Venus .v. Mars In The Interview Room

jobinterview

Could a gung-ho, risk-taking attitude at work be giving men a head start on the career-ladder? A look at how women with a cautious nature may be disadvantaged in the interview process.

I am reluctant to write about one particular issue for trainers: the differences between men and women. I have noticed that in many publications dealing with HR issues one step away from the Politically Correct line and the writer gets savaged (Training ZONE seems less guilty than most I must admit).

However it is this sense of saying the wrong thing that is becoming a real problem in training rooms. It’s not that we (trainers) deliberately try to discriminate – but mistakes happen. I’ve been castigated on a few occasions for not including a woman (or man) when I’ve split training sessions up for group work. There was a time when I was mortified and felt like such a sexist pig for failing to have the right mix. Luckily I’ve become far more comfortable admitting my mistakes.

So, what is this difference? It concerns interviewing and competition in the workplace. Interview training is something I’ve done a fair amount of and it never occurred to me that there could be potential problems for women. (“Why would you – being a man,” I hear.)

“When a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000, there were no women applicants. When the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35, 000, the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.”

There is always competition in the workplace: If people acknowledge this then it is overt competition and often healthy; If they fail to acknowledge this then it is covert competition and invariably destructive. Individuals will compete to be the most popular, the least popular, the most productive, the least productive etc.

A psychologically interesting example of a potential problem occurred recently when a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 per annum. There were no women applicants. However, when the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35,000 per annum the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.

On a more day-to-day level I’ve started thinking about interviewing. There are some differences between men and women. (My disclaimer here – I know this doesn’t apply to everyone and people shouldn’t make assumptions, etc. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing – it’s just a thing.)

Men tend to be more aggressive and in a workplace situation this often shows itself as taking more risks than women. This has been established through a number of recent studies. Women tend to choose high probability, low payoff strategies. Men will often rush to a high-risk solution and take a chance in a ‘do or die’ gesture. The implications of this behaviour in assessments may well imply to (more often than not, predominately male) interviewers that the female lacks confidence or competence.

In a recent study Fisher and Cox argue that this could well be the underlying reason women, on average, take longer to respond to questions. This can often indicate to interviewers a degree of indecisiveness. In fact they may well need to weigh up all the options. This will be compounded by the fact that women are generally less likely to take guesses than men. Under pressure, perhaps at an interview or in an assessment, men would be more inclined to have a stab at an answer. Women would tend to want to consider the situation and assess the risks. In a real work environment one would suppose these virtues of balance and control would be ideal. In the artificial assessment situation however this failure to respond quickly is often taken as an indicator of lack of confidence.

There is a lot more data behind this and numerous other factors. I feel it is, at the least, interesting and at worse, possibly discriminatory. It’s an area we, certainly I, have never considered before when training interviewees, or interviewees. Maybe I should.

* Reference: Fisher, M., and A. Cox, Gender and programming contests: Mitigating exclusionary practices, Informatics in Education (2006)

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Why Women Aren’t As Successful As Men At Interviews Yet In The Future Will Probably Take The Majority Of The Seats At The WSOP Main Event Final Table

SOME FACTS

  • The female brain develops at a different rate to the male brain;
  • The corpus callosum is “the caring membrane in the brain”.
  • Girls’ CC is three times larger than boys’.
  • Boys frequently cannot demonstrate empathy unless it is related to a physical action.
  • Every report into education standards seems to reach the conclusion that girls consistently out-perform boys at school;
  • Girls tend to be more flexible in their approach to learning and adapt to different learning styles. Boys tend to prefer activities.
  • One report suggests that girls have more ‘sensory capacities and biosocial aptitudes to decipher exactly what teachers want’ – they are better at understanding people.
  • Boys tend to learn by doing. Girls tend to learn by thinking
  • When given a sheet of blank paper most girls draw animals, flowers, people. Boys tend to draw an action scene.
  • Observations show that when completing a jigsaw puzzle girls tend to ask for help three times as much as boys will.
  • In terms of competitiveness on equal terms, women tend to compete as aggressively as males – however there seems to be a psychological ‘brake’ on women competing due to societal upbringing – “ little girls –seen not heard”
  • The basic concept of problem solving is different from men and women; men tend to adapt a high risk high payoff strategy over a low-risk, low-payoff strategy adapted by women. So men will rush toward a ‘close enough’ solution, women like to conceptualise a solution then implement it
  • Some of the differences in problem solving is cultural as males tend to be admired for the ‘good enough’ approach

