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1/25/15 - Setting the Record Straight on Job Interviews

Amy Gallo

You scored a job interview, and now it’s time to get ready. Before you start prepping, you have to consider whose advice to take. Should you believe your colleague when she says that you have to wear a suit even though you’re interviewing at a tech start-up? Or do you trust your friend who says, “Just be yourself”? There’s so much conflicting advice out there, it can be hard to decide on the best approach for you. So we asked readers (and our own editors) what advice they hear most often and then talked with two experts to get their perspectives on whether the conventional wisdom holds up in practice and against research.

1. “Always wear a suit.”

“In some ways, Britain is more formal but this advice has gone out the window even in the UK,” says John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of How to Get the Job You Love and Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions. Wearing a suit when everyone at the office is dressed more casually sends the message: I don’t understand your culture. This is especially true in laid-back Silicon Valley, says John Sullivan, an HR expert, professor of management at San Francisco State University, and author of 1000 Ways to Recruit Top Talent. “If you go to an interview at Facebook in a suit, you’re going to look like an idiot,” he says.

You want to overdress but only by a little. “Wear one or two notches smarter than what people wear in the office,” says Lees. It’s much easier now than it’s ever been to find out how formal or informal an office is. Go to the company’s website. Look on or Sullivan says you can even go as far as calling the receptionist or an intern and asking how people dress. “If necessary, bring an extra set of clothes and then walk in and ask the receptionist, ‘Is this going to embarrass me?’ If he or she says yes, then go out to your car and change.”

This is just one part of better understanding your potential employer. “You shouldn’t go near a job interview without decoding the organization, the people you’re talking to, the hidden agenda of what the job is about. Definitely don’t go into an interview without having spoken to someone who works there and finding out what kinds of people they like to hire,” says Lees.

2. “Be yourself.”

This one is particularly irksome to Lees: “The is a useless piece of advice. It’s like saying, ‘sit there and look handsome’.” Sullivan agrees: “That’s a good way to not get hired.”

It’s important to remember that “a job interview isn’t a natural slice of life, it’s a performance,” says Lees. Sullivan says you should demonstrate that you can give the company what it needs: “You want apples, I’ve got apples. You want oranges, I’ve got oranges.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be authentic, nor should you lie. But it’s your job as the candidate to figure out what the hiring manager is looking for and tell a story that shows you meet those requirements. Sullivan encourages candidates to figure out in advance what questions the interviewer will ask (again this can be easy using the internet and social media) and what answers they’re looking for. Then write scripted responses. “Don’t memorize them but know what you’ll say,” he advises. He also suggests that you practice by videotaping yourself to see how you come across.

The first 90 seconds of the interview are particularly crucial. “The myth is that you have 45-60 minutes to get to know each other. The reality is that first impression matters most. And it’s almost content free. It doesn’t have to do with skills and experience and knowledge; it’s about whether you look like a good colleague,” says Lees. Studies have shown over and over (see this one and this one and Malcolm Gladwell’s findings in Blink) how quickly we make judgments about people and how important it is to make a good first impression. So don’t fool yourself into thinking you can just be who you are. You need to nail those first few seconds by carrying the right props (think sleek briefcase or purse, not disheveled backpack), sitting in the right place (across from the interviewer not next to her), and handling the handshake properly (make it firm). And don’t forget that you need to be good at small talk too. As you walk from reception to the interview room, you want to be sure you “talk naturally, in a normal speed of voice, look someone in the eye, and exchange pleasantries,” says Lees. “You are trying to create the impression of someone who is comfortable with themselves.”

3. “Remember they’re not just interviewing you. You’re also interviewing them.”

Generally speaking, this doesn’t really hold up. “It’s not a conversation. One side is scared to death,” says Sullivan. And Lee concurs: “I see this piece of advice a lot and I really don’t like it. It encourages lack of preparation and passivity. When you’re in the interview room you should act and behave as if the is the only job you want.”

But Sullivan also says that the approach can sometimes work in certain settings. “I call it the Joe Montana interview where you ask, ‘Why should I play for your team?’ And it’s ok to say ‘I’m in demand’ but then you have to be able to back it up.” This is a tricky thing to pull off though so it’s probably better to focus on demonstrating what you can give the employer rather than expecting them to sell you on the role. Generally, that’s the power dynamic in the room. Though it can shift, depending on the industry, the region, and the health of the economy. Recent surveys show that power has slipped to the applicant.” In fact, a 2014 survey of recruiters showed that 81% felt that today’s job market is driven by candidates, not employers.

4. “When asked what your greatest weakness is, give one that’s really a strength.”

“Don’t admit you have weaknesses” is bad advice. Claiming that you’re “too much of a perfectionist” or “too passionate” has become a cliché – your interviewer has probably heard this many times. This not only means you may come across as not 100% genuine; it also means you’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness and a willingness to adapt. Sullivan says that you want your answer to follow this logic: “I, like everyone else, have weaknesses. But unlike everyone else, I find them, recognize them, and fix them.” Of course you don’t want to admit a weakness that would really count against you. Avoid saying something like, “I really don’t read people well.” But point out something that you’re genuinely working on. “That will show that you’re able to learn and develop,” says Lees.

5. “Don’t talk about money until you have an offer in hand.”

You don’t want to start talking about money until the time is right. “Companies don’t hire people who put money — or vacation time ­— first,” says Sullivan. “They want to know what you’re going to contribute not what you want.” If you can, delay asking or talking about money or benefits until you have an offer. “The best time to talk salary is when you have leverage, and you have leverage when they’ve fallen in love with you,” says Lees.

Of course, the hiring manager or recruiter may ask you about salary requirements. This is not an easy question to dodge, even though that might be in your best interest. Lees advises candidates to prepare short, professional responses and several lines of defense. First, have a general answer ready, something like “My requirements are negotiable”. If pushed, be prepared to go deeper and say something along the lines of: “This is roughly what I’m currently making but the job you’re interviewing me for is obviously different.” And, then, have a third answer ready if the interviewer pushes you further. Lees likes this kind of answer: “Well, I’m being interviewed for jobs paying…” He says it’s effective because “it’s a projection of where you see yourself in the marketplace.”

6. “Don’t ever admit you’ve been fired before.”

The good news is that employers’ attitudes toward switching jobs has changed. In fact, 55% of employers in a recent survey said they have hired a job-hopper and 32% said they have come to expect candidates to move jobs frequently. The bad news is that hiring managers still don’t want another manager’s rejects. So if you were fired or laid off, Sullivan advises avoiding the “f-word” if you can. “Your response should be short, uncomplicated, and as positive as possible,” says Lees. You can say “I didn’t expect to be there forever” or “I learned a lot on that job and then I moved on to the next opportunity”. And be sure not to criticize your former employer. That just reflects badly on you. Of course, if you’re asked directly if you’ve been fired, you have to be truthful. “The trick is to move on to the present by saying something like, ‘I was lucky because it gave me a chance to…’ and then bring the focus back to the present,” says Lees.

Interviews are rarely fun for anyone involved. Hiring managers don’t like to conduct them, candidates don’t like going to them, and in reality, they don’t seem to help to either side. “Interviews are horrible predicting devices,” says Sullivan, pointing to research by Google and academics that shows that interview performance wasn’t linked to job performance. That’s why many firms are moving toward testing candidates by giving them actual work to perform. “It’s like hiring a chef. Do you want to talk to him or taste his cooking?” says Sullivan.

But unfortunately, the interview is probably here to stay — at least until someone comes up with a better alternative. In the meantime, it’s your job as an applicant to recognize the process is flawed but do your best to shine anyway.

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at @amyegallo.