Rise of the 12-step job interview

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There was a time in corporate America when the boss took 20 minutes to size you up and skim your résumé before leaping to his feet and barking, "Kid, I like the cut of your jib. Welcome aboard!"

But today, with employers comfortably ensconced in the labor-market driver's seat, hiring decisions based on instinct are practically unheard of.

Indeed, it's not at all unusual these days for a candidate to be grilled by six, eight, or even a dozen interviewers on various rungs of the corporate ladder as part of the overall screening process, say human-resources executives, headhunters, and other experts in modern hiring practices

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"Many companies have made bad hires; now it's their market, and they're determined to find the people they want," explains Marie Raperto of the Cantor Concern, a New York City recruiting firm. "Even someone seeking a mid-level job has to be prepared to go through six or seven interviews," she adds. "It's endless."

"It's payback time," adds John Dooney, who advises the Society for Human Resources Management on its own hiring techniques. "Companies are picky, picky, picky."

Some headhunters and job seekers are skeptical about whether subjecting candidates to multiple interrogators increases the likelihood of finding the best people.

"Corporate America doesn't know how to select the best person, so what they do instead is cast a wide net, then deselect until they're left with the least offensive candidate," says Timothy Pickwell, a San Diego corporate attorney who sat for several interviews with more than a dozen different organizations before landing a position at a southern California restaurant company last year.

"You can't even get nine people to agree on where to go for lunch," he adds. "How can you expect them to agree on a person?"

But in an age where companies routinely boast about their teamwork ethos, nonhierarchical cultures, and commitment to "cross-functional" collaboration, it's easy to see why consensus now plays a major role in hiring.

Many companies known for attracting top-flight talent say they believe that gathering a wide variety of perspectives is essential to ensuring that the right person gets the job.

"We've used a group process for many years," says Melanie Jones, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, a firm often hailed as being among the most worker-friendly US companies. "We're all about people, and so we're interested in how [candidates] respond in group environments."

Particularly when it comes to executive positions, "there's a likelihood of numerous interviews, because a lot of people need to buy into the hire," says Marus Jastrow, a staffing manager for Sun Microsystems.

Ms. Jastrow says candidates are often the ones who benefit most from multiple meetings.

"When they get here, they'll find it easier to acclimate, and they'll be effective more quickly," she says.

Problems with group hiring arise when junior staffers or peers are given veto power in the final decision, says Bob Woodrum, a partner at executive-recruiting giant Korn/Ferry International.

Recounting a recent incident in which a candidate was dismissed by a Fortune 100 client despite having favorably impressed 11 of 12 interviewers, he notes that "everyone has a different agenda," and that such agendas - whether personal or political - can conflict with the organization's best interests.

"This was a case where 11 people had said, 'This guy's a hire.' But one person said the candidate wasn't enthusiastic enough, and that was it."

Experts readily acknowledge that there are both effective and ineffective ways to go about group interviewing. The worst examples involve situations in which a candidate is passed around to several interviewers who riddle him with the same set of questions.

This can make for a frightfully tedious experience for the job-seeker; it may also compromise the value of the sessions for the employer.

"When people all ask the same things, something interesting happens: The candidate gets better as he goes along," notes Lynn Nemser, an independent hiring consultant in Pittsburgh. "Well, guess what? You've given that person a dozen chances to refine and improve his answer."

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.

"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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