HR Secrets to Acing Your Job Interview

HR is not the enemy

Unless you're a human resources professional, you probably don't know much about the job interview process. While we've all been on the other side of the table, many of us fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the interview, says Charles Purdy, senior editor for

"One common misunderstanding is that the recruiter or hiring manager is the enemy," says Purdy. "This mindset really colors the interview in a negative way that can prevent you from getting hired. An interviewer's goal is to put the right person into the job; this makes him or her your partner in the hiring process, not your adversary."

Candidates often overlook the fact that the process is designed to test compatibility as much as competency.

"Recruiters and hiring managers use interviews not only to learn more about your background and qualifications, but also to assess your soft skills," Purdy says. "(They're looking for) your ability to think on your feet, how you present yourself and whether you would be a good cultural fit."

The key to performing well, says Purdy, is to put your best professional foot forward. But as with anything career-related, there are a lot of things you can do to improve. So we asked several human resources, or HR, veterans to give us their best advice on navigating the interview process.

The phone interview

Whether it's an interview or a screening, a candidate's first contact with an employer is usually over the phone.

"Typically, it's HR. And while they probably aren't the hiring manager, it's still critical because if you can't get past the phone, you won't get the job," says Mary Greenwood, HR veteran and author of "How to Interview Like a Pro."

The initial call is about verifying the applicant's skills and resume, says Greenwood. It's also an opportunity for the applicant to start making the case for why he or she should be hired -- and for both parties to see if it's a mutual match.

Tips for the phone interview:

Prepare by rereading your resume and the job description. Have both documents ready for the call. Take the call in a quiet place. If you're using a cellphone, make sure it's charged and your signal is strong.    Find out who you'll be speaking with, and check his or her LinkedIn account.

Be prepared to answer the question you least want to address. For most applicants it is: "Why did you leave your last job?"

Stand up and smile. Even though they can't see you, your body language will affect your tone.    Always ask a question about the company. It shows interest.    Make sure you get an idea of the company's timeline going forward before you get off the phone.

Virtual interviews

While most people work at traditional companies, there's been a steady rise in recent years toward virtual work, and it isn't just limited to the tech sector.

"It's a trend we see across all industries because almost anything that is a service or a back-office function can be done virtually and for less money," says Shilonda Downing, owner of Virtual Work Team LLC, a Homewood, Ill., human resources recruiter and staffing firm.

Virtual employers routinely use the phone and Skype to conduct interviews. But, says Downing, even brick-and-mortar firms are turning to video conferencing to save money.

"The same basic rules apply in terms of how the candidate should conduct themselves in a virtual interview," says Downing. "Some candidates don't take virtual interviews as seriously as they should. After all, the job they want is on the line. You may be at home, but you really need to make a professional impression."

Tips for a virtual interview:

Log on to the video chat a few minutes early, and make sure your headset or microphone is working.    Make sure your Skype account has a professional username.

Dress appropriately. Once you get the job, you may be able to dress how you like, but Downing says to treat a virtual interview like a face-to-face meeting.

Present a professional environment. Candidates should make sure there's nothing distracting or unprofessional in the background, and that peripheral noise is kept at a minimum.

Don't multitask during the interview. Recruiters can tell if your attention is elsewhere.

First round

Only a small fraction of applicants make it to an in-person interview, says Amanda Haddaway, author of "Interviewer Success: Become a great interviewer in less than one hour" and director of HR and marketing at Folcomer Equipment Corp.

"Interviewing is a challenge for a lot of people, even if they aren't introverts," says Haddaway. "But it's definitely a skill that can be learned."

Most interviews follow a fairly predictable outline, says Haddaway, who points out that a majority of interviewers use some form of the behavioral interviewing technique known as the STAR approach.

"STAR stands for situation or task, action you took and results you achieved," says Haddaway. "A lot of the questions about your skills and experience are going to require you to explain a previous work situation and how you performed." Tips for the first in-person interview:

Make sure your answers are consistent with what you said in your phone interview and what's on your resume.

Interviewers often ask about your strengths and weaknesses. Many people have an answer to the former but don't prepare the latter.

Don't slam your previous boss or company. Instead, point out past challenges in a professional way and explain how you overcame them.    Research the company. Haddaway says candidates who have done their homework generally come off as more confident and better prepared.

Practice with mock interviews. Many communities and professional organizations offer free resources to help job seekers hone their skills. But asking a friend to walk you through

Additional rounds

Depending on the industry or company, it may be common for a handful of applicants to return for additional rounds of interviews. It's about homing in on whether the applicant and the company are a good fit, says Maisha Cannon, a Los Angeles HR consultant who's recruited for multiple industries.

"If you're asked to come back, you're likely going to meet with someone higher up who you probably won't work with on a daily basis," says Cannon. "It's really a question of figuring out if your style matches the corporate culture." This is also the time to make sure the company is a right fit for you, too. Tips for follow-up interviews:

Talk to everyone you can. "I'd even chat with the receptionist while you're waiting," says Cannon. "It's a great way to figure out what kind of people you'll be working with."

Ask about the corporate culture. Questions about management style and the qualities the company is looking for aren't out of bounds. In fact, they show that you're a serious candidate. Usually, says Cannon, you can expect honest answers.

    Ask about your predecessor. "If the last few people who had the position were fired, that's a red flag," says Cannon. "If they've been promoted, you know you have a career opportunity."

Good etiquette can make a big difference

Proper etiquette in a job interview can make or break whether an applicant makes it to the next round.

HR veteran Jodi R. R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith in Boston and author of "The Etiquette Book," says candidates exhibiting professionalism greatly improve their chances of getting hired.

One question Smith gets a lot is whether applicants should send thank-you notes after an interview. While it may seem old-fashioned, Smith says the answer is always the same, no matter the industry.

"If you want the job, then send a thank-you note," Smith says, adding that even if it's not common in the industry, doing so will set you apart from the pack.

Tips for proper etiquette:

Dress up for the interview. Even if it's a casual office, Smith says to dress one or two levels above what you'd ordinarily wear to work if you got the job.    Send thank-you notes to everyone you meet with -- no exceptions.    If a panel is interviewing you, direct your answer to the person who asked while periodically making eye contact with everyone else in the room.    Follow up politely. It's a good idea to ask the recruiter about their timeline, and it's OK to reach out if you haven't heard back by the specified time. But don't be the candidate who's calling constantly.

Talking about salary

Salary can be difficult topic for job seekers to discuss, however, HR professionals say strong candidates are ready to talk pay at any point in the process.

"The key," says Smith, "is to avoid getting locked into a specific number early on while still trying to make sure that your acceptable compensation range matches what the employer is prepared to pay for the job."

Tips when talking salary:

Always try to give a range when talking about salary. If it's hourly, you may only be able to go a few dollars either way. If it's salary, you don't want a range bigger than $10,000 either way.    Don't offer to take a huge pay cut if you find the employer's range is wildly different than yours. Be professional and accept that the job probably isn't a good fit.    Justify your number by pointing out specific elements of your experience.    Try to find out what the company and industry usually pay for the position you're seeking. While Internet research isn't perfect, a little digging can go a long way.