INTERVIEWING

Research shows that men are more successful than women at interviews as these traits continue in later life.

The more measured, considered approach preferred by women is frequently regarded as being weak and indecisive at interviews. Aggressiveness and risk taking is rewarded at interviews and often seen as being decisive and confident. This is often assessed by interviewers as the amount of time taken to answer questions at interview. Females tend to want to weigh up all the options whereas men seem happier to go with the likeliest. Women are less inclined to take guesses than men.

However in the work environment this gung-ho approach is seen less favourably. The female considered approach – longer thinking time, low risk, approach is favoured over the male instant decision, high risk approach. In many instances the male ‘do or die’ attitude is soon regarded as a negative trait.

However, these female traits would seem to have huge potential in the workplace; the benefits of achieving the task cooperatively would result in more motivated staff, more ownership of the work amongst the team, less task demarcation, etc… Also the targets are far more likely to be met as there are more people focused on achieving the result.

Women learn quicker and more effectively – because of their approach to learning. They learn by learning in a certain way – better – more considered. They learn more effectively when they are supported, have role models, are allowed to develop a make mistakes in a ‘safe’ environment.

Once they have learnt they are more likely to want to learn more than men.   Men tend to adopt a ‘need to know’ approach to learning.

Women entrepreneurs are financially more conservative, emphasizing profitability and profit over rapid growth, and their management policies seek to minimise work-family conflicts. Women’s businesses tend to grow more slowly than men’s, incur less debt and higher quality.

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions.” – The End of Men, Hanna Rosin

POKER

Unsurprisingly these same traits appear on the poker table, or the poker screen. Many men are very successful initially with the high risk, decisive approach. This is taken as a sign of strength, confidence and competence.

Women tend to want to take longer and initially this will appear as a weakness. It may contribute to the fact that this trait is seen as indecisiveness makes other players regard this as a weakness and play even more aggressively toward them.

It has long been established that in general women tend to be more co-operative that men. However looking deeper at the research it shows that women are more likely to compete where they believe they can succeed. It’s a phenomenon known as the cheetah complex. The cheetah cannot afford to expend energy chasing its food if there is not much probability of catching it. It therefore chooses it’s times of action extremely carefully and will only commit to the chase if the odds are heavily stacked in its’ favour. In some regard women regard competition in that light,

Female are far more likely to engage in competitive activities where the environment does not inherently disadvantage women, female are more likely to be successful. This would pretty much sums up the real, or perceived, growth in online gaming. This would appear to be a major reason for the steady growth and success of women over the past decade or so.

As men and women develop their poker skills they tend to be more aware of their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses and adapt their game accordingly. This element of learning is critical in the development of top poker players.

Men, in general, seem more comfortable learning in a challenging environment. They tend to be less concerned about taking a new approach and losing. Women are far less comfortable with this and tend to want to build their learning slowly and steadily in a safe environment. The advent of the internet appears perfect. Woman can learn skills anonymously without the stress and strain of failure having a big impact.

The area of development they seem to need to push them to the next level comes from the socialisation and developing the relationships they need. This is the stage many females seem trapped in, the step from online playing to face to face playing.  The environment is now no longer felt to be safe and a number of talented players will retreat to the safety of the computer.

One approach has been women only tournaments. This allows women to take the step from internet to tournament play in a safer environment and seems to be a sensible approach.

