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How to Overcome Recruiting Calamities

Posted on 28 August 2008

The outfit’s perfect. The cover letter rocks. The pitch is smooth and witty and well rehearsed. If everything goes like it did in the mock interview, that job offer is in the bag. And yet, a bad break–traffic, head cold, sadistically difficult questions–can derail the best-laid plans and turn even a flawless candidate into an also-ran. Unless, of course, said candidate can turn disaster into opportunity. Fourteen knotty problems and their slick solutions:

The interviewer poses a specific question. You have no idea what the answer is.

Some candidates stare at the ceiling and say, “I have to be honest. I have no idea.” Others drift farther up the creek by trying to pull off a poker-faced bluff. You should do neither. If you can’t demonstrate your knowledge, says Jeff Bloch, a consultant who trains big-name executives to handle the media, then dazzle the interviewers with your intelligence. If you’re asked, for instance, “What’s the essence of the Modigliani-Miller valuation model?” an appropriate response might be: “I don’t know enough about that particular model to discuss it in detail, but I can walk you through another valuation method that I think is extremely effective.

“Then explain why that method is close to your heart. “So many people get into trouble by filling the silence after a question with something that’s wrong or that digs them deeper into a hole,” explains Bloch. “No one expects you to be an encyclopedia. They do expect you to think on your feet, acknowledge mistakes, and demonstrate creativity.”

The recruiter concludes the interview by saying, “You’re staying at the Marquis Hotel, right? They’ve got a great bar. Fantastic margaritas. How about we finish our discussion there this evening?”

If you call the recruiter on this unethical, offensive behavior, you might win the moral high ground but lose the job. On the other hand, appearing to appreciate the flirtation–which some people wind up doing out of uneasiness rather than actual interest–might help you land the position but will lead to bad voodoo if you wind up getting the job. The best strategy is to dodge the advance while letting everyone save face. Judith Re, an etiquette expert and the author of Social Savvy, suggests using body language as the first line of defense. Give off a firm, controlled air, she advises: “Turn to the interviewer, maintain direct eye contact, and keep your arms on the chair.” (Resting them by your sides signals that you’re open to the conversation, she says, while crossed arms are a sign of nervous defensiveness.) “Then say, “I do have more questions, but I’m sure we can cover everything now.” This gets the message across but also clears a path for both of you to move on.” You get the result you want without creating ill will. You can save that for later.

Thirty minutes into the interview, the recruiter calls you by the wrong name.

“All right, Elizabeth, so tell me what you think the biggest external threat to the company is,” says the VP of sales. The trouble is, your name’s Leslie. “An immediate correction is the best course of action,” says Rebecca Butler, an MBA recruiter at UBS Warburg. Politely say “It’s Leslie” and move on. If it happens again? “You have to set the record straight immediately. Otherwise, the recruiter may not connect your interview with your name. It’s about not getting lost in the shuffle.” Butler suggests this clever response: “I know you see a lot of people, so I’d like to make sure you have the correct resume in front of you. Leslie McIntosh, Michigan State, right?”

Your cell phone rings.

“Grab it and turn it off immediately,” says Frank Luntz, a communications consultant and news analyst for MSNBC. Apologize and tuck it away. “Do not look to see who called. Make it clear that nothing could be more important than the interview,” says Luntz. Next time: Turn it off beforehand.

You arrive late to the interview.

There’s really no such thing as a “good” excuse–not traffic, not a broken alarm clock, not Ebola. And besides, banking on one misses the point. Everyone makes mistakes, and you can use the opportunity to show how you’d handle adversity as an employee. In short: Notify, own up, and move on. “Call as soon as you know you’re going to be late, even if it’s only by five minutes,” says Dick McCracken, director of graduate career services for Indiana University’s Kelley School. Briefly explain your situation, apologize, and then offer to reschedule. Say something like: “I realize I’ve thrown off your day, and I’m happy to return at a more convenient time.” You’ve acknowledged your responsibility (as opposed to passing the buck) and demonstrated that you’re willing to be flexible. Be contrite but not dramatic (“I’m sorry” is good; “I’m so, so sorry. I can’t believe I did this, this never happens to me” is bad). And don’t give up hope. Says UBS Warburg’s Butler: “Recruiters have seen a lot. If you make the effort, we may let it pass.”

The interviewer says something you know is incorrect.

