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A Match Made in the Interview Room

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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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But I am ready to move on now. I’m looking for more of a challenge, and I also want to pursue one of my passions--travel writing. I have traveled around the world since I was a teenager. I’ve been everywhere--to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and I’ve written several freelance travel pieces, which I also included in the portfolio.

I’ve enjoyed being a general assignment reporter, but I’ve always wanted a chance to focus on travel writing. The Bugle has one travel writer, and she has no intention of leaving. So I knew that I would have to look elsewhere eventually. That’s why I was so excited when I heard this job was open.

Beth: Well, I like your enthusiasm. I’ve read your clips, and I’m pleased that someone with such clear writing talents is interested in coming to our magazine. We are very interested in improving our writing. But I must say that I am a bit concerned about your lack of editing experience. This job is an editing job, and although it would involve some writing, the bulk of your work would be editing. That means that you will be working with our staff writers, and working with freelancers--both soliciting stories and hearing out their story ideas. You would also be responsible for a lot of layout, headline writing and caption writing. Do you think you could handle that?

Ned: It’s true that my only formal editing experience was as editor in chief of my college newspaper, but I have had informal editing experience over the years. At the Bugle, I have often worked with freelance journalists and have frequently been asked to edit their stories when other editors were buried in copy on deadline. I also have recently taken some college extension courses in editing and graphics, as you can see on my resume.

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I work well with people, and have often worked on long-term project teams.

I think my strengths lie in conceptualizing stories, in coming up with original story ideas and in knowing how reporters work and how to draw out the best from them. I’ve always been a self-starter, and I think I could spark initiative in other writers. I could quickly learn the nuts and bolts of editing.

Beth: Would you be willing to go to an editing seminar? There is one we think is just terrific, but it would require your spending a month away from home--this seminar is on the East Coast--before you actually would take up editing duties here.

Ned: I think that is a great idea. I would have no problem with a monthlong seminar.

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Beth: That’s good. I’m glad to hear that, and I think it would be time well spent, for you and for us. You know, a magazine operates at a different pace from a daily newspaper.

The crises all seem to bunch up here, twice a month, as big problems instead of lots of little ones like you encounter at a newspaper. Just last week, days before deadline, a freelancer failed to produce a promised piece. We were really up against it. What would you do in such a situation?

Ned: (Pauses). Yes, that is a tough situation. It reminds me of once, when I was working on a series project with another reporter at the Bugle. My story ran, but his story was not coming together, and the deadline was looming. I sat with him at his computer and interviewed him. It was all there, locked inside writer’s block. Once we agreed on a lead paragraph, he managed to finish the story, just in time. I think, faced with a freelancer suffering from writer’s block, I would try the same technique, try to draw him out. If he simply couldn’t respond, I would hopefully have a few stories in the hopper I could plug in in a real emergency, or a stable of writers I could call on at the last moment to produce something quickly. And, in a really desperate situation, I have the ability to turn out a story on extremely short notice.

Beth: Those all sound like good ideas, good ways to solve a difficult problem. I also wanted to ask you what you like about Footloose and what you think we should be doing differently?

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Ned: I’m glad you asked me that. I’ve been reading Footloose for years, and I’ve always liked its approach, but it really needed that redesign you did last year. The cover looks much less cluttered than it did, and the stories have gotten livelier, more cutting-edge. I thought the piece you ran about bicycling through Nepal was fascinating. I mean, you actually made it sound like a doable vacation. And the magazine can even take the mundane--like visits to entertainment parks, and find something unique to say. I like that. If I were going to make changes, I would aim even more for the youthful, affluent traveler. The traveler who is not interested in a cruise vacation but has money to spend on adventurous trips to exotic locales.

But let me ask you a question, if I may. How much freedom would I have to propose story ideas, to come up with unique layouts? How do those decisions get made here?

Beth: You would have a lot of leeway on story ideas. We have brainstorming sessions at the beginning of each week, with senior editors meeting for round-table talks. Those are real free-for-alls, with ideas bouncing everywhere. Once we reach a consensus, you will be responsible for executing your ideas, making sure you find the right writers and that they get that copy in on time. You’ll work a lot with photographers, and with our graphic artists.

Well, now that we’ve chatted a bit, I would like for you to meet some of our other staffers.

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Ned: Yes, I’ve enjoyed this talk, and I would like to meet some of the editors.

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Here’s why this meeting was a success for both Beth and Ned:

Beth started the interview by creating an informal, nonthreatening atmosphere. She signaled her willingness to focus exclusively on Ned by telling her secretary to hold all calls. She treated Ned like a welcomed visitor and searched for connections that would put him at ease. She complimented him on his accomplishments, while gently raising her concerns that he might be overreaching.

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For his part, Ned was careful to put a positive spin on his time with the Bugle. He presented himself as someone ready to move on and did not commit the cardinal sin of bad-mouthing his current employer. He showed Beth that he had done his homework, both about the magazine and about the specific job for which he was applying. He demonstrated a willingness to learn, to inconvenience himself by attending a lengthy training program far from home. He used an anecdote from his past experience to illustrate how he would handle a hypothetical problem in the new job.

Whatever the outcome of this interview, both sides will come out of it feeling good about themselves and each other. They dealt with each other in a respectful manner that enabled them to uncover relevant information and decide whether Ned and Footloose would make a good match.


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