to hire someone in that group (e.g., a youth group counsellor 25 years of age or under to serve 15- to 25-year-old youths)
  • Disabilities, health conditions, or physical characteristics unrelated to the job
    • Exception: if the employer asks about an obvious disability to determine what workplace accommodations are necessary
    • Exception: if the employer is recruiting someone with a disability to serve individuals who also have disabilities
  • Sexual orientation
  • Relationship, marital, or family status
  • Partner’s employment
  • Dependents (children), pregnancy, or intentions to have children (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2009)

An employer asking you questions relating to any of the above puts you in an awkward position. If you feel that you no longer want the job because you get the sense that the employer would be a mistake to work for, you could certainly tell them that the Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits them from asking that question. If they’re a small-business start-up, perhaps the employer wasn’t aware of the Code and could benefit from knowing what they can and cannot ask. If you still want the job, however, and are worried that challenging the employer on the legality of the question will jeopardize your chances, you can try to joke or pivot your way out of answering. If you don’t get the job and you suspect it has to do with discrimination related to the illegal question or your refusal to answer it, you can bring a Human Rights Code violation complaint (called an application) against the employer to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario following advice from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

10.3.2.6: Nonverbal Behaviour

Nearly as important as what you say during an interview is how you say it—both in terms of your tone of voice and body language. Modulate your voice so that it follows the normal conversational rhythms and high-to-low shifts in volume and pitch appropriate for what you say, while trending often towards high pitch and volume to convey a sense of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious; if you’re enthusiastic about the job, the employer will be enthusiastic about you. A robotic monotone, on the other hand, risks boring your audience to sleep. Your facial expressions should be consistent with that enthusiasm, frequent flashing smiles, raised eyebrows, wide eyes, and head-nodding to effect a positive, high-energy vibe. Like a monotone voice, an expressionless deadpan appearance will be hard to read, on the other hand, and suggest that you’re bored with the interview and will be dissatisfied with the job, even if it’s actually your way of suppressing nervous behaviour by appearing calm. At the negative extreme, frequently furrowing your brow (even in concentration) and grimacing will give the impression that you tend towards an angry or haughty disposition, which will be a drag to have around.

Control your posture and hand movements to complement your responses. Sit erect and even lean in occasionally to appear attentive and actively listening to questions, as well as to appear excited when responding. Balance this by also loosening up, leaning back, and looking relaxed when the room calls for it with it’s own easy-going mood (see §10.1.3.1 above for more on the benefits of social mirroring). Sitting perfectly erect for too long will make you look stiff and robotic or petrified in nervousness. Looking too relaxed the whole time, however, will suggest that you don’t care much about the job and the people there, or that you’re too tired because you stayed up late the night before and would probably do the same and be unproductive if you got the job. If you need to keep your hands tucked away because their shaking would give away your nervousness, that’s fine. Otherwise, use moderately animated hand gestures to emphasize your spoken points as you naturally would in conversation.

Above all else, maintain good eye contact. Looking the person you’re speaking to steadily in the eyes conveys a sense of confidence in what you’re saying and builds trust. Constantly looking down or away suggests either nervousness and a lack of confidence in what you’re saying or a mental struggle to remember points and articulate concepts that really should come easily to mind if you’re truly suited for the position. If the questions come to you from a panel, look primarily in the eyes of the one asking the question, but also share your eye contact methodically with everyone else on the hiring committee sitting across from you. Managed effectively, all of these subtle nonverbals suggest the kind of social competence and confidence that would make you successful in the position at hand.

10.3.2.7: Make a Strong Lasting Impression

The recency effect in psychology (see §4.1 above) demands that you leave a strong, positive impression in your audience’s mind if you want them to remember you favourably. You can achieve this if, in the final moments with the interviewers, your behaviour is consistent with the rest of your interview performance if you were doing it right: positive and enthusiastic. The final impression you want to make is that, even after a possibly gruelling interview, you are even more interested in the position than you were before. Only candidates who really want the job and enjoyed talking about it will be considered for a job offer, whereas those who just appeared nervous or were difficult to read because of their aloof, deadpan robotic nonverbals will hardly give the employer confidence in their abilities.

Be warm and friendly in your parting words. Keep smiling, say that it was a pleasure speaking with them, and use the names they used during the introductions. “Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about the position. I’m really looking forward to hearing from you. It was a pleasure, Keith [said while shaking Keith’s hand]. Thanks again, Dora. Hope to see you again, Helen.” As you leave the room, walk confidently with a slight bounce in your step.

