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The New Interview: Tough and Targeted

A decade ago, job interviews may have been nerve-wracking, but most of the time they were relatively painless events - especially when compared to the arduous screenings through which many companies put prospective employees today.

Interviews have become tougher, say job placement counselors, with the behavioral or experiential interview replacing the traditional technique: Instead of saying, "Tell me about yourself," the interviewer is more likely to ask a candidate to give an example of how he or she exercised leadership in a recent situation.

"Instead of gathering information at a leisurely pace and encouraging interviewees to explain what is important to them, interviewers start with a goal or target," says Richard Fein, director of placement at the School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Companies know what they're looking for and thus design questions that trigger examples from the applicant's current behavior or recent experience."

The challenge facing job applicants, adds Fein, who is also the author of "111 Dynamite Ways to Ace Your Job Interview" (Impact Publications, 1997, $13.95), is to articulate their skillfulness.

"Applicants who can answer questions clearly and precisely stand the best chance of landing jobs," he says.

Liliana Sirotzky, a 1997 graduate of Boston University School of Management, went through a day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a break for lunch) interviews before Prudential Insurance Company of America, based in Newark, NJ, accepted her into its advanced management development program.

"It amounted to five long interviews," she says. But no one asked her what she did on her last job. "They don't want you to expand upon what's your resume," she says. "The interviewers wanted to find out about my personality and what I can bring to the position. You can't just say you're a good worker or a great person. You must prove it. And, if you have failed at anything, you must convince interviewers you learned some valuable lessons."

Christopher Rizzo, 22, a 1997 graduate of Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., went through one campus interview; a plant visit that included three 45-minute interviews by three different managers; a writing test and a 90-minute psychological test before IBM offered him a job as an information technology specialist last December. Rizzo took the IBM protocol in stride. He already had been through 15 interviews with other companies and had five job offers before signing on with IBM.

"The more interviews you have," says Rizzo, "the better you get at the process. You get to a point where you can sense which direction the interview is going the first couple of minutes."

Mamta Malik, a 1995 BU graduate, had two rounds of interviews before Digital Equipment Corp. in Littleton, Mass., extended her a job offer. The first round, says Malik, featured casual, get-to-know-you interviews conducted on campus. They were followed by an invitation to the company. "The second round was more formal, specific and work-centered," she says.

"Often, job applicants who are being seriously considered are called back for several interviews," says John Mattson, director of the career center at BU's School of Management.

"One student who was being considered for a big management consulting job had eight interviews," he says. "Three interviews is about average, yet the bigger the job and the more responsibilities it carries, the greater the number of interviews. It's not uncommon for applicants who are being seriously considered to be interviewed by every manager they will be working with."

In addition to the factual behavioral interview, many interviewers are using the case interview technique.

"Job applicants are given a hypothetical situation or scenario and asked to analyze and solve it," says Mattson. "Management consulting companies commonly use this approach to find out how quickly applicants can think on their feet."

Companies also are shifting the interviewing tasks from human-resource personnel to managers.

"Hiring and firing people amounts to an expensive and time-consuming process," says Preston. "Managers know what kind of people they need and are best equipped to find the most talented candidate."

THAT MEANS managers are doing a large share or campus interviewing, according to Mattson.

Joseph Impellizeri, controller for DEC's Altavista Internet Software division, typifies the new breed of interviewer. Each year, he takes time to act as the lead recruiter at Boston University, which has been identified along with nine other New England schools as having excellent undergraduate business programs.

"I understand the rigors of the job and the characteristics that lead to success," says Impellizeri. "While each DEC recruiter in my division has a different perspective, we are all looking for people who want to build a career in corporate finance and can think on their feet and solve problems."

Of the approximately 20 people Impellizeri interviews, only five are invited back for a second round.

"We also look for people who are not only unafraid of change but are eager to initiate it," he says. "We look for people who have strong accounting and finance backgrounds and advanced analytical skills. Uppermost, we're searching for candidates who have the ability to make an impact and who percolate passion."

IMPELLIZERI asks questions that demonstrate an applicant's drive and motivation. A few of his favorites are:
  • "Tell me about your biggest failure and what did you do to recover from it?"
  • "What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?"
  • "If you die tomorrow, what do you think people will say about you?"
"The goal is to hire people who have the potential to be leaders and eventually senior managers," says Impellizeri.

Les Vitale, a principle at Vitale, Caturano & Co., a Boston accounting firm, looks for people with similar qualifications. He says it usually takes an entire day of interviews to find those special attributes. He is looking for candidates with broad backgrounds, preferably with graduate degrees and prior work experience. Since most accounting jobs require a lot of client contact, the personality of the applicant is critical.

A few of Vitale's favorite questions are:
  • "Describe a difficult problem you had to solve with a team."
  • "Describe a process of identifying the problem and the solution."
As sophisticated as the new interviewing style seems, Fein and Mattson feel it is flawed. "This technique doesn't bring out the best in every job applicant," says Fein. "It can be very difficult for applicants who can't relate to this style, especially if they're uncomfortable describing themselves in terms of history or accomplishments."

Says Mattson, "Brilliant but shy people may not do well in a behavioral interview. This technique works best for convincing extroverts. Both company and applicants lose out."

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