THE FUTURE

In an article in ‘The Atlantic’ last year, ‘The End of Men’ – Hanna Rosin looks at the cultural balance between men and women and the role they have in the future. The female traits of empathy, developing relationships, producing more workable solutions seem to be what businesses want and need these days. The concluding paragraph;

“Innovative, successful firms are the ones that promote women. The same Columbia-Maryland study ranked America’s industries by the proportion of firms that employed female executives, and the bottom of the list reads like the ghosts of the economy past: shipbuilding, real estate, coal, steelworks, machinery.“ –

It seems inevitable, to Hanna Rosin, that the future at the very top of businesses around the world, will be led by females. The skills and talents required have moved over the past few decades from the physical to the cerebral. The focus has changed from processes and control to creativity and people.

The poker world is no different.  At the very top level where everyone knows the rules, the odds, the techniques it’s not about aggression or experience. It’s about instinct and reading people. Traits women seem to have more than men.

* NOTE

In general this is what the evidence tells us.  It’s not every man and every woman – it’s nothing you can point to an individual and say – “this is how you are”. It’s a generalisation based on evidence. Evidence as a percentage – a majority – a best guess. There are many, many men and women who will not fall into the broad categories outlined below. I know this. You really don’t need to point this out to me.

 

2 short articles on interviewing

of course I love you

1. Interviewing – First Love

“Not surprisingly, interview specialists have found it extraordinarily difficult to persuade most employers to adopt the structured interview. It just doesn’t feel right. For most of us, hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date. We are looking for someone with whom we have certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. The structured interview, by contrast, seems to offer only the dry logic and practicality of an arranged marriage. “ – Malcolm Gladwell (‘The New-Boy Network’)

*****

2. Interviewing – First Contact

Log on to the internet and google “interview” and “first impressions” and you will come up with over a million matches. The vast, vast, vast majority of the results are practically identical. To save time I’ll précis this information for you;

“Turn up at the right address, on time. Wear clothes. Don’t be late. Bring a firm handshake. Don’t kill any of the interviewers and smile.”

Paradoxically when interviewers are being trained there is almost as much advice telling them to ignore first impressions. It goes by a range of names; self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotyping, horns and halo effect (of which more later), interview-enhancing behaviour, etc. yet they all amount to more or less the same thing. This is the basic advice that has been handed down by interviewer trainer to interview consultant to interviewing facilitator from generation to generation and pretty much consists of the following;

Research indicates that interviewers decide which interviewee will get the job within the first X minutes and then spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial analysis; i.e. if they like the candidate they ask easy questions and treat the responses more favourably. Or, if they take a dislike to the candidate they will ask difficult questions and look less favourably on their answers. As interviewers you must fight against this, and remain totally objective.

(The value of X is any possible single integer – depending on age, laziness, of trainer.)

 

The Interview and the job – a 4 part series

First appeared in ‘Career Times’ (Hong Kong.)

In a short series of articles I’ll take you through some of the techniques and skills required to interview, be interviewed and handle that first day in a new post once you’ve passed the interview.

The first part looks at a technique used to give some structure to the interview and some………….

1. THE BEHAVIOURAL INTERVIEWING APPROACH

Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

Alternative approach – stress

“The stress interview sorts the wheat from the chaff. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with.

A friend of mine was once asked how he would deal with someone who had raped his sister. This was for a job at the bank. The idea, I believe was to try and establish how he would react under stress.

He replied; “Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room.

Focus on the job. Ask questions about the work people are likely to be doing. Don’t ask hypothetical questions or you’ll get hypothetical answers

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview then do it properly. Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;

“Neither”

“Neither – then they’d both die?”

“Good”

“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

No trick questions. Focus on the skills necessary to carry out the post. Be honest with people and show them respect- the interview is about them, not you

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

Match the skills for the job with the skills the interviewee has

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates.

