Have you ever heard the story about
the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant? After
taking a moment to touch the animal, they came to very different
conclusions about how it must look. The one who explored its trunk
said the elephant was long, skinny and flexible. The one fingering
its tusk described it as hard, smooth and pointy. And the one who
ran his hands over the elephant's hide pictured it as large, rough
and wrinkly. While each of the men correctly described the part of
the animal he touched, none pictured the creature as it really was.
Yet based upon their observations, each insisted his description was
right and the others were wrong. Given the limited information they
had and the potential biases they brought with them, their
individual perceptions were their reality.
Does this sound familiar? Have you
and a friend, colleague or spouse sometimes viewed the same
situation from very different perspectives? Have you ever left an
interview sure you'd receive a job offer only to never hear from the
interviewer again? Neither of these instances should be too
surprising. Any time people get together, there is tremendous
potential for misinterpretation and miscommunication, because each
of us has different experiences and attitudes that affect our
understanding of reality.
Unfortunately, this can be
particularly true in a job search situation. Because job seekers
and corporate recruiters have relatively little time to get to know
each other before deciding whether to pursue a business
relationship, erroneous perceptions often go unchallenged and
self-fulfilling prophecies abound. As with the blind men, each
party typically have access to only a piece of the entire picture
and must make critical assumptions based upon a sketchy
understanding of the current situation, past experiences perceived
as similar and attitudes formed over many years.
Consequently, the baggage that job
seekers drag with them on their job search may automatically lead
them to believe the following statements, even when they aren't
I am a woman, minority, or Anglo male, they won't hire me.
People who have this chip on their shoulders, even though they
are otherwise qualified for the position, often unconsciously
sabotage their chances through a hostile or self-pitying
When they say I'm overqualified for the job, they really mean
I'm too old. I once received a letter from an NBEW
reader with a PhD in computer science who thought he was
rejected for a help desk position because he was too old. In
reality, he was competing with younger people who didn't possess
his experience or education. Help desks don't require PhDs with
20 years in the job market. He was also bucking the recruiter's
assumption that the job was beneath his capability, would bore
him, and eventually propel him to look for something more in
tune with his expertise.
I'm not employed, companies will think I'm dead wood. It's
very hard to conduct a successful job search when you assume
employers interpret your not having a job as a terrible stigma.
Recently I worked with a client who was humiliated by being laid
off by a pharmaceutical company. Even though I told her many
times that recruiters understand being unemployed is an
unfortunate fact of life for many talented professionals, she
couldn't bring herself to be truthful with potential employers
about not having a job. Eventually her half-truths created a
number of untenable situations where she had to change her story
in mid-stream, taking herself out of the running for several
positions she might otherwise have been offered.
I didn't get along with my former manager, he will give me a
terrible reference. This is rarely the case. People hate
to give bad references, and they are usually inclined to fairly
judge the caliber of someone's work, even if their relationship
was a little rocky. I once had a client who asked me to check a
reference because she was sure it would be scathing. Her former
employer returned my call from London to tell me in detail about
her outstanding performance and how richly she deserved a
Job seeker perceptions are not the
only ones that create their own skewed realities. Recruiters may
also have hidden or misconceived agendas, which spring from past
experiences and attitudes that resist rational attempts to change
them. Should you become aware of any of these preconceived
assumptions, try to dispel them, but don't be surprised if you
can't. Many of them are unconscious and have little to do with you
personally, even though they can definitely affect your chances of
Below are a few of the most common
ones that thwart job seeker success:
manager has already picked an inside person for the job. He
views looking at other candidates as a time-wasting formality.
It's going to be very hard to convince this person an
outsider can do a better job than his hand-picked candidate.
has worked with someone in the past who did a poor job or was
difficult to manage. You remind him of this person. Or, maybe
you have some of the traits of his estranged father. He may
not even consciously notice the connection between you and the
other individual. He just knows you make him nervous. Of
course, this can work both ways. If you remind him of someone
he thinks is wonderful, he'll tend to like you, too.
He's most comfortable with people just like him. Job
seekers who are a different color, sex, regional origin, age,
personality or whatever will be at a real disadvantage in trying
to fit into his profile of the ideal candidate.
intimidate her. Because of her own insecurities, she's
worried that you are smarter, better looking or destined to
steal her job. Even if she hires you, her paranoia will drive
her to sabotage your career to save her own.
has the perfect prototype in mind, and you aren't it. In
fact, no one fits his model. If this manager ever hires anyone,
the unfortunate individual will be in constant competition with
a figment of his boss's imagination.
his heart of hearts, he really doesn't want to hire anyone.
