A Guide to Job-Getting, or, Interviewing for Fun and Profit

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Merlin. You are about to embark on what is probably the most dangerous job interview in the world. One of you, and only one of you, will become the next Lancelot.” – Kingsmen:  The Secret Service


These women were interviewing for the baby-catching position we had.  Neither was hired – since it was clearly in the job description that you cannot be made of metal, wood or stone.  But they caught 8 of the 10 babies!

This post is the result of a discussion I had with a relative who is getting within six or so semesters of graduation.  Please, do pass this link around since many college kids have NO idea that HR is the enemy or even how the hiring process works at a major corporation.  Or how to use a dial phone.  But the whole phone thing is beyond the scope of this post . . .

Previous posts have discussed (honest) ways to make money other than being an employee – and being Johnny Depp doesn’t count.  Chief among them are being self-employed (which is like a job, but with none of the job security), owning a business, or being an investor.  But most people want to work for a company, especially new college graduates.  Something about having a steady paycheck seems to motivate them.

Starters:  The Résumé

I’ve had the good fortune to review thousands (not an exaggeration) of résumës.  I know that there’s no umlaut in the word résumés, but I never get to use umlauts.  Between me and you shouldn’t the word umlaut have an ümlaüt or two?

I digress.  I’ve seen zillions of résumés.  Most of them are booooring.  Really boring.  Member of this.  Member of that.  Yeah, and for five bucks I could be a member, too.  This isn’t to knock the kids coming out of school – but, really, no one cares if you were part of the intramural interior mural team.  It all just blends together on the page and looks?  Yes.  Boring.

My friend Eric had a cool résumé – in it he mentioned working on a Christmas tree farm.  After we hired him, he said that people always referred to him as “the Christmas tree guy,” so he kept it on his résumé. And, honestly, for mental manipulation in the interview process, that’s wizard-level technique.  Most people have fond memories of Christmas, and Christmas trees from being a kid, even if there was that year that Momma and Uncle Luther stopped talking to each other due (in part) to a Jim Beam® fueled argument over who Grandma liked best and who took better care of her because they were more selfless.  Only saw Uncle Luther one more time after that, but I did get a cool Transformer® that year.  It’s probably best to leave all that detail off a résumé – it falls under the category of way too much information.  But Christmas tree farm is awesome.  Ahh, the smell of home baked cookies, bourbon, and regret.

The idea is that your résumé should have something unique on it – something that raises a question in the mind of the reviewer, and ideally the item should be pleasant.  But even if you’ve got a great résumé?  Chances are good that (if it’s even printed nowadays) that it’ll be discarded after about thirty seconds of review.  Why?  There are lots of other candidates, and it’s a numbers game, and lunch starts at 11:30AM and I want to get there just after they bring the Nacho Bar out before fat Carol from accounting takes all the sour cream.  Mmmmm, nachos!  Swipe left on this dude.  Let’s go!

Have someone you trust review your résumé to make sure that it looks good.  Typographical errors in the land of spell checkers are a killer.  In the old days, having a typo meant you were, at best careless.  Having a typo on your résumé today?  You’re careless and actively stupid.  Also, when handing out paper copies of your résumé, make sure that yours aren’t covered in small blood spots and a thin film of mucous.  (Unless you’re attempting to be a forensic dude for a police department, where that’s probably okay, heck, maybe even required.)

The job hunting process is stacked against you.  You have to compete to get attention from someone who cares less about you than the Nacho Bar, which is why most jobs come from personal connections.  You’ve worked with someone, they talk you up to someone who’s hiring.  Now, instead of a picture of a résumé on screen, there’s a real personal contact – someone who now has a vested interest in getting you through the process.  You’re a real person again, and not just a blood and mucous covered résumé.

