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Rise of the 12-step job interview

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Linda Clark-Santos, senior vice president of talent recruitment for Washington Mutual, has developed systems designed to eliminate such repetition, which often results from interviewers simply not knowing how to ask meaningful questions that will help them assess a candidate's suitability for a particular position.

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"Everyone here used to have their own process when it came to hiring. If people had more than one interview, it might have felt like the same experience over and over," she says. Now, the company's corporate intranet contains a guide that provides interviewers with a battery of useful questions that probe a candidate's past responses to particular workplace scenarios.

But as the old disclaimer goes, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Companies need most to consider whether a candidate is a good fit for the company's culture, says Joseph Broschak, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Interviewers need to determine not just whether people have the skills, but also consider whether they match the intangibles we're looking for - things like ethical orientation," he says.

Despite the growing popularity of more rigorous, structured systems of hiring, a few holdouts remain, particularly at smaller firms.

Kimberly Egan, a partner at San Francisco's Center for Culinary Development, a food-product development firm, still relies primarily on instinct when it comes to hiring.

"I've always had a talent for being able to read people," she says. "I personally think business school should teach a class in how to read your gut."

Pre-interview patter practice

"So, where do you see yourself in five years?" "What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?" "How well do you work in teams?"

Hackneyed questions along these lines are the stuff bad job interviews are made of. Asked once, they're merely silly. Posed six times by six consecutive interviewers, they can be downright maddening.

But suppose you want the job despite your interviewers' shortcomings in the snappy repartee department. How can savvy candidates respond to tired lines of questioning in a way that ensures they leave a trail of suitably impressed interrogators in their wake? Experts offer these tips for making your patter matter:

Know your questioners. "One of the things candidates absolutely must do is know the backgrounds of the people they're interviewing with," says Smooch Reynolds, president and CEO of the Repovich Reynolds Group, a recruiting firm in Los Angeles. "You want to find those common threads so you can strike a positive chord in each person you meet with." For better and worse, human- resources experts say, people tend to like people with whom they have something in common, whether it's an alma mater, a past employer, a former colleague, or a passion for obscure '70s punk and new-wave bands.

Educate yourself. "Especially with the Internet, if a candidate tells me he doesn't know much about the company he's going to be interviewing with, my first thought isn't that he's lazy; my first thought is that he's dumb," says Bob Woodrum, a partner at Korn/Ferry International who specializes in placing senior public-relations executives. "If you think you can just go in and be charming, that's a big mistake." Mr. Woodrum says he advises clients to know as much as possible about a company's operations, market niche, competitors, and unique business challenges before the first meeting with a prospective boss.

Turn the interview around. Don't use the job interview as a chance to rehash your résumé's highlights and tell war stories, recruiters say. "If they didn't think you had the basic skills, you wouldn't be there," Woodrum points out. "You want to focus on what you can do to help the company and to find out what each interviewer wants from the person in this position."

Know when to stop talking. Woodrum further notes that a recent survey of Korn/Ferry's partners revealed that a failure to stop yakking is the single most common reason why candidates don't make the final cut. "You want to have a conversation with people, but you also have to know when to listen," he says. "Social skills do matter."

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