19 Jan 2018

Crap questions to ask at interview

It's that time of year when everyone says 'New Year, New Career'.  And it's true, traditionally, this is a busy time of year for recruiters where lots of candidates brush up their CVs and prepare to find something new.  It's also true that you see a lot of articles in the media with 'advice' on how to get your dream job or what to say at interview.  I realise that these articles are written by journalists for a broad audience, however I was reading this week's Stylist magazine (freebie found in city centres) and found myself snorting at their suggestions of questions to ask at your next interview.  I'm afraid I'm at odds with their suggestions.  I think most of our agency clients in the North would scoff if asked any of these....

1.  What are you doing to ensure your male and female employees have equal pay? 

Heck, do you want to look antagonistic?  If you're male, they'll wonder why you're asking and if you're female I think you'll automatically put yourself in the 'potentially difficult to manage' category.  Now that might not be politically correct and don't get me wrong, I definitely believe that men and women should be paid equivalent salaries for doing equivalent jobs.  But really....there are many more questions that you can ask directly about the business which don't get people's backs up or which might get their backs up.  Don't go there (at interview) would be my advice.

2.  How flexi is your flexitime?

Seriously.  This is up there with 'what is your sick leave policy'.    There is a time and place to start the conversation about flexi-time. With your recruitment consultant or at second stage.  Not to be asked at first stage - unless the employer brings it up.  Even then, answer cautiously.

3.  How does your company support its employee's wellbeing?

Technically there is nothing wrong with the question.  However, the main focus of the interview IMO is to sell yourself to the potential employer.  I agree it's also the employer's responsibility to sell themselves and their business to you too.  Hopefully they can cover it off without you mentioning it.  I do think there are better ways of asking the question.

4.  How could Brexit affect this role?

I suppose this is fair enough.  BUT again think about context.  For most agencies, I don't think it's too relevant whereas if you're interviewing at a global manufacturing giant then perhaps.  My friend who's a pilot was asked it recently and he talked about oil prices etc so again just consider how you think it could affect the role. If you've no idea, I wouldn't ask the question.  Personally.

5.  How do you encourage staff to give back?

As I progress through these questions.....they are probably more relevant if you're interviewing at a huge blue chip and perhaps by an HR person.  I appreciate that we all want to work in businesses who are socially responsible but most agencies are not going to consider this being a very relevant question.  Review their website in advance and see if they talk about this - if they do, you can broach it if it's important to you.

6.  What new skills can I learn?

Phrase it differently.  You can talk about how adapting and learning new skills are important to you but essentially, it's more likely that the potential employer wants to hear about what skills you're going to bring to them....Make sure you listen to what they are looking for and adapt your answers accordingly - and then work this question into the conversation.

7.  They had a final question....Big picture of a dog and then 'will I have time to walk him?'  Ho Ho. 

Don't even think about it.

I'm not trying to come across as a hard core facist recruiter where the employer holds all the cards and to a certain extent you have to say what they want to hear (sell yourself) if you want to get the job.  Save more 'soft' questions for later interview stages. The first interview should be about chemistry, fit, do you currently have the skills to do the role, what is the progression and career trajectory for you.

If you asked all these questions at first stage, I don't think you'd get the job. You'd potentially look like a challenging individual who isn't committed to working that hard.  Yes it depends on the business, how you ask the questions and the job you're applying for but don't just ask questions that some magazine suggests are good to ask at interview.  Think about it in context of the business and environment that you are looking at and then come up with some more relevant questions that are pertinent to the role.  Save anything tricky for advanced stage (when you know they want you) and go from there.

Finally, I do actually have some agency clients where people take their dogs to work.  Just saying!

19 Dec 2017

The Whole Package

It's that time of year when I start to run through my stats to collate the Annual PMP Salary Survey.  I always plan to use the week before the Christmas break because it'll be quiet - right?!  But it never is and it's pretty much an end of January weekend that I manage to hit the save button.  Anyway.  I've had a few roles get to offer stage this month (ha!  I am good at what I do) but some of the offers and decisions have been challenging and I thought it would be useful to raise a few points.

