Best Way to Get Off on the Right Foot in a Job Interview

It’s up to the interviewer to get the interview off to a good start. Unless she does this in the first few minutes of the interview, chances are good that the interview will never get on track.

And remember that the climate you establish in the interview will affect your chances of attracting the interviewee to your company. A candidate will assume that the atmosphere you create in the interview mirrors what he will find when he arrives at the company. So treat the interviewee as a guest (or a client or customer), not as an adversary.

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To get off to that good start, the interviewer must take cognizance of how the interviewee seems to be feeling: attempt to understand why the interviewee might feel that way; analyze the extent to which these feelings could help the interviewer to achieve his goals; and identify ways of neutralizing or eliminating the feelings that will interfere with achieving his goals. That sounds like a daunting task. Fortunately, though, experienced interviewers do most of this automatically. Here are some specific approaches you may use to get the interview off to a good start:

Don’t keep the interviewee waiting. Doing that is saying to him, “Your time is not worth anything; mine is.”

An interviewee should also be on time. Being late will be taken as a sign of rudeness and lack of interest in the position. (The exception to this rule is the true story of an interviewee who showed up twenty minutes late for an interview explaining that his luggage had been lost on the plane and so he’d stopped to purchase a suit at a nearby store.) On the other hand, don’t show up too early as that may annoy the interviewer.

Meet the interviewee at the door of your office, or pick him up in the reception area. This small effort shows you are willing to meet the interviewee halfway, and that you respect and value him. This will make the interviewee far more comfortable than he would be were he first to encounter you ensconced behind your desk. If you begin your conversation on the way back to your office or desk, you may be able to introduce a certain relaxed informality into the interview.

Smile, look the interviewee in the eye, shake hands. A warm greeting, without ever saying a word, can help greatly to relax the interviewee.

Handshakes and eye contact ARE important, for both parties. (Some old saws just happen to be true.) Your handshake is practically your first contact—and your only physical contact—with the other person. A firm handshake projects strength, self-confidence, and determination. Maintaining eye contact projects honesty, sincerity, and confidence. Limp handshakes and shifting eyes or downward glances tend to project the opposite of these characteristics. The other person may be able to get beyond those stereotypes, but do you really want to dig yourself into that hole?

Invite the interviewee to sit down, and indicate where you wish him to sit. This may seem like a rather insignificant point. After all, even if not invited to do so, most interviewees will sit, eventually. The reason for mentioning it is that even a brief, awkward moment early in the interview can affect the interviewee’s comfort level.

Indeed, failure to indicate where to sit may affect the interviewer’s comfort level, too. A hiring partner friend of mine told me of a time as a law student when he interviewed with a partner who had a rather unusual office configuration. It wasn’t until the interview was over and the interviewer came around to look in his desk drawer that my friend realized he was sitting in the interviewer’s desk chair. I suspect my friend got high marks for assertiveness, at least until he blubbered his apologies when he realized what he’d done.

If you are comfortable in doing so and your office arrangement permits it, do not interview from behind your desk. The desk becomes a physical and psychological barrier to establishing a relationship with the interviewee.

Introduce yourself and tell the interviewee briefly who you are and what your position is in the company. Every interviewee is curious about the person he is talking to. You know something about the interviewee by virtue of having read his resume. Telling something about yourself will help to level the field. (But beware of leveling the field by introducing yourself, the job and the company for half the interview. Aside from the time problem, telling the interviewee too much about the job and the company early on allows him to shape his interests and characteristics to fit the description you’ve given.)

Ask the interviewee what he likes to be called. Don’t assume you know the answer. For example, if the interviewee’s name is Alfred Jones, calling him “Mr. Jones” is going to set a formal (and perhaps artificial) tone to the interview. And if you try to call him by his first name, you will not know whether he goes by Alfred, Al, Fred, Alfie, or even A. J. Calling the interviewee by a name he is not used to being called may make him extremely uncomfortable and adversely affect his performance. And yet, because of his own nervousness, he may not make the effort to correct you. Once you know what to call the interviewee, you may want to use the name a few times (but not every sentence) during the interview. Hearing one’s name tends to make you feel more comfortable.

An interviewee should not call an interviewer by her first name, unless invited to do so. This is especially true in an initial interview in which the interviewer may view this behavior as inappropriately informal. This rule would not necessarily hold in follow-up interviews at the company, especially when the person you are speaking with is approximately your age. If you are in doubt as to what to call the interviewer, you may either ask what the interviewer would like to be called, use Mr. or Ms., or not use any name at all. Female interviewers should not be referred to as Miss or Mrs., because many women would be offended by either of those. In any case, try to remember the names of the people with whom you interview because you may have occasion to refer to those people at a later time.

Make sure the interviewee is comfortable physically. Don’t smoke; don’t even ask the interviewee whether he minds if you smoke. Is the sun shining in the interviewee’s eyes? If it’s warm in the office, would he like to take his coat off? Would he like something to drink? Does he need to go to the washroom? Tending to these sorts of concerns shows the interviewee that you are considering his needs as a real, live human being. Failure to do so may create an unintentionally stressful situation.

You may choose to explain to the interviewee how the interview is going to be conducted and, if he does not already know, how long the interview will last. For example, you may say, “I’d like to learn as much as I can about you during the half hour we have, so if you don’t mind, I have some questions that I’d like to ask you. I know you may have some questions, too, and I plan to leave a bit of time toward the end of the interview for you to ask those questions.”

