Interview questions and structured interviewing
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A Botched Interview Doesn't Have to be Fatal

Joann S. Lublin

EVERYONE HAS FLUBBED at least one important job interview. Anxiety over quickly proving yourself to a total stranger somewhat unnerves about two-thirds of applicants, estimates Lou Adler, chief executive of online recruitment service Power Hiring Inc. in Tustin, Calif.

Nervousness "short-circuits your rational thinking," Mr. Adler says. "You forget dates, you lose your sense of humor, you forget how to spell."

Yet not every misstep need be fatal. In today's buoyant employment market, career experts say, you can recover from a job-interview blunder more often than you think.

The key? A swift and corrective follow-up campaign. "Persistence is one of the biggest things," says David R. Lumley, president and CEO of Experimental & Applied Sciences, or EAS, in Golden, Colo.

He should know. He made a flawed first impression during a March 1999 interview for his present post with venture capitalist Brent Knudsen, an EAS board member whose firm, North Castle Partners, now owns a majority of the nutritional-supplements maker.

Mr. Lumley, then head of Brunswick Corp.'s bicycle unit, wore a Brooks Brothers suit to that interview -- in sharp contrast to Mr. Knudsen's casual pants and shirt. He sought to impress the EAS investor by touting his unit's achievements. He used flipcharts and a presentation he recently had made to Brunswick directors.

NOTHING HE SAID, however, seemed to impress. "I never really felt like [the interview] was gelling," Mr. Lumley recalls. "I couldn't imagine I was doing anything wrong."

Mr. Knudsen says he doubted Mr. Lumley would fit in at a fast-growing entrepreneurial concern such as EAS because he seemed like an operational executive focused more on cost cutting than the strategic big picture.

"He was so formal, and a little stiff. ... I would not have taken him into the next round," the venture capitalist says.

Spencer Stuart recruiter Robert Damon gave Mr. Lumley the negative feedback and some advice on how to counterattack.

The next day, the crestfallen candidate sent Mr. Knudsen an e-mail. He requested a chance to explain his plans for combining strong financial performance with the supplement maker's entrepreneurial spirit. He followed up with two handwritten notes. One cited his entrepreneurial achievements at Brunswick and prior employers. The second named acquaintances who could support him and who also knew Mr. Knudsen.

Without Mr. Lumley's hard sell, "I might have gone another path," Mr. Knudsen says. "It showed he really wanted [the job] and he understood what the issues were." The new CEO joined EAS that August.

A smart question made Deborah Brown realize she had flubbed an interview for a diversity consultant's spot at Organization Resources Counselors, a New York human-resources consulting firm. She felt her interview with two ORC officials "was going really well." So, near the end, she asked whether they had any objections to her candidacy.

"They said, 'This is a job that requires getting top-level commitment to launch a diversity initiative. You seem very nice and low-key,' " Ms. Brown remembers.

Translation: She wasn't aggressive enough to sway captains of industry. "It felt like I had blown [the interview]," she says.

Like Mr. Lumley, Ms. Brown tried to recover with a rapidly dispatched missive that strongly refuted the officials' misperception. The letter detailed how she had helped spearhead a high-level diversity initiative at her then-employer, New York's Port Authority.

EQUALLY IMPORTANTLY, Ms. Brown dressed and acted differently during her next interview with the same ORC staffers. "They weren't going to hire a shrinking violet," she explains.

She substituted a strikingly bright maroon suit for the conservative blue one worn the first time. She sat forward, projected her voice, spoke more animatedly and used additional gestures to dramatize her numerous ideas.

She got the coveted job.

"People underestimate the degree to which they can recover from even an out-and-out error" during job interviews, observes Ms. Brown, now a Lee Hecht Harrsion outplacement counselor.

Some flubs are fatal, of course. Manny Avramidis, human-resources director of the American Management Association, interviewed an experienced corporate manager last spring for an internal consultant's position.

"I think the world of your organization," the applicant declared. "I'd love to be part of the American Medical Association."

Informed of his mistake, the man "turned red. He started laughing," Mr. Avramidis recalls. "He said, 'I must have mixed up my interviews.' " The prospect fumbled through his briefcase for a help-wanted ad from the doctors' group. He didn't land the $75,000 job.

One reason for missteps during job interviews is that many people go for years without having to face one. Mr. Lumley believes in scheduling at least one interview a year, even if you are not anxious to switch jobs, "so you don't get out of practice and you know what's out there," he says.