The rules of interviewing don’t work

The rules of interviewing don’t work


This is not a news flash to anyone that reads your website: The flood of resumes and job postings makes job seekers feel like cattle while they’re applying for jobs. We know the hiring process is even more impersonal and bureaucratic the farther we get into it. We can’t control this out-of-control cattle drive, but once we’re actually in a job interview (ring the bell!) how can we exert some control so we can stand out among even more competition? It’s clear the rules of interviewing don’t work! Companies have so many applicants to choose from that they hesitate to hire anyone at all!

Nick’s Reply

rules of interviewingWhen the rules of interviewing don’t work, agile job applicants change the rules. I’ll tell you the story of a job seeker I met during an intense 1-hour Talk To Nick consultation I did recently to help her break through an employer’s hesitation.

When the rules of interviewing don’t work

Jing came to the U.S. from China on a work visa only to lose her job during the recent downsizings. She has rare technical skills but suddenly found herself adrift in a very weird job market. (“We can’t find the specialized candidates we need! But we’re flooded with job applications!”)

For several months she applied the rules of interviewing she’d learned from her American friends. It was the same-old advice we all know — put the right keywords in your resume, recite your strengths and weaknesses, study up on the common behavioral interview questions, tell them you’re flexible on salary, let the interviewer lead, try not to be nervous, and so on.

Because of her job skills, Jing had plenty of interviews. But, she told me, it always ended after one or two rounds. She really felt she was following all the rules. She always got compliments after her interviews. So why was she getting no offers?

Control the interview: Make it a conversation

Jing is smart, insightful and grasps things quickly. But she couldn’t get past the barrage of rote interview questions — her language barrier put her at a disadvantage. So I showed her how to turn away from the rote Q&A script managers usually follow, and to have a slower, more casual conversation with the hiring manager instead.

Later, she told me that was the secret sauce for her. She felt she was coming off as very stiff and overly formal because she was doing her best to follow the prescribed script.

“In all my interviews I could not make myself relax and do my best because I was trying to follow all the rules my friends taught me about interviews. By changing my tone to conversational, the manager relaxed, it was friendly and we were able to really talk! That made me able to show my best!”

Two days after our session, Jing went on her next interview. At first the manager was uncomfortable with Jing’s accent, but Jing compensated by speaking more slowly. Then she then expressed her interest by asking the manager about his team. While he talked, she relaxed.

She asked the manager what he needed a new hire to accomplish. He told her that in spite of her weak English language skills, he was impressed with her communication skills and by her focus on the job tasks. The rest of the interview was about the work, and she had a good offer in just hours.

“I didn’t know I could control a job interview like that just by asking the manager to talk about himself!” Jing said to me later

There are many ways to control a job interview by breaking the script that makes interviews so awkward. Two of the most important are (a) change the subject, and (b) focus on deliverables.

Change the subject

Job candidates are naturally self-conscious in interviews because they’re on stage. They are the focus. They must perform by answering questions. This interview script, which the manager and candidate buy into, can create immense stress and actually weaken the candidate’s presentation.

A candidate can take control of the initial part of the interview and break the script by encouraging the manager to talk about themselves. In fact, research reveals that “letting someone share a story or two about their life instead of blabbing about yours could give them more positive memories of your interaction.”

(There’s science behind this tactic! Studies in social psychology suggest that when we express interest in another person they are more apt to like us. That may seem obvious, but few people know how to apply this fun fact of psychology to a job interview.)

With a big, friendly, curious grin, ask the manager, “So, what brought you to this company?” Or, “Have you found the challenges of your job have changed since you started working here?”

Be polite, be gentle and friendly, be curious, and — like Jing — be conversational!

By changing the subject temporarily, you can nudge a stress-inducing interview toward an engaging conversation that reveals to the manager how different you are from other applicants. That is, it makes you stand out positively. As long as you’re also ready to talk about how you’ll do the job, this brief respite can change your meeting dramatically for the better.

Deliver deliverables

A job candidate can also break the interview script — and control the meeting — by helping the manager think in terms of deliverables. (We discussed this at length in Stupid Interview Questions: #11.) Ask the manager, “What do you expect your new hire to deliver in the first month, 3 months, 6, 12 and then at 18 and 24 months?”

