Our favorite resource on this is the book The Unofficial Guide to Acing the Interview. It is comprehensive, but after using it a few times you will be able to skim and utilize the parts you need quickly.
Being well-rested and well-prepared for an interview is the best approach. Politely find out who will be interviewing you through the person who sets it up. Find out what format the interview will be in, and review the technique and appropriate types of responses. Many interviews are highly structured with designated questions and limits on the interviewer’s responses to you. If you can find out the style of interview, Michelle Tullier’s book contains great detail on how to prepare for several types of interviews.
Outline examples of accomplishments, challenges you handled, and other useful anecdotes that can be repurposed to answer various questions to demonstrate your thought process, actions, and results. Remember and practice being brief in your answers by leaving out excess information, long-winded stories, and unfamiliar terms. Know enough about the place you are interviewing.
Be prepared with minimal online research about the position and organization. Life is busy and not every job is your dream job, but you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own, if you don’t go through the basic motions. One of our experts interviewed a handful of people for a position that included writing an annual topical report as part of the job. As far as she could tell on the panel, not one of the candidates had read the prior year’s annual report, clearly available on the organization’s website.
Do ask a few questions at the right time, often at the end of the interview
“Do you have any questions for us?” “No, I think I understand everything about the job, even though I do not.” That is the perception if your answer is any form of no. Have at least two noncontroversial questions ready. Easy ones include:
” Can you share anything about next steps in the hiring process and timeline for making a decision?
” What are some of the near-term goals or projects for the person in this role?
Risky yet clever questions can help cover any gaps in the interview on your qualifications. If you ask whether they have any concerns or questions about your candidacy, be prepared to speak to why those can be overcome by anticipating what your relative shortcomings may be.
Stay aware of your online presence and manage it
Google yourself. Your potential employer will. See what comes up. Be prepared to speak to what the Internet shares about you at an interview. Remove what you can.
Practice basic respect
The worst interviewee our experts have encountered was half an hour late, then said he did not remember what position the interview was for. The team was required to spend an entire hour going through the process per policy, but it was a waste of everyone’s time. He made it clear he did not actually want the position, and did not care. As a result he not only damaged his reputation with that organization, he damaged it with related organizations, as they shared feedback when asked about him for other positions. If you are going to show up, show up well. If you cannot or do not want to, do not go.
Sometimes, an employer will require that you take a test as part of the interview process. Do so if asked. Show up prepared and take it seriously. Skills are important for performing functions, and if you are not personally recommended, hiring you is a gamble. Once hired, a poor performer is much harder to get rid of. If you have solid skills, this is an opportunity to demonstrate them. If you do not, this is a way to avoid a mismatch that could be more painful later.
Email is best. Phone calls are intrusive when coming from job applicants. Even if you are in the lead, it may not be appropriate for the manager to speak with you during the process. And even if they will, set up a call by email first. Do not put him or her on the spot by surprise. The manager might pick up the phone thinking it is someone else and then be stuck wanting to get off the phone with you quickly in order to comply with protocols to treat all applicants equally.
Phone calls-especially repeated ones-can be a sign that a candidate is a bit off-kilter. If an applicant once leaves four voicemails rambling about religion and other inappropriate topics, he may ruin his chances of being considered for the current opening and any future jobs in the group. If you are in difficult circumstances and struggling, it is more important than ever to conduct yourself carefully. Less is more.
If you do not get the job, ask for feedback
The interviewer may share what you can do to be more competitive, where you stack up with the candidate pool, or other helpful insights. A runner-up reached out to ask me for feedback. I told him he was the number two choice and that we wanted to keep him in mind for other positions. I sent him job postings and mentioned him to other managers.
In contrast, I was hiring for a senior specialist. A man with the same alma mater but no background in the job qualifications emailed me his résumé. I wrote back a pleasant note explaining that he was not qualified and wished him well. He wrote back assertively again about how he was interested and could do the job. There were dozens of applicants with decades of experience. He lost me as an advocate by not heeding my input. If a decision-maker gives you her time and feedback, listen to rather than challenge her.
