Does this scenario sound familiar? You walk into the lobby of a cavernous building, where a security guard stops you and insists that you slap a guest sticker on your chest. As you approach the elevator bank, your heart starts pounding—you have however many seconds it takes to ride up to the fifteenth floor to blot the sweat that’s gathering rapidly on your forehead, touch up your makeup in your compact mirror, run a brush through your hair, and make sure there’s nothing stuck in your teeth. While you’re checking all these last-minute details, your mind suddenly goes blank, only to then be flooded with questions you should know the answers to: What’s this company called? What’s my interviewer’s name? What’s my name?
And that’s only the beginning—you haven’t even begun your job interview yet. From your first firm handshake until the moment you get home and send off a thank-you note, you’re under the microscope, so no matter what, this process is fraught with anxiety and potential stumbling blocks. However, if you make it a priority to familiarize yourself with the proper etiquette for your first meeting with a prospective employer, you’ll significantly reduce your stress levels—and knock the trouser socks off your interviewer at the same time.
Do Your Research
The interview process should ideally begin long before you set foot in the office of any company that’s called you in for an in-person introduction. As soon as you’ve confirmed the date and time of your meeting, begin your sleuthing work.
- Scour the company’s entire Web site until you feel comfortable regurgitating its mission statement, its unique products, and the names and titles of any staff members you’ll be interacting with.
- Come up with a list of sample questions you think you might be asked, then ask a friend or relative to pose as an interviewer and role-play with him or her—take it seriously!
- Contact all the people you can think of who currently work for or have worked for the company where you’ll be interviewing, and ask them for insider tips on the workplace environment, the person with whom you’ll be meeting, the dress code, and anything else you’d like to know.
- If possible, pay a visit to the company before you interview to get the lay of the land and a feel for the dynamic.
- Compile a list of questions to ask your interviewer(s) about the company, the job description, and their own expertise.
- Put together a personal-information packet containing an extra copy of your resume, samples of your work, and any other relevant materials.
- Eat and drink enough beforehand that your stomach isn’t growling and you’re not weak with dehydration or sluggish from caffeine withdrawal.
- Map out your route to the interview site. If you’ll be taking public transportation, print out a bus/train schedule so that you can time your departures and connections perfectly—then allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need. Better yet, do a trial run sometime before the interview to make absolutely certain that you know where you’re going.
Dress to Impress (but Not Too Much)
The Web site of the Emily Post Institute, that long-standing etiquette stronghold, offers this fail-safe method for deciding what to wear in these fashion-fickle times: “In the old days, a coat and tie or suit would usually do the trick. Now, offices run the gamut from shorts and sandals to ‘office casual’ to traditional suits. Do your homework. Either call or visit to find out what the office dress code is … A good bet is to dress slightly more formally than the average.”
Melinda Donovan, a senior vice president and trust officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, interviews candidates frequently and provides more specific details about dressing appropriately for an interview in a corporate workplace:
- Dressing sexy or festive is “never a good idea.”
- Don’t wear commuter sneakers or walking shoes, “even when the rest of you looks great.”
- Don’t put on too much jewelry, very dangly or very large earrings, or noisy bangles.
- Avoid leather, sheer blouses, fussy clothing, loud colors, and busy prints.
Both Donovan and the Emily Post Institute emphasize that meticulously grooming both your person and your accessories is just as important as the specific clothing you don in your quest to put your best face forward. Don’t leave the house before you:
- Brush your teeth
- Trim and file (and polish, if necessary) your nails
- Put on antiperspirant
- Press your outfit and check each garment for loose threads, tears, and missing buttons
- Shine your shoes
When you do depart for your interview, take a pocket-size brush or comb, a powder compact and lipstick, and an extra pair of pantyhose if stockings are part of your ensemble. Limit these personal items to one medium-size purse; don’t carry any loose items or extra bags (especially not paper or plastic ones—no one needs to see the logo of your favorite Chinese takeout place when you walk into a new office).
Get Your Game Face On: The Interview
You’re savvy about the company and you’re lookin’ sharp … guess what? It’s game time—and all the little ways in which you represent yourself can make or break this moment. No matter what type of organization you’re interviewing at, there are a few hard-and-fast guidelines that you must follow in order to be taken seriously as a candidate. First: be on time—no exceptions or excuses. Second: turn off or silence your cell phone before you enter the building. Third: when you meet your interviewer, look her in the eye, smile, greet her by name, and shake her hand firmly. These gestures will establish your fundamental credibility and social agility right away.
But wait, there’s more—you haven’t even sat down yet. Once you do, your prospective employer will be scrutinizing you to discern your knowledge about the position, your initiative in asking questions, your powers of articulation, and your ability to carry on a give-and-take dialogue. To leave her with the best possible impression, just be yourself—that is, the most well-spoken, outgoing, informed version of yourself you’ve ever been. In Donovan’s opinion, an ideal candidate does the following:
- Isn’t too uptight with the interviewer; exchanges a few pleasantries to break the ice.
- “Does not plow in, but lets the interviewer lead at first. See where she wants to go, but size her up quickly—if she’s not a well-prepared or seasoned interviewer, start talking more, suggesting where the conversation could go. If she is seasoned, answer all of her questions directly and succinctly.”
- Asks a lot of questions, including questions about the interviewer’s own professional experience. “This is a key indicator of your drive, interest, intellect, self-esteem, and comfort level with others,” Donovan says.
- Requests a full description of the job and conveys the sense that she is “selective and careful about joining a company.”
- Talks about how her past work experience could benefit this particular company if she were hired, but is also prepared to answer questions about her weaknesses.
- Indicates her interest in the job if she wants to continue pursuing it, but doesn’t act so enthusiastic as to appear desperate.
- Inquires about the next steps, as well as about the company’s time horizon for filling the position, and gets a business card from each person she speaks with.
One topic on which many interviewers seem to differ is the subject of salary inquiries. On the one hand, Donovan believes that interested candidates should broach the subject toward the end of the first interview if it’s going well. “There’s no need to pin down the exact salary, but you should at least ask about the range—and if the top of it is not near where you should be, based on your qualifications, or is less than what you currently earn, you should make that clear. If the range is comfortable, indicate that you would expect to be near the top of it.”
On the other hand, Lindsay Snyder, associate director of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, recommends not bringing up compensation or benefits during the first meeting, and adds, “If an interviewer asks for your expectations, do your best to put the ball in her court. If you can get the company to give you a salary range for the position, it gives you an idea of where to start the negotiation.” Whatever your approach, always be courteous but assertive when voicing your salary preferences, and be prepared for some compromise on both sides.
Shower Them with Thanks
Following up with interviewers is a two-pronged tactic that requires both immediate and deferred action. As soon as you get home after the interview, send a brief, cordial thank-you email to each person you met with. Then, using professional-looking stationery, pen neatly handwritten notes to the same people and drop them in the mail by the next day at the latest.
In the weeks after the interview, keeping the company’s hiring timeline in mind, continue to contact your interviewer persistently (but not too aggressively) until she either offers you the position or tells you she’s decided to go with another candidate. If you don’t get the job, thank the interviewer once more for her time, and ask that she keep you in mind if future positions for which you’re qualified become available at her company.
Use Your “Wow” Factor
As U.S. unemployment rates have soared, the job market has become saturated with applicants for every open position out there. Now more than ever, it’s critical that you arm yourself with the career know-how, the polished appearance, and the interpersonal skills that will help you edge out the competition when you’re seeking a new professional role. To err is indeed human, but job interviews are an ideal forum in which to showcase just how put-together you can be. By doing all the right things at all the right times—and looking the part—you’ll be sitting pretty in that corner office in no time.