In its most simple form, the interview consists of three distinct steps:
It is vitally important to understand these basic steps in order to be successful in your interviewing. Each step carries with it a different focus and emphasis. Each step has its own protocol and requirements. Each step is bidirectional, meaning it is performed by both the interviewer and the interviewee. And successful completion of each step is critical if you are to go on to the next step in the process, whether another interview or the actual job offer.
It is important to note that there is a dual responsibility for successful completion of each of these steps. The employer has a responsibility to follow through with each step, yet even in the absence of the employer completing the step, you have a greater responsibility. If the employer fails in his/her responsibility, their company could potentially fail to hire a qualified candidate. But if you consistently fail in your responsibility, you will fail to be hired. So you need to take personal responsibility for your side of the interview process.
The establishing rapport step is where the vital first impressions are formed. Some interviewers claim to be able to make a decision about a candidate in thirty seconds or less. The truth is that you will set the tone for the interview through your physical appearance and initial responses. If you start off poorly, you can recover, but only through a herculean effort. Your personal appearance speaks volumes before you ever utter a word. And the first words spoken are typically the most important.
Many interviewers are analyzing you in reference to the company culture. Does this candidate fit in? Would this candidate represent our company well? Would others believe I made a positive selection in recommending this candidate? And the small talk is actually big talk, since it will greatly affect how you are perceived in the eyes of the interviewer. It is not necessarily the words you say, but how you say them.
Your verbal articulation and vocabulary will be noted, especially any variance, positive or negative, from the standard. If you have done your interview homework and have fully researched the company, the words will flow smoothly. If not, it will show. This is where your passion, your positive attitude, and your confidence will establish the tone for the interview. And this is the step during which you have the opportunity to make your personal connection with the interviewer.
In the gathering information step, the employer will be asking questions and reviewing your answers against their critical success factors. Some of the questions will be closed ended, such as "What was your GPA?" Others will be open ended behavioral questions, such as "Can you give me an example of a time when you had to make an unpopular decision?" While preparation is important, your honesty and sincerity in answering should be evident. Most interviewers are keenly aware of when interviewees are being less than honest. Or simply making things up. How? Through threat of reference check (TORC) questions. "That's an interesting story. Is Jane Jones one of your references?" To which you reply, "Um, no…" as you wait for the inevitable "Do you mind if we add her as a reference?" question from the interviewer. Your eyes shift, you squirm in your seat, sweat begins to form. You are dead and you know it. Busted. So keep it honest.
The questions in this step will usually be probing questions which drill deep into your background, attempting to get past your candidate interview veneer. Although you may have presold the interviewer in the establishing rapport stage, you will need to solidify the employer's view in this stage. The outward questions are designed to answer and dispel any lingering inner doubts. You will be judged on attitude (is s/he always this pleasant or is there someone unpleasant lurking beneath the surface?), work ethic (will s/he really work hard or is s/he just looking for a cushy job?), intelligence (does s/he really understand the industry concepts or is s/he reaching?), and honesty (is s/he really this good or is s/he just acting?).
You will be subject to the individual whims of each individual interviewer. Often not by design, but due to lack of training. The only individuals who are consistently trained to interview (Human Resources) usually do not make the hiring decision. So the Hiring Manager interview is usually less structured and more subjective. And in the end, an imperfect decision may be formed from an imperfect interview process. If you have not sold the interviewer by the end of this step, you will have great difficulty resurrecting your chances.
In the close step, the interviewer will set the hook for the next step. If you have succeeded to this point, the conversation will center around the interviewer selling you on the company and the job opportunity, along with the next steps in the hiring process. If you have failed to this point, the conversation will center on the football team, the weather, or any other neutral subject that provides for a clean and easy disengage. If your interview was successful, there will usually be an indication of future steps. You may be given further company information which is reserved for only the select few.
No matter what your view of the interview to this point, it is important to personally close the interview by establishing potential continuity of the process. Understand what the next step will be. "We will be reviewing all of the candidates and getting back to you" is not necessarily a shut-out, although it is the typical response when there is no interest. Make certain you understand the next steps and be prepared to follow up on your side. Always pursue each interview as if it were your last. You can always back away from it later if you truly have no interest, but you cannot back away from an employer you failed to impress.
Understanding the basic steps of the interview is only the starting point. You need to be fully prepared for different personality styles, different interview styles, and different questions. You need to master your ability to present the very best you.