Surviving an Interview Slip Up

Ever come away from an interview knowing that you could’ve done better? Maybe you think you don’t have any recourse or way to remedy a misstep. But you do, depending on the type of blunder, although many chapters on interviewing in job hunting books don’t directly address this problem. Here are some ways to back track and hopefully improve your chances.

Lilia Babé, senior scientist at Genencor International Inc., a biotech company in the Bay area, remembers one extreme and embarrassing example of what could safely be assumed to be an interviewee’s worst nightmare. A candidate for an academic faculty position where she once worked fainted after right after the lunchtime seminar. “It was just one of those unfortunate things,” she remarks. “Some people, even though they’re very comfortable with what they’re talking about, and even though they have given talks many times before, still get very anxious and nervous.”

He immediately regained consciousness, and fortunately there was a medical doctor in the crowd. But how do you recover from this? Babé says that this candidate was actually a good example of how you can salvage an interview that has taken a wrong turn, in the sense that once he came to, he was quite articulate and apologetic, picking right up where he had left off in answering questions. “I was very impressed,” she says. (She doesn’t remember whether he got the job or not.)

This particular example does draw attention to one piece of advice for remedying a mistake: “We look for someone who doesn’t dwell on any problem that may come up,” says Babé. “The ability to recover from a false step, that’s what you look for, even in less dramatic situations.” So try not to freeze up if you fail to answer some question properly or if you don’t have the answer on the tip of your tongue, managers advise.

Supplemental Information

But what if you completely forget to provide a piece of information and think of it post-interview? “I’ve had examples where candidates have sent me preprints later,” says Babé. “They want to give me more supportive evidence about what they’re trained in and what they know how to do.” She says that candidates might send more references or they might write in a cover letter accompany supporting material: ‘I’ve done x, y, and z, and it didn’t come up during the interview, but in hindsight, it’s relevant to my application.’

Adding more detail and evidence of how you’re the right match for a certain position is perfectly fine, say hiring managers. It’s not considered a strike against you. It usually takes a little time between the day of the interview and when the position is filled, so you probably have some leeway. But do act quickly and respectfully.

“I think any communication from a candidate who the hiring group is taking seriously, is going to be looked at and welcomed, unless the tone is really strange,” says Christian Fritze, senior manager, technology transfer at Covance Research Products Inc., another biotech in the Bay area. “I don’t think that there’s anything that you could e-mail or phone or leave on a voice-mail with clarification or information that people would disregard.” There’s no stigma attached to coming back with information after the interview.

By trying to provide the most complete picture of yourself during and post-interview can also make you stand out. “We’re always trying to differentiate between candidates, so the more information we have the better,” says Babé. She adds, with a laugh, remember this is science and it’s all about “data, data, data.”

Blowing a Question

Filling in extra facts is one thing. Another is a misunderstood question or realizing after the fact that the interviewer might have interpreted a remark you uttered in the wrong way. This is a different issue entirely. It needs to be to handled with another approach, but could be trickier.

“In supplying more information there’s already a supposition that you’re a candidate in contention,” says Fritze. “If that first blunder is serious enough you may have removed yourself from contention, so how you address the person in the follow-up is very important.” Also do you want to bring additional attention to a mistake? The answer depends on the nature of the oversight and how much you want the job.

“I would discount the worry about accentuating the problem,” advises Fritze. “I guess it is true that we retain in memory so much better the things that we mess up.” But in reality, he adds, probably the other person will realize a faux pas for what it was, not some fundamental flaw in the candidate’s character. “If that’s the case, then bringing attention to it will show that you’re sensitive to what happened,” he notes. “So I think the downside to coming in with a follow-up is usually pretty small.”

If you feel you really must correct a mistake, Fritze recommends a phone call over e-mail. “I find there’s something facile about an e-mail where a phone call would be better.” The immediacy and less of a chance of being misinterpreted a second time are two good reasons for a follow-up phone call versus e-mail. You might say something like this: ‘This morning when we were talking about issue x,y,z, I think I left you with an impression that is really the not the way I feel, or the answer I gave you does not fully reflect my views on this topic. I’m concerned that it materially affects my chances in the interview process and I would really welcome the opportunity to talk to you again about this issue.’

“I think people would respond to that,” says Fritze.

