Have you ever heard the story about the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant? After taking a moment to touch the animal, they came to very different conclusions about how it must look. The one who explored its trunk said the elephant was long, skinny and flexible. The one fingering its tusk described it as hard, smooth and pointy. And the one who ran his hands over the elephant’s hide pictured it as large, rough and wrinkly. While each of the men correctly described the part of the animal he touched, none pictured the creature as it really was. Yet based upon their observations, each insisted his description was right and the others were wrong. Given the limited information they had and the potential biases they brought with them, their individual perceptions were their reality.
Does this sound familiar? Have you and a friend, colleague or spouse ever viewed the same situation from very different perspectives? Have you ever left an interview sure you’d receive a job offer only to never hear from the interviewer again? Neither of these instances should be too surprising. Any time people get together, there is tremendous potential for misinterpretation and miscommunication, because each of us has different experiences and attitudes that affect our understanding of reality. Unfortunately, this can be particularly true in a job search situation.
The Job Seeker’s Perceptions
Because job seekers and corporate recruiters have relatively little time to get to know each other before deciding whether to pursue a business relationship, erroneous perceptions often go unchallenged and self-fulfilling prophecies abound. As with the blind men, each party typically has access to only a piece of the entire picture and must make critical assumptions based upon a sketchy understanding of the current situation, past experiences perceived as similar and attitudes formed over many years.
Consequently, the baggage that job seekers drag with them on their job search may automatically lead them to believe the following statements, even when they aren’t true:
- If I am a woman, minority, or Anglo male, they won’t hire me. People who have this chip on their shoulders, even though they are otherwise qualified for the position, often subconsciously sabotage their chances through a hostile or self-pitying attitude.
- When they say I’m overqualified for the job, they really mean I’m too old. I once received a letter from an NBEW reader with a Ph.D. in computer science who thought he was rejected for a help desk position because he was too old. In reality, he was competing with younger people who didn’t possess his experience or education. Help desks don’t require Ph.D.s with 20 years in the job market. He was also bucking the recruiter’s assumption that the job was beneath his capability, would bore him and would eventually propel him to look for something more in tune with his expertise.
- If I’m not employed, companies will think I’m dead wood. It’s very hard to conduct a successful job search when you assume employers interpret your not having a job as a terrible stigma. Recently I worked with a client who was humiliated by being laid off by a pharmaceutical company. Even though I told her many times that recruiters understand being unemployed is an unfortunate fact of life for many talented professionals, she couldn’t bring herself to be truthful with potential employers about not having a job. Eventually her half-truths created a number of untenable situations where she had to change her story in mid-stream, taking herself out of the running for several positions she might otherwise have been offered.
- If I didn’t get along with my former manager, he will give me a terrible reference. This is rarely the case. People hate to give bad references, and they are usually inclined to fairly judge the caliber of someone’s work, even if their relationship was a little rocky. I once had a client who asked me to check a reference because she was sure it would be scathing. Her former employer returned my call from London to tell me in detail about her outstanding performance and how richly she deserved a glowing recommendation.
The Recruiter’s Perceptions
Job seeker perceptions are not the only ones that create their own skewed realities. Recruiters may also have hidden or misconceived agendas, springing from past experiences and attitudes that resist rational attempts to change them. Should you become aware of any of these preconceived assumptions, try to dispel them, but don’t be surprised if you can’t. Many of them are subconscious and have little to do with you personally, even though they can definitely affect your chances of getting hired.
Below are a few of the most common ones that thwart job seeker success:
- The manager has already picked an inside person for the job. He views looking at other candidates as a time-wasting formality. It’s going to be very hard to convince this person an outsider can do a better job than his hand-picked candidate.
- He has worked with someone in the past who did a poor job or was difficult to manage. You remind him of this person. Or, maybe you have some of the traits of his estranged father. He may not even consciously notice the connection between you and the other individual. He just knows you make him nervous. Of course, this can work both ways. If you remind him of someone he thinks is wonderful, he’ll tend to like you, too.
- He’s most comfortable with people just like him. Job seekers who are a different color, sex, regional origin, age, personality or whatever will be at a real disadvantage in trying to fit into his profile of the ideal candidate.
- You intimidate her. Because of her own insecurities, she’s worried that you are smarter, better looking or destined to steal her job. Even if she hires you, her paranoia will drive her to sabotage your career to save her own.
- He has the perfect prototype in mind, and you aren’t it. In fact, no one fits his model. If this manager ever hires anyone, the unfortunate individual will be in constant competition with a figment of his boss’s imagination.
