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Interview Tips that You Won't Get from Your Career Counseling Office

Vivia Chen

May 9, 2012

© WavebreakmediaMicro - Fotolia.comIf you've been reading The Careerist for a while, I hope you have the good sense not to follow half the advice I dispense. And I pray that you don't take me literally (though judging from the e-mails I get, I'd say a distressing number of you do).

I'm warning you because I'm about to pass on an interviewing technique that's a bit out there. I'd like to take credit, but this one comes from Maseena Ziegler, a contributor at Forbes.

Recounting a time in her twenties when she'd "packed in dozens of job interviews in the manner of a serial dater" (sounds like early interview week, no?), Ziegler describes how she'd conclude the meeting:

I’d look at the interviewer square on and let the moment hang in the air, to the point where his eyes would dart nervously or he would start to slowly close the notebook in his hands, assuming I had no questions. Then I’d ask, in a measured tone with just the right mix of seriousness and lightness, “If you didn’t offer me this job, what would the reason be?”

I must say I love her ballsiness (sorry, that's really the best word)! Even better, it worked beautifully:

As I’ve only now discovered to both my surprise and chagrin, this question is one of the riskiest and quite possibly one of the most disconcerting to ask an interviewer. Yet every single time I asked it at the end of the interview, I ended up with a job offer.

Now, how could asking that kind of unexpected (maybe rude) question work in favor of the interviewee? First, it seems to change the power dynamics. "My interviewer [would] either squirm and smile nervously, or grin widely in response to being unsettled or intrigued by my forthrightness," says Ziegler.

It might also be an efficient way to address "a red flag or a shortcoming in your skills and experience," says Ziegler. "And if you articulate your response logically and succinctly, you could potentially turn around the interviewer’s perceptions and land yourself a job."

But could this interview strategy work in the corporate world? It certainly seems to breach the rules of corporate etiquette, where you're expected to make some bland summary of your skills, thank the interviewer, shake hands, and disappear. Ziegler says that the finance professionals that she contacted were horrified by her technique.

I'm all for being offbeat, but I'm not impractical. So I would ask that kind of impertinent question only in certain situations—like when you have nothing to lose. If you feel your chances of getting a coveted job are iffy at best (or you just want to have some fun), why not go for it?

Going rogue during interviews can work. For example, I remember a woman in law school who got a job with a stellar, stuffy Wall Street firm even though her grades were as prosaic as mine. What did she do? Well, she plopped herself in the interview chair and said, "I know your firm doesn't usually hire people with my grades, but let me tell you why you should hire me." By the end of her 20-minute slot, she had the hiring partner eating out of her hand.

I don't know if she tried that technique with other firms. Maybe she did, and most of them brushed her off. But the point is that she landed a great job by not heeding the rules, leaving the rest of us in the dust. There's a lesson in that, trust me.


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Viv - thanks for checking out my Forbes piece.

Daryll Jones - if you'd like a staring contest - bring it!

My best
Maseena Ziegler

Was I supposed to read that?

So Viv, how else should we take you? Should we read your body language, take in your tone, or just download and swivel our heads between your post and your nonthreatening smiling face while reading your post? Its a blog so of course we have to take you literally. But there is lots more to literalism than just the words. Syntax and semantics in the conveyance of meaning are not entirely indecipherable. You write clearly and cleverly enough; yes you are "likable enough" I suppose, that people should have known that you were being sarcastic in that Newt post. This post on the other hand was kinda boring except that it made me want to have a staring contest with Ziegler; I know I can make her squirm first because my daughters and I have staring contests all the time and I always win. You were being sarcastic about Newt right? I mean, its not like I know you (and I'm not stalking you, I am just being a regular reader and everyday, self-appointed respondent to your blog so don't go calling the FBI; besides, I know you love it). It seems to me that the Newt column and this one teaches what most career service offices do, in fact, stress. All of them stress going to the interview with as much self confidence as you can muster and exhibit without being an ass -- Ziegler was being an ass, even if some of the men interviewers were turned on by her enough to hire her. If she stared at me and I stared at her, I know I might have gotten a bit of a sexual thrill just from the challenge. You should write something about sexual tension in the law firm, by the way. Career Service just doesn't tell you how exactly to manifest that confidence, nor should they beyond the advice not to have a piece of green leafy salad stuck in your teeth during the interview. You just gotta be yourself and it will ruin a student's chances to advise her to exhibit confidence in any specific way. Ziegler probably lost as many offers she otherwise had coming as she gained. Yet, as your Newt column points out, even the biggest buffoon among us can make quite a good living if he just acts like he has something rare long enough. I mean in the "rankings of life" -- media exposure, consulting and speaking gigs, book contracts, etc., Newt is doing better than most. You could reasonably say the same thing about Al Sharpton. He and Newt are doing quite well in the popular rankings of life. You must have known I would get to the point. Rankings are just glorified popularity contests and yet we all love them so. Even you. We pretend to be too smart to be fooled by superficiality but then we act in accordance with just that. We say, "look, everyone is saying this person is great, you should too." Everyone is saying this school is great, you should think so too. Yeah, you know I'm still chafing about those 15 schools one should never attend and your disdain for any school lower than 25. By the way, I went to Florida (over Emory) -- and didn't even bother to apply to the "top ranked" schools because I thought if I just worked hard the doors will open. Nobody ever told me that pedigree counts for so much in this field. Sorry, my defensive insecurities are showing. Even your blog could benefit from a little more confident populism. I know its there or you wouldn't be writing your blog. So far, I would say yours is like the NPR of blogs. Or at least it strives (I won't say "pretends") for the appearance of objective thoughtfulness. But NPR can't get rich, even if it can make its employees rich, it will never move up in the proverbial "rankings," because it disdains that "we know everything" attitude that Fox and CNN strive for. Ultimately, that is what "confidence" is. We ivory tower types like to call it "egostrengh." You gotta have egostrength and even people who secretly or openly hate you will at least listen. You blog needs more egostrength or only those of us who listen to NPR on the way to work will read it regularly. And you got egostrength Viv, don't try to deny it. If you don't then who do you think you are to have a blog of your own?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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