Take Home Message

Managers say that avoiding these mishaps in the first place is the best advice they have to give. Come to the interview as prepared as possible to minimize the need to back pedal. For example, research the company or institution to which you’re applying and match your experience to the position. Have questions of your own prepared. And, have answers prepared to such commonly asked questions as “Tell me about yourself.”

One part of the process that many interviewees forget, says Annette Lewis, scientist at Entelos Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif. is to follow-up. “If the interviewer was lukewarm about a candidate to begin with, one way to help your chances, whether you botched up or not is to write a thank-you letter.” In addition to demonstrating your polite and professional manner and reiterating your interest and fit for the job in the letter, it’s also a chance to correct mistakes and give additional information.

“The whole process starts when a jobseeker sees an advertisement,” says Babé. “There’s information there. Then there’s a phone interview where they can ask questions to get more details on the position, and if they’re called for an interview there’s more interaction.” So there are plenty of opportunities to exchange information.

“So much of what we see in interviews is disappointing because with many candidates the interest level just isn’t there,” concludes Fritze. So when he sees an interviewee coming back with supplemental information or a clarification, “that kind of interest is usually appreciated.”

Lewis concurs. Part of the problem, she says is that you have only one chance to show what you’re about in an interview setting, and if you come across as dull and uninterested in the position, it’s hard to remedy. But, if it’s something as seemingly innocuous as filling in supplemental information or correcting a misinterpretation, then go for it, say managers.

Ready for Your Close-Up? Cue the Behavior-Based Interview

Jane was brought up to listen politely to others and not brag or talk about her own accomplishments. When the interviewer at a large industrial chemical company asks her to describe her proudest moment as a college student, she replies simply, “When I graduated, and my mom and dad were in the audience.” The interviewer shifts uncomfortably and makes a check on a piece of paper. Jane cringes. She feels as though she’s given a “wrong” answer, when, in fact, her response was absolutely true.

Alice has always been a star student. When asked by an HR staff member at a large professional organization representing chemists to describe her most challenging academic project, she launches into an intricate, 20-minute story, including descriptions of the lab, faculty, and fellow students. Finally, the interviewer stops her, mid-story, and says, “I think we’ll have to move on to other information here.” Alice is alarmed. She thought her story was pretty interesting-clearly the interviewer didn’t agree.

Susan sits in the outer office of the research lab, her lips moving slightly as she goes over several “stories” in her head. When called in for the interview, she is prepared. She keeps an acronym in mind that will help her structure her responses. She is prepared with several well-rehearsed examples of her career, life events, and learning experiences that will give the interviewer a clear and positive picture of her ability to function in the work environment. She leaves the interview feeling good about herself and confident that she communicated well.

All three women have encountered behavior-based interviewing, a job-selection technique that can seem deceptively like normal conversation to the unprepared candidate. All may have had similar qualifications and equal abilities to do any given job, but Susan is the one most likely to be given high marks by an interviewer-for the simple reason that she constructed several “scenarios” to describe her accomplishments and previous work experience.

Behavior-based interviewing attempts to find out what kind of employee you will be by eliciting details about skills, competencies, resourcefulness, and knowledge. This technique is “based on the idea that candidates’ past and present behavior is the best predictor of how they will behave in the future,” says Jim Kennedy, founder and president of Management Team Consultants in San Rafael, CA. Queries such as “Tell me about a time when you were called on to make a difficult decision” or “Describe a situation in which you had a colleague who was hard to get along with” are aimed at revealing what kind of worker you can be under pressure. Questions such as “Tell me about your best lab experience ever” or “Describe a moment when you were called on to lead” can tell the interviewer not only about your experience but also about the level of your self-confidence.

But even the most confident individual may become tongue-tied when faced with the task of condensing important moments of his or her life and work into a tidy and coherent package. The key, say the experts, is to understand the process and be prepared.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Think of your resume as a snapshot of your background and capabilities. It contains all the basic facts that the employer used to select you out of a pool of applicants for further consideration. If your face-to-face job interview consisted of merely going over these facts again (“So, I see you were at Michigan State.” “Yes, for four years.”), then the experience would be an empty exercise for you and the interviewer. Worse, if rehashing your resume constituted the entirety of the interview, then on what would the interviewer base hiring decisions? Your looks? How you sit in the chair?

