by Siri Anderson, PayScale.com
You just landed an interview. You're excited. You're nervous. And, your head is full of questions about how to come across as the perfect candidate: "What should I wear?" "What should I say?" "How do I prepare?"
Most of these first questions revolve around marketing yourself to the company. But remember, it's also critical that you use the interview process to answer the most important question of all: "Is this the job I want?"
To answer that crucial question, you must pay close attention during the interview and actively engage your potential employer. That doesn't mean you should throw all your hard-hitting questions out at the beginning. The key is to strategize by asking questions that fit in with the goals of the various stages of the interview process.
So, how do you know what to ask and when? Mark Stevens, CEO of marketing and public relations firm MSCO and author of 25 books, including "Your Marketing Stinks," suggests viewing the stages of an interview like different stages of dating -- falling in love, going steady, and getting engaged to be married. As with dating, you don't jump in asking about finances or other uncomfortable topics. After all, putting the cart before the horse can kill a good thing. Keep in mind the company's concerns as well as your own when asking questions, and you might find yourself getting swept off your feet by the perfect new job.
Initial Interview: The 'Falling in Love' Stage
Asking for and discussing a bureaucratic checklist of benefits or responsibilities is no way to entice a new employer to fall in love with you. The goal of the first interview is mostly to figure out if you like the company and if they like you and could use your skills. Also, this is a time to look for subtle clues about the workplace -- take note of the office mood, corporate culture, and how you are treated. Did anyone offer you a coffee or water? Do people make eye contact or say, "Hello"? Can you hear laughter anywhere?
Once the interview starts, the questions you pose to your interviewer should open up dialogue on broader topics such as your professional values and goals, and how they all might align with company goals. Keep the tone personable and look for ways to convey your passions. Doing so will help you come across as confident and knowledgeable, and that can set you apart from other candidates. Furthermore, the depth of information you'll be able to discuss will leave the interviewer with a much clearer picture about who you are every day.
For example, Stevens advises people to avoid the question, "What will my duties be?" Instead, he suggests posing a similar question this way: "I visited your Web site, and I liked what I saw. How would I be able to contribute to those values in this position?"
Changing the way you ask a rather standard question can lead to a more interesting dialogue and give you a more complete idea of the job. It also shows your potential employer that you are aware of the company goals and that you are someone who will find ways to make them happen.
Second Interview: The 'Going Steady' Stage
If you're asked in for a second interview, you've obviously struck the company's fancy, and you can begin to ask some of the more difficult questions -- tactfully, of course.
Your goal in this stage is to add detail to the broad picture that was painted earlier and to answer any doubts or concerns that you may have about the job. If your research has found a black mark in the company's record, ask about how that's been corrected. If you've found that the company's financial situation is a little rocky, ask how that's being addressed.
Keep in mind, though, that the formats of follow-up interviews vary widely. You may be meeting with more people than you did in the first interview, or you might just meet with the same people to further explore some topics previously discussed. Either way, you may be asked some of the same questions you were asked before, and you may want to ask some of the same questions as well.
If everything is going well at the end of this stage, you should feel fairly comfortable with this company and envisioning a future with them should be positive and without too many doubts or unknowns.
Job Offer: The Engagement Stage
Congratulations! They want you to join their company -- and no matter how excited you may be, don't jump too soon. This is the time to negotiate the nitty-gritty of numbers and benefits. If you have any remaining concerns, is this company willing to bend to meet them? Are you willing to compromise something in return? Don't stop looking at this as a relationship at this point -- neither party should be asked to sacrifice too much.
If negotiations begin to feel uncomfortable, ask about the larger concern of the employer. Is it that you might be earning more than a supervisor? Are they nervous about giving you the responsibility you'd like to take on? Find out the root of any concerns and see if there are compromises that can be made so both you and your employer feel like you're being treated fairly.
Remember, as with dating, one interview process is never the same as the next, and you may have to trust your gut to know when the time is right to ask some of the more difficult questions. Tread softly but confidently through the sticky topics -- succeeding in this will likely set you up for a rewarding relationship with your next employer.
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