Passing the receptionist test

October 26, 2008 Job hunting, People 2 comments

A recent post on The Daily WTF discusses a company where they employ The Receptionist Test. The hiring manager has the receptionist stage a tech support problem and asks the candidate, waiting in the lobby for his or her interview, for help. One guy tries to help with a document that won’t print, but doesn’t realize the printer is off, and so on.

While tricks like this may not be common, there’s a reception test that you run into every time you interview. Every interaction you have with everyone in the company is part of your interview that could have positive or negative effects, and the receptionist is the first candidate. The receptionist comes into contact with hundreds of people every day, and is likely tuned into observing people as they pass through the doors.

Whenever I have an interview, the first thing I do after showing the candidate out is ask the receptionist “What did you think? Any comments?” Usually I’ll get something bland like “He seemed nice, I like that car he drove up in.” Other times I get more interesting comments like “He took a long time to fill out his application. He spent a lot of time on his phone while he was writing, and didn’t seem like he was very interested in the interview.” or “It must have been a long trip, ’cause he practically ran in and asked for the bathroom.” Those specific comments don’t affect much as far perception, but it gives an idea of how you’re constantly on display.

How you treat the receptionist speaks volumes about you. Were you polite? Did you say “please” and “thank you”? Or did you just grunt and drool before bothering to put on your Happy Interview Face? The receptionist, and those around you, will know.

It might not even be the receptionist who notices your behavior. Maybe that guy in a suit sitting in the lobby isn’t another interview candidate, but the CEO waiting for the CFO to go to lunch. I’ve even sat in the lobby myself before interviews observing the candidate.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your scrutiny starts when you step into the interviewer’s office. You’ve been on stage well before that point.

There are no silver bullets in job hunting

October 2, 2008 Job hunting No comments

I’ve been reading a lot of Stack Overflow lately, especially the questions related to interviewing and job hunting. It’s making me a little sad.

So many of the questions seem to be from people looking for silver bullets that are The Right Way to do things. There are questions like:

Asking “What will a prospective employer want to see in my code portfolio?” is like asking “Where should I take this girl on a date tomorrow?” There’s no way to answer. We can answer in vague terms, like saying “Put your best code in the portfolio” or “Don’t pull a Travis Bickle and take her to a porn movie,” but that’s about it.

These people seem to be looking for definitive answers where none can exist. Don’t fall into that trap yourself. Treat every job in your job hunt as a brand new case, with unique requirements and a unique set of ways that the job can use your skills.

Don’t fight to stay average

September 24, 2008 Job hunting No comments

Many times, job hunting is about beating the numbers. When you
send in a resume with hundreds of other candidates, or are one of
a dozen interviews, the numbers are against you.
It’s your job to stand out from the rest of the crowd, to
make it simple for the hiring manager say “This guy’s the one we
want, no contest.”

That’s why I was discouraged, although not shocked, to see some
blog comments recently where the posters seemed to be endorsing
mediocrity, making excuses for being an average, me-too candidate.

The first comment, over at Evil HR Lady,
lambasted the interview question “Why do you want to work here?”


i never ask that question since i’m not interested in azz-kissers.

as though 99% applicants aren’t just trying to find a decent job with a decent company in their field. please!

if someone is interested enough to go through the hiring process, i don’t expect them to have breathlessly anticipated employment with my company since they were just ‘yay-high’.

let’s get real, people.

Anonymous is saying “Candidates don’t need to show passion and
excitement for the job, because 99% of everyone is trying to get
by.” In fact, that’s exactly why you should show how you’re
excited about the job, because it sets you apart from the rest of
the crowd. Instead, Anonymous chooses to fight to maintain the
middle ground, to firmly stay average and uninteresting. Chances
are, he’ll wind up with an average and uninteresting job working
for an average and uninteresting boss, too.

The second, posted here on TWG by Andres Kievsky
in response to
What you say vs. what others hear,
takes issue with my comments. I said that it was rude to send
thank-you notes from your Blackberry minutes after the interview
has ended. I think it tells the recipient that you’re just cranking
through job prospects hoping to find something that happens to fit.

Kievsky disagrees, saying that that’s the way Generation Y does
things and management better get used to it:

Understanding generational divides is something difficult, but a very important skill for any manager nowadays.

There are myriad differences in attitude and communication style between Generation Ys and older people. I suggest reading up on the subject before dismissing anyone.