This is another way to make the manager talk and to put the focus on the job rather than on you.

Managers are hampered by the standard, rote questions they’ve been taught to ask. Helping them see that your focus is on deliverables changes the way they view you. You suddenly stand out because you’re showing you’re all about the work.

Change the rules of interviewing

The rules of interviewing don’t work because they rely on a artificial script. Like Jing, you can take control of your interviews by having a real conversation with a hiring manager. Just change the rules!

What are the rules of interviewing? Which ones work, and which don’t? Do you control your interviews so that you’ll stand out from your competition? What’s the best way to do that?

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You’re happy at work. Should you interview anyway?

You’re happy at work. Should you interview anyway?


I’ve worked for my company for five years. I get assigned to different jobs often enough that I never get bored, and I keep learning new skills. So I’m not in danger of getting rusty or falling behind on training. I’m really pretty happy and I’m treated well. I envision staying in my industry a few more years, then I would look around for something else, maybe even in another city where housing prices are reasonable. So, should I apply to the occasional job posting online and interview anyway, even if I’m happy? My vacation time is precious, and I’d hate to waste my time or other people’s time on job interviews when I’m not really looking.

Nick’s Reply

should you interviewWhen you walk into a restaurant because you want maple-glazed salmon, do you think the chef runs out to go fish for your salmon while the sous chef taps a couple of maple trees? My guess is the restaurant developed ready sources of ingredients long before it needed them, because planning ahead is good.

So you, too, should line up now what you will need later: new friends and contacts, opportunities, employers and options. In fact, you should have started two years ago because that’s how long it can take to land a good job. In other words, you should always be doing that.

Should you interview even if you don’t need to seek a job? It doesn’t have to involve applying for jobs or interviewing. Exploring future job opportunities doesn’t have to culminate in discussions about a job today. But here’s the key: It’s enough to pinpoint companies and people where you might go when the time comes. Knowing where you want to go and who can help get you there, before it’s time to move, will give you an incredible edge in your job search.

Should you interview now?

Sure. But it’s more than that — and it’s even less. There are things you must do before you can get good interviews.

  • Start meeting people who work in companies where you think you might like to work. If these companies are out of town, meet them via e-mail, on the phone, via Zoom – or when you’re traveling. These connections will grow in value, often slowly, but there are no returns in isolation.
  • Did you read a good article about a certain company or business line? Drop a note to the author (or to the people mentioned in the article) or call them. Explore the subject of the article further. Ask about their company, about their career, about the place they live. Make a new friend.
  • Stay in touch. Trade useful information as an ongoing habit. I find people are more inclined to respond when you’re not fishing for a job.
  • Attend some trade shows or training programs where you can easily meet people in your industry. Have a beer with someone you don’t know. The more people you meet, the more likely you are to become “the person that’s wired for the job.”
  • Take advantage of virtual meeting tools, but make no mistake. You are not likely to compete effectively against someone who makes first-degree contact — that is, in person — with people you need to meet.
  • At these events, participate in discussions about jobs and employers. Add your two bits. Offer to give someone who’s interested in your company a “cook’s tour,” or to make an introduction. (I’m sure your company would love such referrals!)
  • What goes around comes around. It’s good to do career favors for others. These need not be big favors. Don’t expect something in return each time, but trust that contributing to the pool of good deeds produces more good deeds, and that will make your life better. It may even help you find your next job.

But, should you interview now?

It’s not really about interviewing, but going on an interview now and then, if a company really sparks your interest, can be a good thing. (See Which companies should I apply to?) There’s no guarantee they’re going to hire you, so don’t feel you have to be ready to accept a job. As long as you’re genuinely interested in the people, the business and the work, don’t worry about misrepresenting your intentions. The purpose of interviews is for employers and workers to meet one another and explore.

You might have noticed a common thread in all these suggestions: They all involve taking the initiative to meet new people and doing it all the time, even if you’re not interviewing. That’s where future job opportunities come from. That’s how you can keep your supply chain of opportunities stocked without wasting anyone’s time. Do your fishing before you need to eat.

It’s good to hear from someone who likes their work and their employer. Thanks for a new spin on an old question.

For real? A last word

I know many people will read my suggestions and scratch their heads. “For real, Nick? Who has the time or inclination to do all or any of that? It all sounds great but it’s not realistic in any job market!”

