Social Minefield: How To Ace A Job Interview

In most social situations, the worst that can happen is a little embarrassment. But screw up a job interview, and it's back to ramen and Craigslist for you. Here's how to avoid the pitfalls and come off looking awesome.

As in so many social situations (all, actually, except maybe getting chased by bear), you'll do a lot better at a job interview if you can relax. You'll come across as more confident, and you'll be better able to roll with weird questions like, "why do they make pizza boxes square?" You'll be more likely to get the job, and even if you don't, you'll feel a lot better about the whole experience than if you were freaking out. But how to chill? Below, we give you a game plan — and some tips for coping if things start to go bad.

Do your homework.

Everyone will tell you to research the company and position before you go into a job interview — that's pretty much common sense. But you should also prepare to be a good interviewee — not just to answer questions, but to ask them. I talked to executive coach Ann Demarais, author of First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You, who has this advice:

Be prepared to try to engage the interviewer in a fifty-fifty kind of rapport. You might want to think of some questions to ask that would be appropriate: What's the firm like? What's the culture like? Be inquisitive.

She adds that "many companies now do what they call behavioral event interviewing, so instead of saying, 'tell me about yourself,' they'll say, 'tell me about a time when you had a conflict with your manager, and what happened.'" You'll be most successful, she says, "if you can think through in advance a lot of different situations in your world and your experience that address some of these kinds of situations," and pick out the ones that portray you in the best light. She explains, "you're going to have many situations where you had a conflict with your manager, and you want to select the one where perhaps there was a meeting of the minds and you both learned from each other, rather than where you intimidated your manager and made him or her look bad. You want to select examples that make you shine."

Demarais also suggests that you practice addressing any potential weaknesses you might have as a candidate: "everyone's got a couple of areas that they feel less confident about. Maybe there's a gap in your resume, maybe you had some bad situation at work, maybe you don't have one of the requisite pieces of experience necessary for the role. Imagine the absolute most horrible questions you're going to get, and prepare answers for them." And don't be afraid to practice: "say these words into your cell phone answering machine and listen to them again. The more you practice putting those words together, the easier they'll flow off your tongue and the more poised and articulate you'll come across."

And there's more to preparation than just knowing your stuff. Ellyn Spragins, author of What I Know Now About Success: Letters from Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selves, advises interviewees to think not just about the job, but about themselves:

Know yourself and your goals. As much as women are given great, concrete suggestions about presentation and resumes and more, the most accomplished women start with what they truly want — and can imagine — for themselves. Don't mold your story to a job description. Do figure out your best strengths and strongest motivations and how they intersect with what a company needs to be successful.

Make the interviewer feel good.

This may seem counterintuitive, but Demarais says interviewees often miss "the opportunity to engage the interviewer." Job candidates can "fall into a passive answering tone," but it's much better to "establish a dynamic, a rapport, a regular fifty-fifty conversation." She explains that "it's in your self-interest to really connect, really ask questions, get them talking and interested. They will have an automatic positive reaction to you if you make them feel good and smart." One way to do this: find out about the company and, if at all possible, the interviewer, and prepare as above.

Talk about weaknesses you've overcome.

Lots of interviews still feature some variant on the old standby, "What's your biggest weakness?" Turn this one to your advantage by talking about something you've actually gotten better at. Says Demarais,

Mention something that in the past had been a challenge, and that you've overcome. That shows that you're interested in personal development, and that's a really good quality in people that you want to hire and promote.

She advises candidates to say something like, "in the past, I used to be a little bit hesitant to speak up in meetings, or I was uncomfortable doing presentations, but it's something I worked on directly and now I'm much better at it. Now I feel really comfortable and it's actually a strength."

Correct your mistakes.

Even the best-prepared among us screw up from time to time — what to do if you say something in an interviewer, then immediately wish you didn't? If it's "I love embezzling," you're probably screwed. But Demarais has some advice for lesser missteps:

You can actually ask to retract that. You can say, "look, I think I misspoke." You can admit a mistake. It's certainly better to do that than not to do it, and it shows a certain humblesness and accessibility.

And if you don't know the answer to a question, don't make something up. Instead, says Demarais, "try to leverage some similar information. Say, 'I don't know exactly that, but I have had experience doing this. Let me explain that.'"

A word about gender.

Demarais says that "women tend to present themselves a little bit more humbly than men do," but that "you want to present yourself strongly and powerfully. She adds that "it's something one can practice, projecting more power, more superlatives into their presentation," and that "you should present yourself in the best possible light, and minimize your weaknesses, because others will."

There's a risk, however. I spoke with Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law and author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter about the kinds of gender bias women face in interview settings. She says, "women often have to present more evidence of competence in order to be seen as having what it takes," but that if women "behave in traditionally masculine ways, then they often encounter pushback." Williams emphasizes that "the obvious solution to gender bias is to change institutions" and that "a lot of the things women can do [to combat bias], they shouldn't have to." Hopefully you won't encounter bias in an interview setting, and hopefully if you do, you'll have enough options that you can pursue employment elsewhere. But it's not always as simple as that, and Williams does have some strategies for getting around prejudice in the short-term while we combat it in the long-term.

If you want to assume the worst, you can assume that although you can't hide your light under a bushel [...], you have to be careful in how you communicate your competence so that you don't encounter the sanctions that women often encounter when they engage in self-promotion. So an effective way around that is to have other people telling them how dazzling you are, and then to the extent that you have to show your dazzlingness, do so in terms of purely presenting the facts. Don't characterize. [...] If you just present the facts, you are less likely to trigger the sanctions for self-promotion.

All that said, women aren't without legal recourse if they feel they've been treated unfairly. Says Williams, "because of a 1989 Supreme Court case called Price Waterhouse vs Hopkins, an employer who engages in gender stereotyping provides evidence for an employment discrimination lawsuit against them." She cautions that "it's always harder in a hiring suit because you have a lot less evidence," but if a potential employer is "calling you too aggressive in a context where you can provide evidence that men who do the same thing are just considered to be assertive," she explains, "that's the way an employer can get into trouble." She also notes that family status questions like whether you plan to get pregnant in the future are only okay if the employer is asking them of male candidates too.

Hopefully you'll never have to deal with questions like these. And hopefully all your potential employers will be wowed by your qualifications and expertise. But if you need to take yourself over the top, there's always the unconventional approach. Says MorningGloria:

Once a man who was interviewing me asked me to off the top of my head tell him something unique about me and I blurted out "I can walk on the knuckles of my feet!". He asked me to demonstrate and I did, right there in his office. When he called to offer me the job, the first thing he said was "you won't be expected to walk on your foot knuckles here."

You heard it here first: when in doubt, exceed expectations.


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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You
What I Know Now About Success: Letters From Extraordinary Women To Their Younger Selves
Reshaping The Work-Family Debate: Why Men And Class Matter
Gender Bias Learning Project [Official Site]

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