Depending upon how comfortable you are with the concept, you may even want to discuss getting beyond the interview game directly with an interviewee. That discussion might go something like this:

interviewer:   I suppose you’ve been through quite a few of these interviews.

interviewee:   Yes, I sure have.

interviewer: So have I. Sometimes I feel like they are all pretty much the same, it’s as if we’re both playing a game. You know, us interviewers all asking the same questions and you interviewees trying to come up with the answers that you think we expect.

interviewee:   Yes, I feel that way myself sometimes.

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interviewer: I’m going to do my best to avoid falling into that pattern. And the way I’m going to try to do that is to ask you questions about you and your experience, rather than the types of questions I might ask of just about anybody. I’d like to find out as much as I can about you. And I hope that you’ll be as candid as possible in your answers, because I think what we’re both really trying to do is to see whether there is a good fit between what you are interested in and good at doing and what we at my company have to offer. I’ll try to talk candidly about the company, too, if you have any questions for me toward the end of the interview. Does that sound like a sensible approach?

interviewee: It sure does. In fact, I’m sort of looking forward to this interview.

My purpose is not to script something out for you, but to suggest how you might approach being candid with an interviewee about the interview game. If an approach like this (or some other approach you devise) feels comfortable to you, you might try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always drop it.

Setting the ground rules for the interview will make the interviewee more comfortable. Indeed, if you are the first person to see an interviewee who will be spending a day or half day at your company, you should explain what is planned for the day, including:

  • he length of the interview day and the individual interviews
  • luncheon plans
  • who the interviewee will see, perhaps handing him a list of biographical information about those people
  • hat things may go awry during the course of the day
  • mechanics, such as handling of expenses, etc.

Try to establish rapport with the interviewee. Some interviewers do this by acknowledging some of the difficulties of the interview situation. For example, in an on-campus interview situation, you might say, “I’m sure you’ve had a lot of interviews by now, and you realize how artificial it can get from both sides of the table. I’d like to see if we can get beyond that so I can really learn something about you in the short time we have together.” Or, toward the end of a day of interviews at the company, you may say, “I’m sure you must be getting a little tired, and probably have been asked many of the same things over and over. So perhaps we could talk about something you haven’t discussed earlier today.”

Compliment the interviewee on some aspect of her resume, or on her resume in general. For example, “You’ve performed exceptionally well in school. That’s terrific. Congratulations.” Or, “You’ve done some really fascinating things, and I’m interested in talking to you about some of them.” This type of compliment to the interviewee, if you mean it sincerely, is likely to make her feel good about herself and therefore cause her to relax.

Where the interviewee’s resume indicates you have something in common with him, you may want to begin the interview by acknowledging that common bond. For example, “I see you went to the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate. I went there myself. Do they still . . . ?” Or, “I see you like to read. I’m an avid reader myself. What sort of books do you like to read?”

Another way of establishing rapport is to ask about something of particular interest to the interviewee as shown by her resume, even if it is something that you have no particular background in yourself. If you take this approach, try to show a sincere interest by asking more than just one question on the topic. For example, consider an interview that started as follows:

“I see that you are interested in breeding dogs. What kind of dogs do you breed?”


“I see. And what courses did you take when you majored in history in college?”

This type of beginning would not show any real concern about the interviewee’s interest in breeding dogs. Often, interviewers make the mistake of touching only superficially on a candidate’s interests out of a concern for not consuming too much time in small talk. Obviously, you would not want to take up the entire interview with dog-breeding questions. But you can ask a surprising number of questions in a brief time. And there may be interviews in which you need to devote somewhat more than two or three minutes to breaking the ice. When an interviewee appears particularly nervous, another minute or two of small talk may relax her and make the rest of the interview more productive.

Be careful of your choice of icebreaking topics. For example, some women object to a discussion of sports when there is nothing on their resume to indicate that interest. They may regard that as sexist, thus creating a mood quite different from what you’d hoped for in trying to break the ice. Indeed, in an exceptional circumstance when it’s clear that the interview has gotten off to a bad start, you may even want to acknowledge that and start the interview over.

Don’t begin the interview by discussing a prior job experience that is closely related to the job the interviewee is applying for. For example, when I was interviewing law students for a position as a new attorney with my firm, I never began the interview with a discussion of a summer job they may have had with another law firm. That type of closely related job experience is likely to be the most threatening thing you can discuss and therefore unlikely to cause the interviewee to relax and open up. Save this type of a discussion for later in the interview.

Adapt to the interviewee’s pace. People have different speaking patterns with which they are most comfortable. If the interviewee is a slow or fast talker, try to adjust your pace to conform to his, rather then vying with him for control of the interview speed.

Some authors advise that you go beyond this and adopt the same posture as the other person and attune yourself to the type of imagery—physical, auditory, or visual—that a person uses and mimic that style yourself. For example if an interviewee uses visual phrases such as, “I see what you are getting at,” or, “that looks good to me,” you may use the phrase such as, “if you can picture this . . .”

To me, this comes too close to playing an interview game, if you see what I mean.

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Avoid interruptions. Generally, this is not as much a problem on campus as it is back at the company. Have your calls held during an interview. Taking each call that comes in signals to an interviewee that she is the least important part of your day. Telling somebody to hold your calls shows just the opposite. If you know ahead of time you may have to take a brief, important call, tell the interviewee that at the outset. If you will have to take a long call, try to reschedule the interview.

If, as interviewee, you encounter an interviewer who permits interruptions in the form of phone calls or people coming into her office, try to take advantage of those interruptions. Listen to what is being said and, if appropriate, utilize what you have learned when the interview resumes. This will show the interviewer you are somebody with initiative, who uses his time well.

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