This is particularly true of entrepreneurs who are used to doing
everything themselves. Giving up power or authority to someone
else can be very difficult, even impossible for them.
While job seekers and recruiters need
to be careful of hidden agendas and loaded assumptions, it makes
sense to approach the matching process with some preconceived
ideas. To determine their best career move, candidates should have
a clear idea of what they want and have to offer. And potential
employers should pick the best person for the job based upon the
characteristics of their ideal candidate. Each armed with their
initial preferences, both parties can work together to determine the
likelihood of a mutually satisfying match.
If you are a job seeker, you can do
your utmost to assure a potential employer sees you for who you
really are by using the following techniques:
your homework. Develop a clear understanding of your ideal
job description including functional and technical skills you
want to use and the environment that will best support them.
Research the company to find out it products/services, mission,
philosophy, and challenges. Get a copy of the job
qualifications, if possible. Consider how you can personally
make a positive impact based upon company needs. Be prepared to
discuss your potential contribution with your interviewer and
give him examples of how you have performed in situations
similar to the ones he is facing. Think about the questions he
may ask you and how you will answer them. Put together a list
of your own questions, including some that probe for business
philosophy and management style. The more you know about
yourself and the position, the easier it will be to convey who
you are and what you can do for the company.
Most employment professionals will tell you the first 30 seconds
of an interview are the most important because your interviewer
will automatically look for ways to reinforce her initial
impression of you throughout the interview. To make a
positive first impression; arrive a little early, dress the
part, offer a hearty (but not crushing) handshake, and exude an
air of quiet confidence. Have an ice breaker in mind in case
your interviewer doesn't.
Listen carefully. Active listening assures you'll answer
the question that was asked, rather than the one you expected.
People are much more likely to perceive the true you if you
attend to the moment and respond directly to them. Otherwise
they may label you as a slithery politician who skews his
replies to suit his own purposes. Careful listening also helps
you make an informed decision about whether the job is right for
Mirror your conversational companion. Watch her body
language, listen for her jargonal phrases, notice if she is an
auditory, visual or kinesthetic learner (I see vs I
hear vs I feel sprinkled throughout the
conversation), and consider the speed and tonality of her
speech. Mirror them as much as you can. She will get your
message better if it is presented in a format that comes
naturally to her.
good questions. Intelligent questions show you've done your
homework and understand the intricacies of the position. In
many cases they tell more about who you are and what you know
than many of your answers. Set up hypothetical situations and
ask the manager how "we" would handle them. Inquire about
industry trends using a Wall Street Journal or Fortune
article as a reference point. Don't avoid thought-provoking
business issues. Good managers love tough questions, because
they offer an opportunity to display their expertise or discuss
a well-considered opinion.
Don't concentrate on finding trick questions or hidden agendas.
While there may be some game players out there posing as
real people, they are in the minority. Obsessing over "what she
really means" can make you second guess your instincts, put on
a phony facade and lose sight of the main reason for having the
interview. It's better to take the interviewer at her word and
proceed accordingly. Should you suspect someone is playing with
your psyche, immediately cross them off your list of potential
employers. People who have hidden agendas in interviews will
also have them on the job. They make exhausting managers and
Check periodically to see if you are conveying the right
information about yourself to help your interviewer make an
informed decision. Ask if your skills and experience are a
good fit for the position. Find out if the past experiences you
offer as evidence of your expertise have relevance for your
interviewer. What may be an obvious bridge to you may be a
confusing deadend to someone else.
your potential manager has some concerns about your fit for the
position, immediately try to assuage them. Show how your
transferrable skills can make up for lack of technical
expertise. Point out how moving from one industry to another
gives you a valuable fresh perspective. Unfortunately, these
concerns often don't surface unless you probe for them. That's
why the periodic reality checks mentioned above are so
Always find out how the selection process will progress and when
you can expect to hear from the interviewer. Many job
seekers neglect to get this information and then sit dejectedly
by the phone assuming someone else got the job. If you haven't
heard from the company by the target date, give your contact a
call. Following up shows initiative and interest, two traits
employers admire. If you get the opportunity to talk to the
decision maker again, express your continued interest in the
position. Your making the first move may even serve to propel
the process forward.
a thank you note reiterating why you are interested in the
company and what you have to offer them. If, for some
reason, your interviewer isn't totally clear on why he should
hire you, your thank you note gives you one more chance to spell
it out for him.
Should the company decide to hire someone else, try to find out
why they chose the other person instead of you. Probably
you'll hear their choice was based on something beyond your
control, which helps to temper the rejection a little. On the
other hand, if they mention techniques you need to polish or
issues you neglected to clarify, you'll be able to rectify the
problem before the next important interview.