When I start a conversation with a candidate about a new opportunity, one of the first questions is traditionally, 'what's the salary' - historically I'd say this is the most important factor in determining if someone is interested in a role.   Then we look at location, clients, creative output, fit etc.  In the agency world, whilst lots of the global networks do have 'packages', there is still some catching up to be done with regards 'benefits' within the smaller independents.  Not all of them - but most.   In the old days, if someone was moving from a global network to an independent, we'd try to ensure that the basic salary was higher to account for a lack of pension provision/healthcare etc and we'd approach things from that angle.  Recently though, I've noticed that candidates are seeking 'pension' increasingly frequently and often choosing to stay within the relative security of an agency that offers decent additional benefits rather than moving (even if a slightly raised bonus allowed them to organise a personal pension or healthcare).  I understand this and I get it.  I think increasingly that independent employers are getting it too.  A recent example where the candidate chose a role with a long list of 'benefits' instead of an agency where it was the statutory pension deal, said that of the benefits, it was the 6% contributory pension that made the difference.  We're all aware of hopefully living for longer and we're equally aware that living longer isn't going to be much fun if we're all skint.

Interestingly, also 'in the old days', it was considered a benefit to have a nice company car but then money savvy candidates realised that actually on a tax basis it wasn't such a benefit and they'd take an allowance if it was on offer instead.  Now it's pretty rare that cars or car allowances are on the agenda at all - candidates are far more concerned with planning for the future with their benefits and that's where pensions, healthcare and life assurance play a big part in their choice of new employer.  Whilst lots of employers will include on their list of provisions, free tea and coffee and big fruit bowl and a personal favourite, a mobile phone and laptop (ha, to do your job!) - these are 'nice to haves' - and everybody does it anyway!

So in a roundabout and rambling way. This blog was meant to be about asking yourself as an employee what the most important criteria are for you?  If it is a 6% contributory pension, you need to find out at the outset if the employer provides it.  It's not likely to be something they can just organise for you at the last minute so if it's a deal breaker, it's better to know that at the start. 

And it is the difference, largely, between the big and small agencies. So you need to weigh up what are the other pros and cons.  In a smaller agency, you may secure a slightly higher basic, you'll have less rules and regulations, you'll potentially progress quicker, you'll potentially be exposed to more challenges etc.  In the larger agencies (ok lots of generalisations here), you'll have support, bigger teams,  potentially bigger budgets and clients - but you'll be a smaller cog in a bigger wheel.    Overlay all of that with the 'benefits', location, typical projects & campaigns etc - and you'll be closer to finding out where your boundaries are and what is of interest and what isn't.

Looking at my stats, it seems that this year the top five employee preferred benefits are:

Contributory Pension
Free Gym Membership
Free Parking
Ability to buy extra days holiday

Flexible hours which is also a popular one is also up there in the top 10 but apples and bananas are nowhere to be seen!

Merry Christmas!

9 Nov 2017

Interview Demands

Couple of points to touch on in this month's blog.  I've had a candidate interviewing with a particular client and it has been a long and drawn out process.  This is a demanding client and it has been a very 'robust' process. I'm hoping that we'll have a decision shortly, and whichever way it goes, I'm sure everyone involved will be glad to achieve closure.

The subject of the blog is really that whilst often employers have very speedy recruitment processes with just one interview, there are an equal and opposite number of employers who like the long and drawn out process.  After a fair number of years in recruitment, I'd like to say that there are definitive stats that prove one way is more successful than the other....but there are not!  So many different factors and variables are at play that it's impossible really to draw many conclusions. 

Ultimately though, it's the client/potential employers 'right' to have a recruitment process appropriate to them and their business.  Usually that means a 2 interview process but occasionally can extend to 4.  Typically though, you'll have a first interview which is a chemistry test and then the second interview is a response to a brief or a presentation set by the client.  If there are extended meetings, it tends to be 'meet the team' or 'meet the client'. 

I would say that employers know within the first 5 minutes of meeting candidates, if they like that person, whether that person will 'fit'.  With clients who do speed one interview processes, they rely on gut instinct and whilst they will look at how long someone has been in their past jobs and check out references, they don't see the need in going through umpteen steps to confirm what they already know.

However, if there are a couple of good candidates at the first stage, a second interview is often employed as a test for who is the best.  This can also be construed as 'who wants the job the most'.  Sometime, I can think that a candidate is a 'dead cert' to be offered the job, but client feedback can be that 'they were a bit cocky',  'they hadn't done their homework' or just simply that their 'presentation was weak'.  So, a note of caution that you should always, do your absolute best when it comes to preparation for a second stage that involves a response to a brief or presentation.   These days, the quality of the presentation is as important as the content - as is the delivery. It's not enough to stick a few bullet points onto slides. 