Instead, behavior-based interviewing tries to take the “snapshot” provided by the resume and turn it into a “movie”-a detailed picture of what you’re like on the job and in action. And, even though you may not ordinarily be an extrovert, it’s up to you to step into the spotlight and perform.

The Critics Have a Score-Sheet

Although behavior-based interviewing feels like conversation, the interviewer is looking for evidence of very specific types of skills. Well before you or any other candidates appeared for the job, the interviewer should have used a description of the position to decide what skills and life experiences would best suit the position. Sometimes these are numerically weighted to yield a final score for each interviewee, a number that helps add the appearance (if not always the actuality) of objectivity to the final hiring decision.

Most behavior-based interviews are looking for examples that illustrate three specific sets of life and work skills:

Content skills: Do you have the specific knowledge base the job calls for? Obviously, you can’t recite the periodic table or draw intricate molecular structures on the interviewer’s desk pad, but you can give examples that show that in order to solve problems you had to have a grasp of essential knowledge in this field and that others recognized your mastery of the material.

Functional skills: Can you work with other people, process and manage information, and communicate well? Can you actually get the job done? Your ability to communicate verbally is on display in the interview, but you also need to give specific examples that show how you’ve managed projects, worked with colleagues, and prioritized workloads.

Adaptive skills: How well do you roll with the punches? In the past, have you shown the resilience and reliability the company is looking for? This is your chance to shine by talking about the details of past successes. But remember that not every company is looking for the same qualities in every candidate.

Here Are Your Cues

In general, behavior-based interview questions fall into three categories.

Theoretical: The question asks you to think on your feet about a hypothetical situation that, in some cases, may be entirely foreign to your own life or work experiences. “You’re told you need to get all your belongings out of your house in 30 minutes. What do you do?” is one example. Odd as some of these questions may be, you can be sure that the interviewer is looking for something specific and that other candidates will be asked the same or similar questions.

Leading questions: You won’t have to be a genius to know what the right answer is here. “Working into the night on special projects isn’t a problem for you, is it?” would be one example. But consider your answer carefully. Leading questions are often one way the interviewer may alert you to elements of the job that other people have found problematic.

Behavioral example questions: These are the questions designed to elicit stories about your past work. Kennedy and other interview experts refer to these as “competency” questions because that’s exactly what you should be highlighting: your ability, either by direct evidence or analogous stories, that you can do the job. Sometimes the interviewer constructs the question using material from your resume: “I see you worked as an agricultural chemist in Guatemala one summer. What was your most challenging work situation there?” More often, behavioral-based questions are less specific, such as “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with someone in charge.” You need to be prepared with a range of vignettes from your life that both answer the question directly and can be used to let the interviewer learn more about your capabilities and resourcefulness.

Learn Your Lines

As self-centered as it may seem, the most important part of preparing for a behavior-based interview is to sit down and write a few moving stories about yourself, the star of the moment. Put aside any discomfort you may feel about this and look at it from the company’s point of view. They have only a brief snapshot of you from your resume, and the interview will provide only the most fleeting “screen test” of what you have to offer.

Your job, then, is to be your own “script writer” in preparing for your interview. You can start with a list of 10 to 20 events, activities, or skills that are part of your life story. Try to include examples of different kinds of skills and experiences. For each one of these, construct a brief-no more than 3-minute-short story, including all the elements that make a story compelling: problem, action, and resolution. Practice telling each story in front of a mirror. Refine your wording. You may even want to practice with a tape recorder. The point is to have these polished vignettes ready to use as responses to any number of different types of questions.

Behavior-based interviewing is of special importance for younger workers, who may not have extensive references or experience that employers can assess. Many colleges and universities include tips for behavior-based interviewing, and most use an acronym (STAR, PAR, PHAR, etc.) to help applicants “structure” stories that showcase abilities and knowledge. JobSpectrum’s mnemonic is similar, but with a few added twists to make you shine.

A: Know your audience. Before your interview, find out as much about the company as you can. If a copy of the job description is available, break it out into the skill areas-content, functional, and adaptive-that the company may be looking for. Keep these requirements in mind when constructing your life stories.
G: Give the interviewer a solid grasp of the extent of the problem or difficulty you faced. Make sure that it’s clear that this situation required specific skills, ingenuity, or perseverance.
L: Lay it all out in a straight line. This is where your story-telling abilities come into play. Include only facts that are essential to understanding the story and tell them in a clear chronology.
O: Highlight the outcome. This is the punch line, the reason you’ve told the story. Tell the interviewer how the problem was resolved, what good (or bad) happened as a result of the resolution, and what recognition you received for your efforts.
W: Wrap it up. Don’t belabor points, repeat yourself, or go off on tangents. Know when to conclude your story on a high point and wait for the next question.