Approach the task strategically from day one. Focus on the skills required for the job and gear everything towards that

It’s as simple as that. It seems so easy it almost feels like cheating I know. Once you’ve established this system though the real skill comes in the interviewing – translating what they say to match with the job. More on that next time……..

*****.

In the last article I looked at the basic structure for the behavioural interviewing approach. If you recall the main premise of this was that the best predictor of future performance was past behaviour. I.e. if you’ve demonstrated proven management skills in the past the chances are you will be able to perform at that level in the next job. It sounds easy however life has a way of making things complicated. Which is why you need….

2. BEHAVIOURAL INTERVIEWING SKILLS

Preparation

The first part, unsurprisingly, is all about preparation. It’s such a management cliché that preparation is everything. It’s not – you have to have skills as well, as I’ll deal with later – but preparation certainly makes the job a great deal easier.

The relationship between board members is vital.

One aspect of the preparation that doesn’t get enough attention is the relationship between board members. In many Organisations it’s felt that you can put any three experienced people on an interview panel and it will automatically work. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that; people are a bit like me and you – we’re odd – we have likes, dislikes, and different ways of working, different styles. Board members do not, necessarily have to like each other, although this does help. What is important however is that they all have the same focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. They mustn’t be in the game of scoring points, showing off, proving how clever they are or any of that egoistically nonsense. We’ve all seen that and it doesn’t help anyone. The first interview I was ever involved in was conducted with a senior manager who had to a ninety second preamble to each question explaining, well basically, how experienced an clever he was. He annoyed me, the chair and every candidate – yet as he had ‘always’ interviewed trainee managers no-one had the skill / intelligence / courage to tell him.

Agree a system

An important role of the board team is to agree on a system of questioning. They need to divide the competence areas they are looking at and take responsibility for assessing their particular area. This part is usually straightforward. There is another – less straightforward aspect which is concerned with how board members work with each other.

Agree how you’ll work together

The board members should agree a set of values. These values are rarely spoken but seem to evolve as the interviewing process evolves. The values should be aligned to the focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. In real terms this means a great deal of trust and respect between board members. It means that there is an implicit agreement that one interviewer can use the majority of the time allocated to deal with one particular area because they feel it’s vital. It means that one interviewer can (skilfully) interrupt another interviewer if they feel the question hasn’t been dealt with clearly, or there is still some ambiguity. This requires a mature approach and real honest discussion between board members. As you know this doesn’t always happen. I’ve sat on boards where people have sulked for hours because they believed another member had “stolen” all their questions.

The interview

As I say if you’ve carried out all the preparation the interview is a lot easier – but still incredibly difficult.

There is a great many theories around about first impressions. They vary in the amount of time people make a decision (somewhere between 10 seconds and 3 minutes, seems to be accepted) but this is important. Studies concerned with interview suggest that interviewers frequently decide very early on if a candidate is suitable or not and spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial impression. This is a danger to be aware of. Another potential danger is for the interviewer to choose the candidate who’s most like them. Being aware of this helps reduce the risk of this, as does having different personalities on the board.

The key aspects to behavioural interviewing however are asking the right questions and listening to the replies.

Throughout the interview the interviewers has to get as much evidence as they can about the candidate’s previous experience. Let’s look at a vital aspect- listening. You have to concentrate so intently – you’ll feel absolutely worn out at the end of each day.

The reason you’re so tired is the listening. This listening really takes it out of you. It is hard to listen – especially in an interview. Lots of things can get in the way; disagreeing for example – an interview isn’t really an occasion to have a debate with the candidate about your preferred method of approaching some controversial issue – You’re there to evaluate their approach, how they communicate, how they meet the criteria, etc.. So unless they say something so radically off the wall then try not to let it get in the way.

Thinking will also stop you listening. I don’t mean the sensible thinking about what’s being said and assessing the candidate – I’m more concerned with the thinking as you look out of the window and wonder” I wonder what time I’ll be home tonight”, or, especially for newer interviewers, thinking about the next question. Anticipating where they’re going with the answer will get in the way too.