If you don’t do some of the things I suggest, you’re left with the status quo. You will get rejected again and again for jobs you applied for just because they came along — not because you really want them or can do them, or because they’re good for your career. The Employment System is an overly automated database-numbers game. Cynics play along and hope for the best, which usually means they get hired for a job they will likely soon quit or get fired from because it was wrong for them to begin with.

There is no easy, automated way to let the Employment System lead you to a job. This System leaves personal and business catastrophes in its wake every day. Pretending it might work when you need it is, I believe, a big mistake.

Do you wait until you need a job to find a job? How much time do you invest in cultivating relationships and connections in advance of a job search? Should you interview regularly to stay ahead of the game? What’s the best way to do it?

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Burned out, quit without notice. What now?

Burned out, quit without notice. What now?


I’ve been working for a very dynamic manager who gives me lots of opportunities for advancement. I’ve learned a lot, but I think I blew it. The last three months have been very stressful and two days ago I quit. I left my boss in the lurch — I quit without notice. I was just burned out and didn’t know where to turn. He’s a great guy, but he just kept piling on the work and I got to the point where I couldn’t keep my head above water. Some tasks really required someone higher-level than me, but I managed to get them done, working till after midnight at home and on weekends. My husband and kids just learned to live without me for a while.

How do I explain my sudden departure to future employers? I do not just leave jobs, but I just didn’t feel capable any more. I know it was poor judgment to not give notice. Please help.

Nick’s Reply

quit without noticeSometimes stress pushes us to our limits. Sometimes it pushes us beyond. You’re right, you shouldn’t have quit without notice — or without first discussing your problems candidly with your boss. You will never know whether he might have adjusted your work load.

There are two things you should do.

Quit without notice: Fess up

First, you should go back to your employer, apologize, and offer to cover the job while he finds a replacement. That would be hard, I know. He may not even want to talk to you. Fessing up is the only way I know to try and salvage the relationship and your self-respect.

Second, face up to what happened when you interview with another employer. Whether or not your boss was being reasonable in piling on all that work, the bottom line is that the job and the company were not for you. You have to be able to explain, very briefly, why that’s so. Even if not speaking up was your error, your employer is at least as much to blame. Try something like this:

How to Say It

“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem was with your recent employer, be honest:

“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with… I came to you because your company seems to be one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to show you how I will be a profitable hire…”

Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. Be ready talk about what you can do for the new employer. That’s what matters. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

Lack of skills or too much work?

I’ve seen this burn-out syndrome before and it concerns me. You say you didn’t feel capable in the position you were in. I take that to mean you either weren’t skilled to do the job, or it was just too much work for you even if you could do it. Don’t let that get to your ego. There are jobs we can do, and others we can’t. Problems arise when we don’t know the difference, and when we can’t say stop before a disaster occurs.

I’ve known a number of talented people who have dug themselves into a hole they could not escape, except the way you did. It’s a vicious cycle.

Snapped and quit without notice

Sara was a very smart and dedicated worker who enjoyed great success at her company for three years. But she failed to recognize that the work became more than she could handle. The harder she worked, the more responsibility the boss gave her. Bosses are guilty of making this situation worse, because they often take advantage of this kind of worker.

Sara got deeper into the hole. She became physically ill. But she was afraid to turn any work away. Finally, she snapped. Late on a Friday she slipped a one-line resignation letter under her boss’s door and disappeared. She couldn’t face him, her co-workers, or herself. Her self-confidence was shattered.

Is this job for you?

This is what happens when someone takes on more than they can honestly handle. The truth is, the job is not for them, and burning themselves out trying to do it hurts everyone.

This message is not just for workers. It’s for bosses, too. If a job is too much for someone, stop and face the problem. Don’t create more problems by ignoring it till it’s too late.

My advice to you: find a job you want to do and that you can do well. Be honest with the interviewer, and focus on what you can do for the business. Interview your future boss thoroughly. Ask to meet other team members and inquire about the boss’s management style when there’s a crunch. Don’t ignore warning signs.

If you take the job, grow your career slowly and carefully, and base your success on the new skills you build – not on how much work you’re willing to take on to prove something. Let your boss know when the work gets to be too much. There’s a difference between “not doing your job” and “having too much job to do”.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever burned out and quit your job without notice to your boss? What precipitated it? What was the outcome? Do you believe it was your own fault, or your employer’s? What should this reader tell other employers?

