the most important interviewing advice you’ll ever hear

If you’re like a lot of job seekers, when you get called for an interview, you swing into preparation mode. You research the company, you try to predict what questions you’ll be asked, and you practice your answers until they’re flawless. But in the midst of all this effort to make a great impression, don’t lose sight of what might be the single most important thing you can remember as you head into the interview: The point of the interview is not to get a job offer; it’s to figure out if you’re a mutual match, emphasis on mutual.

If you go into your interview focused solely on convincing the employer to hire you, you’ll lose sight of whether this is a job you even want or a company (or manager) you want to work for. Instead, in addition to showing the interviewer what you can do, your goal should be to make an informed decision about whether this is the right job and the right employer for you.

Think of it like dating: If you approached every first date determined to make your date fall for you, you’d miss important cues about whether or not you were right for each other. And you might end up with someone who makes you miserable, or someone who you couldn’t make happy.

So when it comes to job-hunting, it’s important to view a job interview as a two-way conversation … not a one-sided interrogation where the interviewer fires questions at you and you just hope you’re measuring up. Don’t focus so hard on pleasing the interviewer that you forget to pay attention to whether this is a job you even want, or one you would thrive in.

This approach means interviewing the interviewer, asking questions to figure out things like: Is the work well aligned with your strengths — your real ones, not ones you puffed up in your cover letter? Is the environment one you’ll thrive in or one that will cause you to go home crying every night? Is the manager someone you’d want to work with? Or is she flaky and disorganized? An unreasonable tyrant? A wimp who can’t get things done?

If you’re offered the job and accept it, you’re going to be doing this work with these people, all day, every day. Your goal is to find out if you can do it well and happily, not to get the job at all costs.

Now, some job seekers hear this and think, “That’s all well and good, but I really need a job, and I don’t care if the employer is right for me or not, as long as I’m getting a paycheck.” But approaching the interview as a two-way discussion rather than a one-way assessment means that you’re going to do better in that interview. After all, interviewers want to see that you’re thinking really critically about whether you’d be good in the job and whether you’d be happy in it or itching to leave a few months in.

In other words, even if you really do just want that job offer at all costs, this approach will still work in your favor.

So when you head into your next interview, remember that you’re not just waiting for the interviewer to decide if the fit is right. You’re making that decision too.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. quix*

    I think the ‘most important advice you’ll ever hear’ really isn’t that applicable to a lot of people.

    There’s millions of us who really need a job, even if it isn’t the best job for us.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Did you read all the way to to the end, where I point out that even if you feel that way, this approach is still the one to use, because you’ll come off better in the interview and thus increase your chances of getting the job?

      1. quix*

        I did, but that’s really not the same advice.

        It’s one thing to take the mindset that you have to evaluate the job on the merits to see if it would be aligned to your strengths, provide an environment to thrive, and have a manager you’d work well with.

        It’s another to fake it to get the job.

        If you think acting like that will help you get a job, that’s great. You have insight that I don’t, so it’s valuable advice. I’m just objecting to the advice of actually having that mindset when you *need* the job. You still need to go into the interview with the goal of convincing the interviewer to hire you, you just have to use an expanded skillset including interviewing the interviewer to do it.

        If you need a job and go in there with the attitude that you have to decide if you want it, when the interviewer responds to your questions in a disappointing way, you might let that show and it suggests you aren’t the best fit for the job.

        I like your writing, and I’ve gotten more interviews since I took your cover letter advice, but you seem to be writing from the perspective of “I have a job, now how can I move up?” and I’m guessing while some of your audience is there with you, a lot of us are more “I need a real job, and I need it now.”

      2. quix*

        To soften that a little. There’s going to be plenty of things I’m willing to accept short of my ideal while I’m underemployed and uninsured. But if I go into an interview with the mindset that I need to find a job that matches my personality, strengths, and relationship preferences, I’m not going to be as convincing when I explain how I’ll be a good match for their situation when it turns out to be one of the situations I’d accept rather than a best fit.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I get what you’re saying. All I can tell you is that it’s a lot more appealing, as a hiring manager, when a candidate doesn’t seem ready to instantly take any job offered, but instead seems to be thinking really critically about whether this is the right opportunity or not.

          1. quix*

            Fair enough. Like I said, that’s valuable insight and I appreciate it. I’m just concerned that if I seem like I’m thinking critically about it and then seem disappointed because it’s not what I was hoping for, you’ll hold off for someone who responded with the attitude that the job was what they wanted.

            1. Malissa*

              Honestly the best positions I’ve gotten are the ones I didn’t even know if I actually wanted before going into interview.
              I think the employer could tell the difference between when I was trying really hard to get the “right” answer so I could get the job and when I was relaxed and just being myself because I wasn’t sure I wanted the job.
              In fact my current employer ended up selling me on the job in the interview.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Oh, that might be where we’re seeing this differently — you definitely don’t want to seem openly disappointed. You just want to seem like you’re not ready to accept on the spot, that you’re being thoughtful and asking questions.

            1. Anonymous*

              Thats really hard to do you know …unless you are a really good poker player. If internally you are thinking, I’m not sure the job’s a compromise, its going to show in your responses. And the hiring managers will get a whiff of it.

              1. Anonymous*

                * I’m not sure about the job & it looks like a compromise, its going to show in your responses.

              2. fposte*

                You can help that with phraseology, too. “How would you describe the office culture here?” doesn’t commit you to favoring “high achieving” or “prioritizing balance.” This is the whole dating metaphor again, and you’re doing “Tell me about yourself” rather than “Are you a jerk? Do you agree with my politics?”

        2. NDR*

          Having been in your situation, I absolutely get what you’re saying AND have taken a position that wasn’t a terrific match for me because of it. But all that served to do was to put me back on the job market again quickly, as I was miserable and underperforming because of the disconnect and mismatch with the work. So while you can’t afford to be as picky, perhaps, you definitely should consider if you’d rather put a lot of energy into a longer job hunt now, or if you want to be looking for something again in 6 months to a year because you jumped at the first opportunity you got.

  2. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Malissa wrote: “I think the employer could tell the difference between when I was trying really hard to get the ‘right’ answer so I could get the job and when I was relaxed and just being myself because I wasn’t sure I wanted the job.”

    This is exactly the mindset I’m talking about.

  3. Anonymous*

    When I’ve hired people, I could always tell the ones who just want ‘any job’ because no matter what I said, they always responded, ‘oh yes that’s fine I can do that’ without really listening to what I was telling them about the job. This happened most often with temporary student workers but sometimes with regular staff.

  4. Joe*

    Making an analogy to dating (as you did in the previous post; I know it’s never a perfect analogy, but it works more often than one might expect):

    “I really need a job, and I don’t care if the employer is right for me or not, as long as I’m getting a paycheck.” This reminds me of someone saying, “I really need a girlfriend. I don’t care if she’s the right woman for me or not, as long as she has a pulse.” Sure, when you’ve been painfully single for a long time, that feels true, but once you’re in the relationship, you’ll understand the error you’ve made. Job hunting can be similar. It feels like absolutely anything will be better than nothing, and there may even be times where that’s going to be true, but once you’re in a really bad job, you’re going to be looking to get out of it, and it might be even hard to get out and then still find another job than to not have taken the job at all.

    Obviously not applicable to everyone, but something to think about, certainly…

Comments are closed.