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10.3.3: Post-interview Follow-up Messages

The day after a job interview, write a follow-up email thanking the employer for their time and interest. Though you may consider this an optional cherry on top of a successful job interview, it’s really more of an expected formality in the modern job interview process. When the hiring committee meets to discuss the five or six candidates who interviewed, those who neglected to send a thank-you note will look uncaring or neglectful compared to those who demonstrated thoughtful and considerate gratitude by writing a note. The message need not be long, but must be well written and error free. A message along the lines of the example below would suffice to show that you’re still interested in the job and the company.

Dear Mrs. Harrington:

Please allow me to thank you for your time and the opportunity to talk about the Software Developer position at your office yesterday. Enjoying our conversation immensely convinced me that I would be a great fit in your company.

Developing software has been my greatest passion these past six years, and supporting Company Z’s bid for market dominance in the years ahead would be my dream job.

Please let me know if I can do anything to help make your decision easier. Otherwise, I am very much looking forward to hearing from you next week.

Warm regards,

Marcos

Once this message goes out, move on. As good as you might feel about how you did, you won’t have any idea what they decide until you hear back from them. Sometimes the best candidate doesn’t get the job after all, so don’t torture yourself by checking your phone and email every five minutes for the good or bad news. Instead, focus on your next applications. When your job is to get a job, it should be a full-time occupation that you don’t rest from until you accept a job offer.

If you get a follow-up message saying that another candidate better suited what the selection committee was looking for, feeling dejected and getting upset is a natural reaction to the bad news. What’s really important at this point is that you do two things: (1) don’t respond angrily by demanding a reason why you were rejected or what the winning candidate had over you. The employer will simply be protecting itself from legal action when they say that they can’t go into detail about their decision, especially because all of the people on the committee will likely have signed confidentiality agreements to not discuss their decisions with anyone outside of the committee. Instead, accept defeat gracefully. Who knows—they may have been impressed enough that when they follow-through on plans to hire again in six months, they’ll have you in mind—unless you blow it by burning the bridge in an angry response to rejection.

(2) Learn from the experience. The more interviews you do, the more you figure out what works and what doesn’t based on reading the reactions around the room and how you feel afterwards. Reflect on where you could have improved and keep a set of notes on what you would do better next time. In the meantime, keep applying to other positions, building your professional network, and even add skill sets and educational experience that would better position you for the jobs you want.

If you decide on the basis of the interview to withdraw from the competition before the company even sends you their decision, the courteous thing to do would be to immediately send a polite message explaining that you would no longer like to be considered for the position. Courtesy in this case is especially important if your reason is that you accepted a job offer from a more attractive company. You don’t have to say that that’s the reason, but you want to keep the door open to the company you’re rejecting in case it doesn’t work out with the company you’re going with after all. You may not get a second chance with the company you’re rejecting, but you definitely won’t if you burn that bridge with a snarky email, and you never know who they might talk to (a future potential employer?) about any untoward behaviour.

If all goes well and you get a job offer or if you’re informed that you’re the leading candidate either by phone or by email, of course you should express your excitement and gratitude for them selecting you. From there, you may have several formalities to follow through on such as submitting the names and contact information of references and filling out other paperwork, all of which you must do promptly and perfectly lest your success be still dependent on your degree of compliance through the confirmation process.

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Key Takeaway

key iconConsidering that a job interview is an oral communication test, study for it the way you would any other important exam: by anticipating questions, practicing your responses, and rehearsing with timed trials; for the interview itself, control everything in your power to win the job competition with your best possible performance.

Exercises

1. Conduct a mock job interview with a classmate where you both take turns as interviewer and interviewee. Use some of the standard question variations given throughout §10.3.2.3 and §10.3.2.4 as a basis for your list of questions, but modify them to suit the profession you are training for. As a basis for your role-play scenario, use the job posting that you selected and wrote a targeted résumé and cover letter for in the Ch. 9 end-of-section Exercises.

2. Book an appointment with an Algonquin College Employment Support Centre tutor for advice and a mock job interview based on the same job posting and application you assembled for the Ch. 9 end-of-section Exercises.

References

The Government of Canada. (2018). Explore careers by essential skills. Job Bank. Retrieved from https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/essentialskills?prof_id=371&lang=eng

NPR. (2013, December 1). Could video games be the next job interview? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/12/01/246999632/playing-the-game-to-get-the-job

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2009, April 16). Interviewing and making hiring decisions. Human Rights at Work 2008 – Third Edition. Retrieved from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/iv-human-rights-issues-all-stages-employment/5-interviewing-and-making-hiring-decisions

TED. (2012, October 1). Your body language may shape who you are | Amy Cuddy [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc

Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006, July 1). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science 17(7), 592-598. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cea4/fb5e46aee36ff77ac5d4f0014cd8cb1bee30.pdf

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10.3: Job Interviews and Follow-up Messages by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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