In my current example, the candidate had a good first chemistry test with the client, they both liked each other. This was then followed up with a tough brief which the candidate responded well to. The client enjoyed the presentation, thought the candidate would be liked by the team, thought he could 'technically' do the job.  But still had a couple of reservations... The candidate was very good natured, happy to go with the flow, wanted the job and was putting a lot of effort in - both to find the time to attend multiple interviews and also to put the necessary effort into the preparation - not easy when you've already got a demanding job with a VERY demanding boss and also a busy home life with children too. The client asked the candidate to come back for a 'meet the team' and to complete another brief.  This is quite unusual to have a second brief but equally, the client wasn't prepared to make an offer where there were still unanswered reservations and the candidate took that as a positive.  They too wanted to see really what the agency was like, what it was like 'in situ' rather than with everyone in interview mode.     I spoke to the candidate after the third meeting and interestingly, it served to really cement their interest in the role.  I do say to clients sometimes that it can go the other way. Often, when the recruitment going gets tough, candidates will withdraw from the process because they don't have the time or resources to commit to getting the job - they are aware they haven't got the time to deliver a strong brief....so they pull out.   Whilst I understand that - and sympathise.....clients, generally, don't!  They would simply take that as proof that the candidate didn't want or wasn't up to the job.

Creative candidates often find the interview process the most frustrating.  When they are asked to respond to a brief, it generally involves coming up with a concept and then following it through - designing, writing, artworking etc - it's very hands on. It takes time and effort.  Clients (justifiably) want to see what you are capable of and they also want to see that you want the job.  More senior Creatives, can get frustrated that clients just want their ideas...(I've seen some real fights over this)....but ultimately, if you want the job, you'll do it. If you don't do it, someone else will.  Sorry to be blunt, but that's how it is. 

So again, I am digressing. With the ongoing example, the candidate was late for the second interview.  Just 5 minutes.   Arrived late, apologised, said it was his lunch hour, the delay had been getting into the building, getting a pass organised and getting up to the office. To give credit, the lateness didn't put him off his stride and the interview went well.

But this client is formidable. Zero tolerance really when it comes to lateness.  The candidate didn't call (candidate says....I was in the building, it would have taken me longer to call than just get up there, it is my lunch-hour, it's a rush, I was in the middle of an important briefing....).  Not my problem says the client. It's the candidate's responsibility to get to the interview, on time, well presented and in the right frame of mind to get the job.

That's pretty hard-line. Most clients fortunately are not quite so firm in their views. And in fact, the client here was happy to extend to the third interview, but that 'lateness' is still there in the 'cons' box.  Don't forget that for some people/employers it's the most basic personal skills/habits that they'll rate someone on.  Timeliness, your hand-shake, can you make small-talk, are you smartly dressed, do you exhibit good personal hygeine.  In these examples, they are often deal breakers....so don't let the seemingly 'small stuff' let you down.

In summary, if you are facing an extended interview process, question how much you want the job. If you really want the job, you have to give it 100%.  If you do want the job but you are struggling with time for interviews, time to prepare a brief etc, do talk to the employer or your recruiter. It's not enough to sit in the final interview and say 'I know it's not great but I didn't have time'.  Employers all want to employ people who really want to work for them, they want proof of that.  If you don't want the job, then you shouldn't really be at interview.

Fingers crossed for a positive outcome for my candidate today!

Tips for getting the most out of interviews:

Be punctual!
Give yourself time to prepare for the interview.
Ask the client or the recruiter if they have any reservations from the first interview which you can address head on at second stage.
If you don't get the job offer, ask for feedback. If it's constructive, use it in your next interviews!
Read all the PMP blogs - EVERYTHING has been covered in the past few years!

12 Oct 2017

Competency Interviews

I've got a friend who is currently looking for a new role and in their industry, interviewing for a new role is almost entirely done by HR Professionals who will typically use Competency based interviewing as their main tool in the recruitment process.  Now, in the advertising industry, you're more likely to be asked what strengths you can attribute to your star sign (true story), but we are seeing more agencies taking on HR staff and we're all going to have to be aware of how to interview slightly differently. I said I'd give my friend some tips and then thought I'd kill two birds etc and do a blog on the subject. 

So.  The basics. What is a competency based interview.  Essentially, this is where the questions will all target a specific skill or competency.  Candidates are asked questions relating to their behaviour in specific circumstances which you then need to back up with concrete examples.