Have Your Encore Number Ready

A good interviewer will appreciate the fact that you’re able to present well-thought-out examples from your past experience. But he or she will also want to follow up by asking you probing and sometimes challenging questions about what you’ve just said. In most cases this is to learn more about how you behaved in a specific case, but, says Kennedy, it’s sometimes to find out how truthful you are. “Most candidates generalize, many exaggerate, and some, unfortunately, completely fabricate stories and examples of their behavior,” he says. Your honesty in telling about past experiences and your forthcoming responses to follow-up questions will work to your advantage in the interview.

A Final Note: Dealing with Stage Fright

What if you come from a culture in which talking about yourself at length is regarded as the worst form of hubris? Of what if you’re just very shy and reticent by nature? Preparing and practicing specific stories about your past experience will help to some extent, but you still may find yourself blushing and at a loss for words at some point in the interview. The best strategy here is absolute directness. Stop, look at the interviewer, and say, “You know, I’ve always had difficulty talking about myself, and this is no exception.” Then you can explain the reasons-your cultural background, previous work isolation, an early speech defect, for example-and talk about how you’ve dealt with this in the past. You’ll not only get high marks for honesty, but you’ll turn a potential drawback into a positive example of a behavior-based response.

Additional Resources

The career Web sites of many colleges and universities offer a standardized advice sheet on behavior-based interviewing, as well as additional resources for candidates preparing for interviews:

University of Montana-Missoula Career Services
Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Career Services
Texas A&M University Career Center

For an interesting perspective on what employers look for from the behavior-based interview and the ways in which they approach the selection of candidates and the evaluation of results, see Jim Kennedy’s The Interviewer’s Edge, available at www.interviewedge.com.

Many job counselors and most high-powered “headhunter” services offer one-on-one advice on structuring stories for behavior-based interviews, with some firms going to the length of filming clients and critiquing speech, gestures, and facial expressions. Kennedy and others caution, though, that it is possible to appear too prepared and polished. You want to come across as genuine and truthful, not as a “professional performer.”

Help—I’ve Been Let Go from My Oil and Gas Job! What Do I Do Now?

No matter how you describe it, being let go from your oil and gas job can be devastating. You experience many feelings at once: shock, embarrassment, and a loss of self-confidence. You may be wondering what you could have done to prevent it. Pulling yourself back into the job-search saddle–and staying there–is the hard work. But how, and where, do you begin?

Don’t take it personally

The hard work comes both in the form of pounding the pavement and finding and maintaining a positive attitude. “What I tell candidates is that the battle is as much an emotional one as is the physical search,” says Kathy Mattingly, president of i.t.s. Staffing LLC, a recruitment firm located in Louisville, Kentucky that handles entry-level to executive searches in the information technology field. “Downsizing is something that is taken personally and is rarely personal. That’s hard to separate, especially if you’re a loyal person that loved your job.”

Michael Cozzens, managing partner at Virginia Beach, Va.-based Wayne Associates, a search firm that specializes in technical staffing concurs. “The biggest thing that I’ve seen throw people for a loop is that they take it personally when they get downsized. They need to realize that it was a reduction in force, and that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. Until they come to grips with their situation, they’re not really starting in the right spot for their job search.”

This is especially true when you start to interview for new positions. Career counselors and recruiters say that sometimes the bitterness, defensiveness, and shaken self-esteem can come through in interviews through your attitude, spoken language, and body language. Surround yourself with people who are supportive, and if possible, take a short time off to clear your head.

Make a Plan

After almost a grieving period, Mattingly and others suggest that the most important next step is to create your own battle plan. Literally, write up a plan with specific dates and goals. “Obviously get your resume and cover letters in order,” she states. “I think that the job search is very much a multiple-pronged process. I tell people that they need to use all of them, such as looking at the classified ads, tapping their own network–many times the best jobs aren’t even advertised–and find a headhunter or recruiter in your industry that you’re comfortable with.”