“Our profits are greater than those of our three competitors combined,” intones the senior associate. But you, diligent interviewee that you are, have done your homework: You know that he’s referring to the company’s market share, not its profits. Should you correct the person who holds your future in his hands? Damn straight. “For one thing, the interviewer might be testing you,” says Jim Cameron, a former NBC news anchor who now coaches Fortune 500 executives on media relations. “If it’s a factual error that you can contradict with solid data, then do it–confidently and politely.” Begin your correction with “and” rather than “but”–as in “and so is your market share.” The secret is to be right without showing the interviewer to be wrong. If after you’ve made the correction, the interviewer launches into an argument, drop it. “You don’t want to come off as being rude,” says Charley Buck, president of Charles Buck & Associates, a New York search firm. Battling the future boss will not win you points.

You make a gaffe. Something that is truly stupid.

When asked to name his favorite Disney character during a group interview with, yes, Disney, one MBA candidate offered, “Daffy Duck.” “That’s great,” responded the Disney executive leading the discussion. “Warner Bros. is across the street.” The student mumbled his apology while his fellow candidates snickered. Telling the Merrill Lynch recruiter during a final interview that you’ve always wanted to work at Goldman presents an equally thorny problem. The best course of action in this situation: Correct yourself quickly and make clear your commitment to Disney or Merrill or anybody by sprinkling details about the firm into the conversation. “The best move is to draw no further attention to your slip,” says Seth Feit, an AOL talent scout. “It’s the vision of the candidate trying to get himself out of the situation that the recruiter’s going to remember.” One more thing: Do not opt for the knee-jerk reaction and say you have an interview at Goldman tomorrow–even if you do. One candidate mentioned the wrong company name to American Management Association human resources director Manny Avramidis. “Then he compounded the problem by telling me about another interview he had with a competitor,” says Avramidis. “I couldn’t believe it.”

You write a witty thank-you letter to a recruiter, sign it, drop it into the mailbox–then realize you put it into the wrong envelope.

Now what? Call the recruiter’s secretary and explain what you’ve done and ask her to toss it, advises Dorothea Johnson, of the Protocol School of Washington, which provides etiquette seminars for executives and diplomats. “Even if the assistant does mention it to her boss,” says Johnson, “it’s less embarrassing than not having pointed out your error at all.” Then let her know that you’ve already put the correct letter in the mail. Here’s the trick: You increase your chances of success if you can restrain yourself and not call immediately. Instead, wait a day or two–by then the letter’s arrival will be imminent. You don’t want to risk the assistant’s forgetting something like this.

You sneeze during an interview. And there’s no Kleenex in sight.

“Cover your nose with your left hand,” says Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Career. “If you cover it with your right hand, the interviewer won’t want to shake your hand at the end of the meeting. And covering with both hands or sneezing into your sleeve is just plain rude.” The smart job candidate knows that he’s better off excusing himself to go to the rest room for two minutes than being uncomfortable and self-conscious for the duration of the interview.

You’re asked an illegal question.

You and the interviewer are really hitting it off, swapping stories about your recent weddings. “So, are you guys planning to have kids?” he asks. In some cases it’s innocent banter. In others the recruiter might be trying to gauge whether you’ll be willing to put in 80-hour weeks or whether he might lose you to the demands of an infant. Either way, a recruiter can’t legally ask about your race, your age, your religion, any disabilities you may have, or your plans to have children. But, in this case, should you point that out? Not directly, says Sally Haver, a vice president at the Ayers Group, a New York recruiting firm. She recommends speaking to the interviewer’s intent with a response like “My record makes clear that my personal obligations have never interfered with my work. One of my strengths is my ability to separate my professional and personal lives.” By addressing the interviewer’s concerns, explains Haver, “you make it clear that you understand his question and that it’s inappropriate to ask.” That said, if you feel a recruiter has asked an illegal or offensive question, you’re well within your rights to end the interview right then and there.

You spill coffee on your lap.

Turning to greet the managing director as she enters the conference room, you knock your coffee onto your new Armani suit. Saying “Well, so much for a good first impression. Did I get the job?” is a smart way of putting people at ease. Don’t wait for someone else to take care of the problem: Quickly ask where they keep the paper towels. This response shows self-sufficiency and a sense of responsibility, says Mary Tenopyr, former director of employee-candidate testing for AT&T. If an associate runs off to get towels, join him–you don’t want to be sitting around in a mess you created, waiting for someone else to take action. Continuing the conversation where it left off, Tenopyr says, “makes clear that the interview is more important to you than the coffee spill.” Do not, under any circumstances, remove your pants.

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