As a new college graduate, the person that you and your prospective employer both know is the college you went to.  Often, people who went to that college lead the recruiting effort there, so they can do service for both their new company and their alma mater.  So, as a recent graduate, you are in a unique position – your college and its reputation is your ticket in.  So, if your college has never sent anyone to work at your dream company?  It will remain just that – your dream company, since it doesn’t “know” your college at all.

Perhaps the best position to be in is if your father is or has been President of the United States (Chelsea, Donald Jr., George W., you all are in that category) which makes you improbably employable, since everyone knows you.  You could spend your time writing a children’s book about how the Armenian Genocide was a good idea and they’d put that sucker on the bestseller list.

But back to unpresidential you:  let’s pretend you’re the lucky one and your résumé has been pulled out of the giant HR hat where they keep résumés and pull them out on mimosa Friday (every HR department has this).  What next?

One time they let Tom Petty wear the HR hat in a video.  Exclusive footage!!!

Likely you’ll get an email attempting to set up a phone interview.  They’re most likely not sure enough about you that they want to spend a lot of time with you, but they know enough about you that they want to learn more about the Christmas tree farm.  Given that, they’ll give you a screening interview.

Screening Interview

The screening interview is generally a phone call (or an on-campus interview) that’s almost never longer than 30 minutes or so.  Some are as short as 15 minutes.  I would routinely end the screening interview early if the candidate was obviously not as advertised, high on PEZ©, or in some other way disqualified themselves.

How else could they disqualify themselves?  A variety of ways.  Not picking up the phone when I called at the scheduled time.  Excessive snorting.  No one likes a snorter.  Not knowing all the names of the Three Stooges© and the Marx Brothers™.  Really fundamental stuff.

As a candidate, know that the phone screen is just that – a screen.  Your interviewer just wants a reason screen you out so they can delete your résumé and have more room for Call of Duty™ on their HR computer and also narrow the pool of people that they’ll actually have to talk to in person, which will obviously take away from Call of Duty® time.  If the interviewer is someone from HR, they’ll likely go through a list of qualifications for the job and look to see if there’s some reason that they can ignore you for the rest of their lives, or maybe trade you to the HR guy over at the company down the street for a weapons upgrade.

One phone screen where I was the candidate, I set everything up so I’d have some peace and quiet in my bedroom when it was time for the phone call.  The phone rang, and I picked up and started talking to the interviewer.  About a minute later, my two-year-old daughter picked up the phone downstairs and started pressing buttons and babbling into it.

Me:  “Excuse me . . . just a second.”

I ran downstairs, vaulted over the baby gate, unplugged the phone from the wall, and took the phone with me out of the room, and then ran back upstairs.

Me, to interviewer:  “Back.  And I have one less daughter now.”

The interviewer chuckled and went on through her questions.  Apparently the interview went well, since I eventually got a job offer and worked at the company for some years, and the interviewer even baby sat that same daughter.

I didn’t feel at all bad after that phone screen.  My theory?  If they didn’t have a sense of humor, it probably wasn’t the best place for me to work, anyway.

If you haven’t done so, you really should practice interviewing on the phone with someone who has done some interviewing.  You may think you’re pretty darn special (and you might be) but you might come off looking as articulate as one of the contestants on Family Feud® during the lightning round.  And not one of the smart contestants.  Practice makes us all better.

On Site Interview

After you’ve not been killed in passed the screening interview, you’ll get the opportunity to go and visit the company at their site.  What will happen next  . . .  depends.

Probably the norm for small and medium size companies is that HR picks interviewers based on Astrological tables, and the interviewers have had exactly zero training on how to interview.  Not only that, the interviewers might not even know anything about the job you’re interviewing for.  You can generally tell if this is that kind of random-shotgun-amateur interview if:

  • HR doesn’t give you a clue as to what to wear.
  • People are late.
  • Interviewers keep you over the allotted time.
  • The interviewer doesn’t know exactly where you’re supposed to go next.
  • The interviewer asks if you’ve seen any positions they can apply for.
  • If the interviewers ask lots of yes or no questions or hypothetical questions.
  • HR says it might be weeks before you hear back from them.