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More employment hoops to jump through

More employment hoops to jump through


employment hoopsI recently applied for a Senior Sales position for a medical device supplier, having 15 years of national experience in health industry sales across Australia and New Zealand. The employment hoops they expect me to jump through are bizarre. The employer requires all applicants to pass an outsourced online “assessment test.” This is completed in the local office or remotely with a junior HR person monitoring to ensure the applicant is not cheating.

I found this approach rather bizarre for 3 reasons.

  • 50 questions in 15 minutes means 20 seconds per question. Some can be answered in seconds, others not. The candidate is told to guess rather than waste time on solving the question – not real-world since in business guesses ultimately don’t pay.
  • Mathematical reasoning questions (no calculators allowed) take quite some time to gather the facts and determine an answer – maybe easy for a Master of Mathematics.
  • The expectation to have a vocabulary way outside the normal range is unreasonable. I do not know how the junior HR lady passed the test as her native language is Mandarin. When we chatted some of her sentence structures were not correct. She too admitted having difficulty with the US phraseology used in the questions.

I don’t understand how a U.S. company recruiting for a sales job in Australia is using an assessment test where examples are U.S.-centric and not international (e.g., Outside the U.S. all measurements are metric, not miles, yards and inches). And how does the company expect applicants where English is not their first language to score a passing result?

I would be interested to read your comments on this recruitment approach.

Nick’s Reply

This isn’t recruiting. It’s trolling for meek job seekers. They’re not assessing how good a match you are to do this job. They want to see how submissive you are.

More employment hoops

This falls under the category “jumping through hoops for a job,” a troubling topic we’ve discussed before.

The details you provided suggest these issues:

  • By definition, these tests are “canned” — one size fits all. While the employer may use testing judiciously, the reality is that HR is often seduced into letting someone else do the hard work of judging a job candidate; in this case, the test vendor. Tests conveniently become the determining factor in candidate selection. That can be a big mistake, especially in an economy where jobs go begging.
  • The instruction to not guess suggests the test is scored on a curve. It is designed to make takers fail on many items. So, it’s not really about what you know or what skills you possess. It’s about how you compare statistically to other test takers. That’s not an assessment. It’s a comparison. In other words, they’re looking for the candidate with the smallest number of “incorrect” answers, more than they’re looking for skills and knowledge.
  • Using U.S. standards to assess candidates who live — and who will work — in a different country and culture is, well, the wrong answer. In testing, we talk about validity and reliability. A test is valid if it actually measures what it is supposed to measure. How can an Australian be judged on their communication skills when the test items are written using U.S. vernacular? (A test is reliable if you take the test again and again and score the same each time.)

Subjecting yourself to any canned assessment tool is to put yourself at a disadvantage, unless, perhaps, the employer can show you verification of the test’s validity and reliability, and unless the employer is willing to discuss your results with you. The American Psychological Association publishes a good selection of articles about the Rights and responsibilities of test takers: Guidelines and expectations.

What employment hoops do you encounter today?

Your reservations about such testing are valid. You should worry about how you are being judged, and whether you’re being judged appropriately and fairly.

When an employer uses testing as just one part of a thorough assessment and interview process, it may have a place in hiring. When the assessment you’re asked to do raises the kinds of questions you have, the time to ask those questions is before you consent to it.

As I said at the outset, we’ve discussed tips about how to deal with testing requirements, so I won’t repeat them here. But it’s been a while since we’ve enumerated the kinds of employment hoops — perhaps more accurately, obstacles — employers want you to face before they will even interview you.

  1. Are you willing to walk away from employers whose “hoops” seem unfair or unreasonable to you?
  2. Have changes in the economy and job market changed the kinds of hoops you’ve encountered in recent job searches?
  3. Are employers more or less likely today to forego testing until after interviews?
  4. How do you handle employers who make such demands?

Let’s get up to date on what employers expect of job candidates nowadays. You’re much closer to this than I am, so please share your experiences. This is one of those Q&A columns where I expect the Comments section to be more chock full of good advice than anything I’ve written.

What employment hoops do you face, and what do you do about them?

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