What helps the listening process immensely is being able to totally focus on the interviewee and give them your full attention. Paraphrasing and summarising will help with this. It allows you to control the interview and once it becomes automatic for you it allows you time to think about that next question.

Paraphrasing is just about repeating the essence of what the interviewer has said in your own words. As you do this it highlights any gaps. You can then ask to fill in those gaps.

On vital aspect is to look at the other person as much as you sensibly, can. Look for the discrepancy between what they are saying and their body language. A lot has been written about body language but for me it boils down to the words matching the body. Sometimes you just know when these don’t match. The truly skilled interviewers learn to acknowledge this inconsistency and check it out. It may not be true – there may well be a great reason they’re folding their arms in a ‘defensive’ manner – they may just be cold. Don’t ignore these signals

*****

3. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE

Last time we looked at some of the skills needed when interviewing. This time we’ll put you on the other side of the table. These are some of the things you need to think about when you want to land that big job.

Getting experience of interviewing other people is a great asset here. The more you interview the easier it is to be interviewed. You know what people want and you can concentrate on trying to give them exactly what they need.

There are some practical measures you can take that should help;

Investigate

Firstly find out as much as you possibly can about the job. Find out about the Organisation you’re going to work for (if it is a move outside your current post). Find out about the people who will be interviewing you. If it’s an internal promotion this will be easier. Nevertheless find out as much as you can about them – what are their particular pet projects at the moment. There’s no guarantee this will crop up at the interview but it certainly won’t do you any harm to find out that one of the people interviewing you is working on a project concerning pensions. You may well start looking at pensions in a bit more detail.

Study the paperwork

Look carefully at all the paperwork. When you submit a CV or application form keep a copy of that. Keep a copy of the job description and any other paperwork related to it. You know that the people interviewing you only have this information about you. So, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself “If I were reading this what questions would I ask?” Where are the gaps? What are the strengths? What stands out on the form? If you’ve worked for a year in a betting office in England (as I did) you know they are going to ask about that so be prepared. Be sure that you know your application form or CV inside out and can explain anything you’ve written down. Work through it line by line if necessary and think of one example to back up each quality you describe. If you’ve said that you’re a sensitive manager but focused on getting results then show it. Think of an example where you’ve had to demonstrate your sensitivity. Prepare for someone asking that question. Also think of an example when you’ve had to focus on results. It’s what you would do if you were interviewing isn’t it? – look for evidence to back up the paperwork. Give the interviewers what they want. In most companies people are looking for good candidates they can trust to do a good job. Interview boards rarely look ‘off the wall’ radical thinking individuals – there are exceptions of course – they tend to come up with a group decision that is frequently very conservative. This “groupthink” can be very dangerous in that all members of a group will tend to look for a unanimous decision on candidates rather than taking a chance. As the person being interviewed you need to be aware of this and ‘safe and controlled’ seems to be the best approach.

You will know all the basic practical details – arrive on time, dress appropriately, etc. so let’s look at some ‘advanced’ scenarios.

A new theory for preparation

There is an interesting theory going around about preparing yourself mentally for interviews or examinations. The theory states that you should prepare for the interview at the same time of the day for several days in advance. The theory being that your body becomes accustomed to ‘turning on’ at that particular time. I’ve yet to see some evidence of the success or otherwise, but it’s certainly an interesting theory. Try it.

Surprises

However, even prepared yourself as well as you can, will still give you the odd surprise. Recent trends in progressive Organisations go beyond the standard skills, behavioural techniques I’ve described. Yes, you’ve still got to get past this aspect but (and I suspect it’s linked to the ‘groupthink’ scenarios organisations are increasingly looking for something new to challenge you at an interview.

This could be an ‘off-the-wall’ question along the lines of “What is your philosophy of life?” The idea is for you to demonstrate how well you think on your feet.