Thank-you emails can be fine, but are not required. You are already doing the organization a favor by expressing interest in the position they need filled. If you do email, be sure you do not cause harm. I received a note that said: “I have now had the opportunity to research you on the Internet and found out about the amazing things you are doing for the company. It will be great to join the team.” My reaction: You are telling me you are researching me online, which could be perceived as creepy; but if you must do so, why not do this before the interview to be prepared? And the statement about joining the team is in the wrong tense: You have not been offered the job, and could have written something like, “If I am offered the opportunity join the team.” Overconfidence in job candidates comes across poorly. If you do write, express deference and use open-ended language. That candidate did not get the job. He was not the right fit anyway, but his note lowered our overall impression of him unnecessarily. Here are some tactics to avoid:
Do not be silly
This is not the time. I interviewed a guy who was well-connected-both of his parents were well-known leaders in the organization. He was just a few years out of college and already working in a low-level position at the company. We interviewed him for a spot in a headquarters function that involved daily interfacing with senior executives. He was bright, but made joke after joke, revealing that he did not know how to conduct himself appropriately in a formal professional atmosphere. Because of his demeanor, he did not get the job, despite his connections.
Do not wear anything that is strange, revealing, or too casual for that organization
Know the company culture. It sounds basic, but I interviewed someone once who had on a blazer with nothing underneath but a lacy bra. Afterward we all wondered whether she had spilled something on her shirt on the way there and took it off. It would have been better to leave on a dirty shirt! She did not get the job.
Do not bring up controversial issues about the organization or talk about “insider” issues
Maybe you saw in the news that one of its lines of business just filed for bankruptcy or is being investigated by the government. Why would the people meeting with you want to discuss this with you? I have had interviewees bring up touchy political issues numerous times in interviews. I quickly move on and note that their judgment may be lacking. If they do not realize it is an inappropriate time to raise the topic, and are assuming they know enough from the newspaper to have an opinion, they may not have the right kind of judgment to represent the organization. Just because it is interesting and current does not mean it is a good conversation topic. Stick with the classic small-talk items: weather, sports, other harmless subjects. Even seemingly harmless information may cause surprise or discomfort. An event or issue a contact may have told you about may not be something your interviewers are aware of.
Do not name-drop too much about stories, projects or people
I interviewed a woman who constantly brought up people who had worked in the group over a decade ago and had long since retired. I was the hiring manager and had been there a year. I had no idea who they were, so by repeatedly trying to sound like an insider, she sounded exclusionary and out of touch. She did not get the job.
It is easy in your field and life to be so familiar with topics that it seems like everyone must know about them. This is never true of all people, and rarely true for most. I interviewed a man who was a prominent local TV personality, but I was not from the area and did not watch TV-I was busy traveling internationally for work, and parenting. While he had fascinating stories and was a great communicator, he referenced stories with too much assumption about what we knew. For example, “Of course you remember the big whale story last year.” No, I do not. I may have had a sick kid that week, or been on business in Peru or China. I might enjoy a 20-second summary of what it was, but I am not going to ask, because I am listening to how you present yourself and answer questions. My organization’s structured interview process might even prevent me from asking questions off the script. Remind yourself just before the interview that at least one person in the room will not know much about what you do-there could be a recruiter or human resources representative, and they almost certainly will not know anything about your field. Present anecdotes and examples geared toward a completely fresh audience-it probably is in some ways, and you are safer that way. No one will ding you for being clear.
Do not go to an interview if you are pretty sure you do not want to go
Advice that one should interview just to practice is bad advice. If you are wasting your time and theirs, you are not practicing successful interviewing. Practice with a friend or colleague.
Once I had applied for a job I had some interest in, but also hesitations. In the meantime, I got another job, and accepted it. I also got a bad cold. The first one I applied for called me for an interview. It was on the same block as where I was working, so I decided to go. This was a mistake. I was sick, and I was coughing and stuffy-that was rude to them. I already had a job and did not anticipate quitting it for this job, because this one was lower pay and higher stress. I was curious about it, but I had decided to forgo this type of work, as I knew it did not suit me well. In the interview, they asked me questions including, “Are you okay working long hours for this pay on difficult, paper-heavy tasks for the sake of the mission?” I gave tepid answers. It was obvious that I was not passionate about it. I withdrew my name from the pool after the interview and am certain I would not have gotten an offer. I ran into one of the interviewers years later at an event, though she did not recognize me. I should have declined that interview. Sometimes you may need to pursue positions you do not want, but when you have a choice, respect others’ time.