Kievsky isn’t wrong that the Millenials in the workforce are going
to be a challenge

to a business world that isn’t used to these newcomers that have
always had cell phones, always had the Internet. However, those
Millenials are also going to be up against the wall if they don’t
understand the culture they’re entering, and refuse to play by its
rules. Maybe it’s “normal” or “standard” for Millenials to send a
thank-you SMS message, but that’s a poor justification for alienating
someone in a process that is all about human interaction.

Being the same as everyone else is cold comfort when you don’t get
the job, beaten out by someone who is willing to transcend the group
she’s lumped in with. As with Anonymous, rather than using the
averageness of the masses to justify poor business sense, Kievsky
and Anonymous would better serve readers by encouraging them to
elevate from the norm.

What you say vs. what others hear

July 29, 2008 Communication, Job hunting, People 1 comment

As you work through life, and especially the job hunt, never forget that what you say may not be what others hear. Your message often has unintended side messages.

This article from the Wall Street Journal discusses how job candidates trash their chances of landing jobs by using overly informal communications.

After interviewing a college student in June, Tory Johnson thought she had found the qualified and enthusiastic intern she craved for her small recruiting firm. Then she received the candidate’s thank-you note, laced with words like “hiya” and “thanx,” along with three exclamation points and a smiley-face emoticon…. Workers in their 20s and younger are accustomed to online and cellphone messaging, and the abbreviated lingua franca that makes for quick exchanges, [David Holtzman] says. “It’s just natural for them. They don’t realize that it’s perceived to be disrespectful.”

Sometimes it’s not even the medium or the message, but when you send the message.

Executive recruiter Hal Reiter recently received … a thank you from a chief financial officer candidate sent by BlackBerry just minutes after the interview. “You don’t even have time to digest the meeting and you’re getting a thank-you note,” says Mr. Reiter, chairman and chief executive of Herbert Mines Associates, a New York-based search firm.

In this case, the very method of sending the communication told the recipient that it wasn’t worth much of the candidate’s time. The candidate was on his way somewhere else and dashed off a reply, as if he was getting an odious task off his checklist, rather than giving a respectful letter that matched the gravity of the communication.

It’s all about respect, and the ways that we can easily show our lack of respect or interest in others. Unintentional messages are messages none the less.

How not to get a job: A continuing series

July 11, 2008 Job hunting 2 comments ,

Penelope Trunk posted this in her Twitter timeline:

I set an interview for Monday. Candidate says he has kid stuff. I suggest Saturday night. He says Why don’t you have a date? No job for him.

Organized lowballing

July 7, 2008 Job hunting No comments

Nick Corcodilos has an article about a new site called Dayak that “lets employers bid to see how cheaply they can hire talent.”: As he points out in the article, you get what you pay for.

I think “this page from the Dayak website”: is all you need to know about them. That much cheesy stock photography is never a good sign.

Seriously, this is just bad news for everyone. When you’re treating people like eBay items, like interchangeable commodities, you’re going to hire the absolute most average people, or worse.

No overnight successes building your personal network

June 3, 2008 People No comments

The always-insightful Seth Godin writes in Not so grand about the silliness of grand openings on a business.

Most overnight successes take a decade…. [T]he best way to promote something is consistently and persistently and for a long time.

The same holds true for your personal brand, and your relationships with others in the working world. The term I like to use is “time and repetition.”

Prepare to close the deal

May 19, 2008 Job hunting No comments

I’ve enjoyed Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog for months now, and I finally picked up a copy of her book
Brazen Careerist the other day. It should be no surprise that I love a lot of it, and disagree vehemently with plenty as well. It’s more a collection of related columns than a cohesive whole, but I’m enjoying it.

Since I’m working on my Soon-To-Be-Officially-Titled book on job hunting, I turned immediately to the chapter on job interviewing. This phrasing caught my eye: “Prepare to close the deal.” It’s common advice to specifically work to get a job offer in the interview, and it’s one I hammer on in my book. From the current draft:

You must ask for the job, explicitly. It may feel awkward, or seem like it’s pushy or egotistical to come
out and say “I want this job,” but not doing so leaves things vague in the mind of the interviewer.
You can blow an otherwise fantastic interview by
seeming uninterested in the prospect of working for the company.
Don’t delude yourself into
thinking “Of course he knows I want the job, or else I wouldn’t be here.” What you see as obvious may look like
indifference to the interviewer. Don’t worry about being too enthusiastic by asking to move
forward. Part of what you’re being interviewed for is your enthusiasm and
interest in the company, the department, the team.