The best advice I can give anyone for such an interview is to be prepared.  Years ago, when I was a candidate myself, I did actually purchase a book called 'Top answers to 100 interview questions'. It was brilliant.  Whilst the thought of 'revising' for an interview might seem a bit bonkers, you should never underestimate interviews or be blase about your experience and skills seeing you through.

HR is a sector in itself.  HR Professionals can be quite a challenging breed of individuals.  Some are great - they understand what they're recruiting for and you can have a competency based interview with added common sense.  Occasionally though you'll find yourself with an HR Professional who perhaps does not have a great understanding of the role they are interviewing for - and in this situation, you have to 'manage the person interviewing you' - without being condescending or disdainful.  In the worst cases, you can see the boxes that they have to tick/score and it can feel like a very painful hour.

Anyway, I'm digressing.  You have no control over who is going to interview you so all you can do is turn up on time, be smart and presentable and assess the person yourself when you arrive.  Don't forget to take a copy of your CV (or two), any supporting information you have been asked for and a notebook and pen.  I would recommend that you don't take your iPad and take notes on that  - it generally doesn't go down well.  Plus, with a notepad, you can make pre-written questions for them (often your mind goes blank in an interview when asked 'have you got any questions for us') and if there are specific things that you really want to say, you can highlight those so that you don't forget.  Make small-talk with the receptionist and be friendly and engaging to everyone you meet.  That's the basics.  You'd be surprised how often candidates ignore these and it lets them down.


Back to the questions.   The most common way to answer competency based questions is using the STAR technique. This describes:

The Situation
The Task required as a result
The Action that you took
The Result of that action

Ultimately, interviewers are not trying to catch you out.  Typically you will have been invited to interview based on the strength of your CV.  So this interview is more about understanding exactly the role that you have played and actually, if you prepare well, you will be reminded (hopefully) of your own strengths and this revision will make you respond much more fluently and cohesively during the interview.  

Do a bit of research before the interview.  Obviously, you need to know the job requirements so that you can tailor your answers to that.  Think of the interview as being the opportunity you have to point out where you can add value to each of the requirements on the job description.  Talk about what you can do, not what you can't!  Create a list of predicted questions - it's not that hard, tailor them again to the job description and make sure you are 'answering the question' - don't try and sidestep - treat it like an exam. You have to answer and respond so that the interviewer can 'tick' the box that you do indeed have the right character/skills/fit for the role, particularly relatively to other candidates. 

How to come up with your predicted questions

What are the key skills that employers look for when recruiting?

  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Goal orientation
Clearly, the type of question that you are asked will depend entirely upon the role and industry you are applying for, the common themes that are asked in competency based interviews are:

Tell me a time when…
Can you think of an example of how/when…

Describe a way in which you…

So thinking about your own sector you need to come up with some questions that you are likely to be asked which will be asked in the above manner to demonstrate the above skills.  Take a highlighter pen through the job description and highlight the key skills that are essential to the job. Then create your questions and answers around these.  Make sure you utilise the whole of your career, you can include school/university. The important thing is to use different examples, not just one for every question.
This blog is already long.  If you need sample answers that you can bastardise then use Google! There do seem to be a lot of sites all giving advice in this area so do some research. Or look for that 100 great answers book..
Remember when prepping the answers, it's not rocket science. Stick to the STAR technique. Keep your answers succinct and to the point - answer the question.  If you find you can't answer easily, try using a different example to talk about.  Make sure you don't fall into any 'traps'.  Say for example you were asked to about an example of having to handle a challenging colleague in the work-place. Employers don't want to hear the nitty gritty where you assassinate a former colleague's character because they were lazy, rude etc.  They want to hear what YOU did and you need to keep it positive talking about how your awesome skills allowed you to neutralise/solve the problem.  Negativity goes down very badly in interviews.

Finally.  My top tips:

Write out your list of predicted questions with your model answers.
Practice your answers OUT LOUD in front of a mirror or in front of partner/dog etc
Know when to stop talking. Don't ramble. 
Be positive. Particularly about colleagues, employers, customers etc.
Don't lie
Check out the social media feeds for the business - be up to speed on all their current affairs
Don't forget the notebook, pen, CV, Job Description etc. 
Get a good night's sleep before the interview
Arrive 15 minutes before the interview.
Engage with the interviewers before the interview 'starts'. Try a bit of small talk.

Good luck!