- In his heart of hearts, he really doesn’t want to hire anyone. This is particularly true of entrepreneurs who are used to doing everything themselves. Giving up power or authority to someone else can be very difficult, even impossible for them.
While job seekers and recruiters need to be careful of hidden agendas and loaded assumptions, it makes sense to approach the matching process with some preconceived ideas. To determine their best career move, candidates should have a clear idea of what they want and have to offer. And potential employers should pick the best person for the job based upon the characteristics of their ideal candidate. Each armed with their initial preferences, both parties can work together to determine the likelihood of a mutually satisfying match.
Tips for a Successful Interview
If you are a job seeker, you can do your utmost to ensure a potential employer sees you for who you really are by using the following techniques:
- Do your homework. Develop a clear understanding of your ideal job description, including functional and technical skills you want to use and the environment that will best support them. Research the company to find out it products/services, mission, philosophy and challenges. Get a copy of the job qualifications, if possible. Consider how you can personally make a positive impact based upon the company’s needs. Be prepared to discuss your potential contribution with your interviewer and give him examples of how you have performed in situations similar to the ones he is facing. Think about the questions he may ask you and how you will answer them. Put together a list of your own questions, including some that probe for business philosophy and management style. The more you know about yourself and the position, the easier it will be to convey who you are and what you can do for the company.
- Most employment professionals will tell you the first 30 seconds of an interview are the most important because your interviewer will automatically look for ways to reinforce her initial impression of you throughout the interview. To make a positive first impression; arrive a little early, dress the part, offer a hearty (but not crushing) handshake and exude an air of quiet confidence. Have an ice breaker in mind in case your interviewer doesn’t.
- Listen carefully. Active listening ensures you’ll answer the question that was asked, rather than the one you expected. People are much more likely to perceive the true you if you attend to the moment and respond directly to them. Otherwise they may label you as a slithery politician who skews his replies to suit his own purposes. Careful listening also helps you make an informed decision about whether the job is right for you.
- Mirror your conversational companion. Watch her body language, listen for her jargonal phrases, notice if she is an auditory, visual or kinesthetic learner (I see vs. I hear vs. I feel sprinkled throughout the conversation), and consider the speed and tonality of her speech. Mirror them as much as you can. She will get your message better if it is presented in a format that comes naturally to her.
- Ask good questions. Intelligent questions show you’ve done your homework and understand the intricacies of the position. In many cases, they tell more about who you are and what you know than many of your answers. Set up hypothetical situations and ask the manager how “we” would handle them. Inquire about industry trends using a Wall Street Journal or Fortune article as a reference point. Don’t avoid thought-provoking business issues. Good managers love tough questions because they offer an opportunity to display their expertise or discuss a well-considered opinion.
- Don’t concentrate on finding trick questions or hidden agendas. While there may be some game players out there posing as real people, they are in the minority. Obsessing over “what she really means” can make you second-guess your instincts, put on a phony facade and lose sight of the main reason for having the interview. It’s better to take the interviewer at her word and proceed accordingly. Should you suspect someone is playing with your psyche, immediately cross them off your list of potential employers. People who have hidden agendas in interviews will also have them on the job. They make exhausting managers and colleagues.
- Check periodically to see if you are conveying the right information about yourself to help your interviewer make an informed decision. Ask if your skills and experience are a good fit for the position. Find out if the past experiences you offer as evidence of your expertise have relevance for your interviewer. What may be an obvious bridge to you may be a confusing dead end to someone else.
- If your potential manager has some concerns about your fit for the position, immediately try to assuage them. Show how your transferable skills can make up for a lack of technical expertise. Point out how moving from one industry to another gives you a valuable fresh perspective. Unfortunately, these concerns often don’t surface unless you probe for them. That’s why the periodic reality checks mentioned above are so important.
- Always find out how the selection process will progress and when you can expect to hear from the interviewer. Many job seekers neglect to get this information and then sit dejectedly by the phone assuming someone else got the job. If you haven’t heard from the company by the target date, give your contact a call. Following up shows initiative and interest, two traits employers admire. If you get the opportunity to talk to the decision-maker again, express your continued interest in the position. Your making the first move may even serve to propel the process forward.
- Send a thank-you note reiterating why you are interested in the company and what you have to offer them. If, for some reason, your interviewer isn’t totally clear on why he should hire you, your thank-you note gives you one more chance to spell it out for him.
- Should the company decide to hire someone else, try to find out why they chose the other person instead of you. Probably you’ll hear their choice was based on something beyond your control, which helps to temper the rejection a little. On the other hand, if they mention techniques you need to polish or issues you neglected to clarify, you’ll be able to rectify the problem before the next important interview.
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.
In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.