So what do you do? The first think you do is to take a deep breathe and don’t panic. You can even acknowledge that that has taken you by surprise, if it has. Take a few seconds to consider your answer then answer the question as honestly as you can.

Be yourself

Another technique is to take the candidate to lunch to see how they interact with others in a social setting. You can’t really prepare for the unexpected. All you can do is to expect the unexpected and to deal with each situation as honestly and authentically as you can. Candidates often try to give the interviewers the answers they think the interviewers want to hear. More often than not interviewers want to hear about the candidates’ beliefs and opinions. At the end of the day it’s surely better to fail an interview by being yourself that to fail it because you were trying to be someone else.

Next time we’ll assume you’ve got the position and then the real test comes – meeting your new team, colleagues for the first time…..

*****

4. YOUR FIRST DAY IN YOUR NEW JOB

You’ve got through the interview after great preparation, watching out for those surprises and being honest. So now you’ve landed the job. Maybe it’s your first managerial job and you’ve finally got real-life problems (or people as we call them) to deal with. You’ve got staff. They’re older than you. They’re wiser than you. They know far more about the Organisation than you. They may even be resentful that someone as young as you have landed the job they wanted. But you want to do a good job, so you’ll learn.

Preparation

The learning comes well before the first day – before the interview even. You’ve prepared for the interview, learnt a lot about the Organisation now you’ve got the job. So, you learn even more. If you’re new to the Organisation it’s more difficult, in some ways. It’s more difficult to find out about individuals – who you’re working for, with and against but on the other hand you can approach it with an open mind. If you’re from outside or inside find out as much as you can. Find out as much as you can about the culture, the customers, the employees. Find out about your team – personalities, problems, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses. Ask fellow managers. I know the information will be second hand. Treat it as that. You’ll have your own opinions in a few weeks anyway. Use it for what it is – other peoples’ perceptions.

Identify the key people

Try to find out who the real key players are. I don’t mean the people who look as though they have the power from Organisation charts I mean the real key players. Many years ago I was training to be a teacher. The best advice I ever had was from the final lecture. The lecturer, a world-wise owl, asked us;

“Who do you think is the most important person in a school?”

“The headmaster or headmistress”, we sang in unison.

“Not usually”, he answered “The key people are often the caretakers. They have a lot of power and control. So do secretaries and deputy head teachers. Keep on the good side of these” were his final words of advice.”

In an office it’s frequently Personal Assistants. Keep on the right side of these and you find you’ll be able to get that quick meeting with the bosses that others can’t.

Be honest

Think carefully about what you want from the job. Spend some time thinking about you. What do you want from this experience? What’s your vision for the next six months, two years, ten years? Get it clear in your own mind. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests that the clearer it is to you the more likely it is to happen. If you don’t know where you’re going how on earth do you expect your team to know?

People will be looking to you to set the standard. If you spend three hours in work a day surfing the ‘net you’ll have serious credibility issues reprimanding someone for doing the same. During your first few months in the post you’ve got to display zero-tolerance. If someone breaks the rules you need to address it. You cannot let things go. Your staff will test you, and look to see how far they can push you. Not in any malicious way (hopefully) but because they’re human and so are you and they need to learn about you – your style, your values.

Symbolic gestures

This is also a great time for making symbolic gestures. These needn’t be huge, life changing decisions but people will be looking to you to do something – that’s why you were hired. As a newcomer it is perfect for you to spot things. You can, and must ask those naive questions such as “Why do you do that like that?” and listen to the answers. If the answers are “We’ve always done it this way” then this is a great chance for you to change it – if it could be done better. The early decisions you make will have an enormous effect on your reputation for a long time. Be aware of this and use the first few weeks, months carefully.