Trunk puts it in more sales-oriented terms in her book: “Prepare to close the deal. Leave nothing open-ended at the end of the interview.” I can’t disagree, but I know that for many of my technically-oriented brethren that that’s a level of assertiveness, and salesmanship, that may be tough.
Maybe the way for geeks less accustomed to closing a sale to think about it is like nailing down requirements on a project. Programmers hate to work on a project milestone without knowing what the milestone is, and so it is with an unknown interview outcome.

It’s worth practicing, out loud before the interview, how you’ll ask for the job. Train yourself to get over any discomfort of asking to close the deal. Write out a few sentences that you can practice saying. Try something like this:

I wanted to thank you for the time today, and I’m very excited
about working here at Football Town. My expertise in scrum and XP methodologies fit
where you’ve told me the IT department is going, and working in the sporting goods industry would be a dream for me. What are the next steps?

Does that feel weird to say? Practice until it doesn’t. You’re not memorizing the exact words, but getting used to expressing something that direct. When you’re in the interview, if you follow that structure, the words should come out naturally. If it’s true, and it comes from your heart, that’s gold.

On the other hand, if your practice deal closing isn’t true, that will come out in the interview. It won’t just be in your closing, but throughout the entire encounter. Lack of enthusiasm stinks, and interviewers can smell it a mile away.

How to say “I don’t know” effectively

February 27, 2008 Job hunting 1 comment

In a job interview, it’s crucial you don’t pretend to know things that you don’t, but you
don’t have to just say “no, I don’t know about that.” Here are three
responses that are better than “no”, in order of preference.

  1. Discuss something you’ve done similar. “I haven’t used LDAP, but
    back in 2006, when I was at Yoyodyne, I set up and administered
    Active Directory for a 2,500-person company.
  2. Show that you’re at least familiar with the name. “No, I haven’t.
    Are you doing some sort of enterprise-wide directory integration?”
    You’re showing that you have some understanding of how it’s used,
    and getting more information and it may turn out that you have a
    different, similar experience, and can turn this into Answer #1
  3. Ask what it is, and how it’s used. “I’m sorry, no, I haven’t even
    heard the term. What is LDAP, and how are you using it?” You’ll
    show interest in learning more, and may find out that it’s similar
    to something you’ve done before, and can upgrade your answer to
    Answer #2 above.

Please don’t use the clichéd answer “No, I don’t, but I’m a
quick learner!” It’s good to try to turn a negative into a positive, but
“I’m a quick learner” is meaningless because anyone can say it. Use one of
the three above.

Finally, don’t think of it as a pass/fail quiz and worry that you’re
doomed for not knowing. I once asked a candidate, out of the blue, if he
knew anything about LDAP, because I had been thinking about it as
something my department might use. I thought he was going to have a heart
attack as he stammered out his “Uh, uh, no, but, uh, I can learn pretty
quick!” I reassured him it wasn’t something we were using, but I was just
curious. Chances are if you’ve been called in for an interview, you’ve
already the core basic knowledge that truly is pass/fail.

The Career Manifesto

February 27, 2008 Job hunting, Work life No comments

This brilliant list comes from

  1. Unless you’re working in a coal mine, an emergency ward, or their equivalent, spare us the sad stories about your tough job. The biggest risk most of us face in the course of a day is a paper cut.
  2. Yes, your boss is an idiot at times. So what? (Do you think your associates sit around and marvel at your deep thoughts?) If you cannot give your boss basic loyalty, either report the weasel to the proper authorities or be gone.
  3. You are paid to take meaningful actions, not superficial ones. Don’t brag about that memo you sent out or how hard you work. Tell us what you achieved.
  4. Although your title may be the same, the job that you were hired to do three years ago is probably not the job you have now. When you are just coasting and not thinking several steps ahead of your responsibilities, you are in dinosaur territory and a meteor is coming.
  5. If you suspect that you’re working in a madhouse, you probably are. Even sociopaths have jobs. Don’t delude yourself by thinking you’ll change what the organization regards as a “turkey farm.” Flee.
  6. Your technical skills may impress the other geeks, but if you can’t get along with your co-workers, you’re a litigation breeder. Don’t be surprised if management regards you as an expensive risk.
  7. If you have a problem with co-workers, have the guts to tell them, preferably in words of one syllable.
  8. Don’t believe what the organization says it does. Its practices are its real policies. Study what is rewarded and what is punished and you’ll have a better clue as to what’s going on.
  9. Don’t expect to be perfect. Focus on doing right instead of being right. It will simplify the world enormously.
  10. If you plan on showing them what you’re capable of only after you get promoted, you need to reverse your thinking.

My favorites are #6 and #9. I’m devoting a chapter in my upcoming book to the ideas hidden within #6, which technical people are notoriously bad with.