You can locate appropriate recruiters by watching the classifieds or looking in the “yellow pages” under “staffing.” Most major cities have recruiters in every major industrial segment. Websites such as recruitersonline.com has searchable lists of recruiters by industry and location.

The most important outlet, say recruiters, is to tap the web. There are two ways to do it. You can simply post your resume to any number of job boards and hope that a company HR person or headhunter finds you. But what they say is more effective is to actively search the web for current openings.

Cozzens says that job seekers will of course have to do some of their own legwork to find the most appropriate recruiter for their area of expertise, if they choose that route. Look for who’s working with formulation chemists or with bench chemists, he suggests, as examples.

So you’ve located some possible positions to apply for. What’s next? Jessica Lambert, a staffing consultant at Kforce Scientific, a specialty-staffing firm in Detroit, Mich., warns that many job hunters will skimp on their resume polishing, thinking they’ll get the chance to expound on their virtues in the interview. “A lot of people aren’t even getting that chance right now,” she says. The resume is really what’s opening doors right now, but keep it succinct. On the other hand, make it long enough so that your skill set is fully outlined.

Beyond resume preparation, says Lambert, another prime suggestion is to keep a good record of your job search. “A lot of people will submit a resume for a position and not even remember that they did so,” says Lambert. “To me, I find that insulting.” Keep a list of the jobs you’ve applied for, the companies and the search firms you’re using, and a brief description of what they do. So when they call, you have your “cheat sheet” ready by the phone.

What to Expect

What can jobseekers reasonably expect from a recruiter during a period of downsizing? “I would tell a person to be prepared to take a lot of time on the job search because right now the market is extremely tight and everyone is having the same problem,” says Lambert. The typical job search is lasting four to six weeks right now, she notes. So be mentally prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

Says Cozzens, a lot of times when a person gets downsized, all they really want is their old job back. “Just like you and me, they don’t want to move.” But the possibility of stepping right back into a similar position isn’t equal from city to city. For example, cites Cozzens, if you’re living in Wilmington, Del. there are lots of options for chemists, but in say, Indianapolis, there are fewer. In this situation–if there aren’t any jobs in your field in your hometown–the most gifted and well-connected recruiter can’t be of much help. As a result, many people on the job hunt waste their time with unrealistic expectations. So he suggests that in your plan to honestly consider your personal issues-like relocating–and other priorities.

Many recruiters will help with resume and cover letter preparation, and some, like Mattingly, do go the extra mile in helping with emotional counseling and coaching. She also has jobseekers fill out a wish list with such items as salary expectations and geographic needs, along with questions about how important a casual dress environment is.

“Some people just peddle what you already have,” she notes. “If the recruiter doesn’t understand your needs and wishes, they aren’t worth it.” Recruiters also give tips on interviewing, background specifics on the companies, as well as negotiating an offer and closing the deal.

Lambert also says that jobseekers need to keep in mind when calling recruiters that the business is high volume, especially in a downsizing cycle. “A lot of recruiters are very busy and because the recruiter doesn’t spend 20 minutes to half an hour on the phone with you is not a reflection of your skills,” she states. “I deal with a volume of 100 to 200 resumes a week, with 10 job openings available at any given time. If you’re not brought in for an interview right away, it may not mean your skills aren’t good; it may mean there isn’t a match right then.”

New Directions

Eric Celidonio, staffing consultant with Scientific Resources, Inc. located in Needham, Mass., says that keeping yourself marketable in more than one area is important to allow for flexibility in finding a new job. “People become too dependent on one aspect of their position,” he says. “Oftentimes upon losing your job, if you work for a big company, you may never find something that’s comparable to where you are, in terms of salary and responsibility.”

Try to get experience in a couple of areas, he suggests. For example, for PhDs, some specialize in process development, a catchall term for optimizing a biotech or pharmaceutical process. Often in a large firm, employees will be tasked with a special aspect of process development, for example media optimization or contaminant prevention. “My suggestion is to go out of your way to work with colleagues in other areas without stepping on their toes to develop knowledge beyond what you’re tasked with,” says Celidonio. “You have to take into consideration keeping yourself marketable.”

Cozzens agrees. Jobseekers need to develop alternative plans. For example, if you like working with people, he suggests considering openings in tech service or technical sales. “A lot of times this kind of move doesn’t occur to people,” he says.