However, do fully explore opportunities that may interest you until you know enough to decide whether to keep pursuing them. A mentee consulted me about interviews with two companies in different cities for two very different jobs, neither of which she was sure she wanted. I advised her to keep the process going. In a situation like this, you may not get any offers. You may get both. You will not be able to evaluate them until you know more. If it takes a significant amount of time to fly for an interview, this is a tradeoff involving your time. If there is a red flag or gut feeling against something about the opportunity, decline. But otherwise, the trade-off is probably worthwhile.
The informational interview is a popular way to gather input and try to make contacts. Suggesting lunch or coffee can keep it friendly and curious rather than formal or demanding.
Do not request a “30-minute interview.” I got this request once. I dreaded the meeting, fearing I would be cross-examined or interrogated. I would have preferred that the requester called it a meet and greet or something more casual. At the time, my typical schedule involved several hours of sitting in structured meetings per day, so for networking meetings I preferred a less formal experience. If you are interested in my group, I am more interested in what you are like as a person. I will learn about your qualifications and be curious about that. I will not be as interested in answering 20 questions about what I do, especially the parts that are sensitive. I am amazed how many people continue to ask about information I cannot share, even after I gently signal that I will not go into detail on that topic. Respect boundaries. It shows integrity, and it shows that you listen.
By all means show up, or contact the person in advance to reschedule if you cannot make the appointment. Nothing makes a worse impression than blowing off a networking meeting. Once a person requested a networking meeting with me, did not show up, and did not follow up with an explanation. I did not consider him for a position, no matter how passionate he was about the subject matter. Execution matters.
Make sure you are being respectful of the place at which you are interviewing. Part of this is expressing genuine interest. Do not frame the place or organization as a stepping stone to something else. Even if true, nothing is gained by sharing your full agenda. I once introduced a junior attorney to contacts in the D.C. area to help her out, despite not knowing her well. She ultimately wanted to work and live in Europe. She made the mistake of telling people that this was her goal, and “D.C. was halfway there,” as she was coming from the west coast of the U.S. This is a quick way to have others dismiss you, as you have just told them you are not actually interested in their market. It could also be insulting-in the case of D.C., the local culture does not see itself as a launching pad to Europe. Its residents perceive it to be an important capital of global policy and business.
Interviewing Where You Work
This can be awkward, whether you are the interviewer or interviewee. Strive to strike a balance between overly formal and familiar. Respect the formal process and protocols. Follow their cues.
Once I was a panelist interviewing a close teammate for a lateral position on our team. He was upset that the boss included me as a peer and he felt very uncomfortable. I just saw it as going through motions, but he did not get the position so he felt awkward at that time even though the choice was not mine to make. We remained friends over the years and were both soon in other positions anyway. The people you are closer to know your true career interests, and that can throw off your ability to give “model” answers. Be honest and enthusiastic. If you do not get the position, try not to become disgruntled, as there may have been unrelated reasons or reason outside their control such as a layoff candidate priority list.
When do you reveal to the current boss that you are exploring an internal position? There is no clear rule of thumb. The best thing to do is ask trusted veterans at the organization for guidance. Sometimes, it is expected that you will be open about this, and you will be supported. Other times, it may be better to keep it private unless you get an offer. The internal systems may automatically generate notifications to your current boss.
Seek to understand what will happen at each step and direct the information flow before someone else does. Generally, if you get to the offer stage, that is an appropriate time to tell the current organization. While many expect and appreciate earlier notice, it is not necessary. It could create doubts about your commitment to the position. It could be helpful to share earlier if your boss or organization will advocate for you to get the new position, but there may be drawbacks to rocking the boat.