Working at a company like this will be as random as the process – they don’t have sufficiently developed business processes to make an interview go smoothly, or even share an idea of the qualities the company considers important when it hires to the interviewers.

Contrast that with a mature process:

  • People are on time.
  • Everyone has copies of your schedule and résumé.
  • The interviewer (or most of them) are polished and smooth, and the only yes/no questions you get are whether or not you want coffee, water, or a bathroom break (and everyone asks).
  • Every interview/conversation has a theme, and you do most of the talking and tell a lot of stories about your past. Sometimes even more than you expected to share.
  • The final interview of the day is with a VP or higher, and they’re pretty impressive.
  • HR gives you a very tight timeline on when you might expect to hear back from them, and they hit the deadline.

I’ve interviewed in both systems, and as someone attempting to get a new employee out of the system, I greatly preferred the second system – it produced a consistent quality of candidates.

In a polished interview setting like that, everyone gives feedback, everyone.  I had our department’s administrative assistant escort the candidate to the next interview.  It was neat, because she was very nice and the candidate, if they were going to drop their shields and act really weird, well, that was often when they did exactly that.  Some were rude to her.  One guy asked the administrative assistant if I was married (I never did figure that one out, and, no, he didn’t get a job).

As a new interviewer, I was awful.  I was disjointed.  I asked weird questions.  I might have seemed a bit intimidating.  I was not at all smooth in managing the interview time.  But I kept at it, and eventually the company added interviewer training and a guide to the qualities that they were looking for in an employee and with practice I got better – I’ve interviewed hundreds of people during my career, if not well over a thousand by now.

I learned that the most effective interviewing technique was behavior-based interviewing, where you had the candidate tell stories from the past, outlining how their behavior had created outcomes.  And it was amazing the stories that I heard!  I had candidates, during interviews, admit to stealing from previous employers.  And being trained in interviewing with lots of practice is sort of like having a superpower – the night I met The Mrs. I ran her through the interview techniques during our first date.  She ended up talking a LOT and told me most everything I needed to know.

On one occasion I was requested to interview a candidate and go through all of the topics.  Normally that took hours – like five, and it was done by five people.  It’s a really smooth process – and most people will tell you their innermost secrets if you ask them just right.

John Wilder:  “You need me to do what?”

HR:  “We only have half an hour with this candidate, and we need to know if we want to hire her.  We need a pro, and you’re the only one who can do it, John Wilder.”

John Wilder:  “But think of the cost, man . . . this will be a thoroughly unpleasant half hour for her.  Even if we want her to work here, she might not want to after that.”

The interview was probably the most horrific thirty minutes of the candidate’s life up to that point, unless she was born in a war zone (she wasn’t – she was born in Michigan, oh . . . wait).

The answer was no.  Even during that thirty minute session I’d ripped enough stories out of her that I would have been uncomfortable with her managing filling jelly doughnuts instead of the multi-million dollar responsibilities she’d have (and be fired for messing up) working for us.  A definite no.

That had been one of the hardest things for me when I started interviewing.  “Yes” is easy to say.  And it’s easy to see.  “No” was harder, until my friend (the same one who phone screened me) told me this:  “Remember, John, giving someone a job who doesn’t fit here is much crueler than telling them no.  You’ll have taken away part of their life that they could have spent doing something that they were meant to do.”

And she was right.  “No” became much easier, even a moral choice.

Since then, I’ve added one other criteria:  there is no yes but a “hell, yes!”  You should be excited about new people that you’re bringing into the organization.  One of them might be your boss someday.  Or your friend for life, like Eric, the Christmas tree guy.  Or Johnny Depp.

I think I need to talk to HR . . .

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Job-Getting, or, Interviewing for Fun and Profit”

  1. My favorite question ever asked of me was “what kind of tree would I be”. I think I said something along the lines of I hope it was one used to make a whiskey barrel…..

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