Get the balance right

However painful it may be you, you are the boss. You make that final decision. It’s especially difficult if you’ve been promoted from within the team and have to manage colleagues but… well that’s the job. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t socialise with your staff. There is a school of thought that feels it’s not the done think to socialise with your staff. I’ve known some of these people and as soon as they were promoted they stopped socialising with people they had socialised with for years. The reasons given were along the lines of;”I don’t want to get close in case I have to discipline them”. I sometimes wonder if these people make their children eat in a separate room at home for the same reason. Get the balance right.

It’s all about people

The quality of the work the team produces is directly related to the quality of the relationships within that team. As the leader you are responsible for this happening. How? By doing everything you need to. People are different – get to know what makes them tick. You do this by talking and listening – a lot of listening. Talk to your people everyday. Every morning talk to a good number, if not all of them. Listen when they tell you about their kids, their cats, their football team. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, well that’s unfortunate. This is a skill you need to learn. It’s as much a part of your job as managing the finances.

Venus and Mars in the interview room

First appeared in ‘Training Zone’ (U.K.)

Could a gung-ho, risk-taking attitude at work be giving men a head start on the career-ladder? A look at how women with a cautious nature may be disadvantaged in the interview process.

I am reluctant to write about one particular issue for trainers: the differences between men and women. I have noticed that in many publications dealing with HR issues one step away from the Politically Correct line and the writer gets savaged (Training ZONE seems less guilty than most I must admit).

However it is this sense of saying the wrong thing that is becoming a real problem in training rooms. It’s not that we (trainers) deliberately try to discriminate – but mistakes happen. I’ve been castigated on a few occasions for not including a woman (or man) when I’ve split training sessions up for group work. There was a time when I was mortified and felt like such a sexist pig for failing to have the right mix. Luckily I’ve become far more comfortable admitting my mistakes.

So, what is this difference? It concerns interviewing and competition in the workplace. Interview training is something I’ve done a fair amount of and it never occurred to me that there could be potential problems for women. (“Why would you – being a man,” I hear.)

“When a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000, there were no women applicants. When the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35, 000, the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.”

There is always competition in the workplace: If people acknowledge this then it is overt competition and often healthy; If they fail to acknowledge this then it is covert competition and invariably destructive. Individuals will compete to be the most popular, the least popular, the most productive, the least productive etc.

A psychologically interesting example of a potential problem occurred recently when a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 per annum. There were no women applicants. However, when the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35,000 per annum the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.

On a more day-to-day level I’ve started thinking about interviewing. There are some differences between men and women. (My disclaimer here – I know this doesn’t apply to everyone and people shouldn’t make assumptions, etc. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing – it’s just a thing.)

Men tend to be more aggressive and in a workplace situation this often shows itself as taking more risks than women. This has been established through a number of recent studies. Women tend to choose high probability, low payoff strategies. Men will often rush to a high-risk solution and take a chance in a ‘do or die’ gesture. The implications of this behaviour in assessments may well imply to (more often than not, predominately male) interviewers that the female lacks confidence or competence.

In a recent study Fisher and Cox argue that this could well be the underlying reason women, on average, take longer to respond to questions. This can often indicate to interviewers a degree of indecisiveness. In fact they may well need to weigh up all the options. This will be compounded by the fact that women are generally less likely to take guesses than men. Under pressure, perhaps at an interview or in an assessment, men would be more inclined to have a stab at an answer. Women would tend to want to consider the situation and assess the risks. In a real work environment one would suppose these virtues of balance and control would be ideal. In the artificial assessment situation however this failure to respond quickly is often taken as an indicator of lack of confidence.

There is a lot more data behind this and numerous other factors. I feel it is, at the least, interesting and at worse, possibly discriminatory. It’s an area we, certainly I, have never considered before when training interviewees, or interviewees. Maybe I should.

* Reference: Fisher, M., and A. Cox, Gender and programming contests: Mitigating exclusionary practices, Informatics in Education (2006)

Would I Really Want This Person To Work For Me?

First appeared in ‘Manager N.Z.’ (N.Z.)

Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

“The stress interview sorts the men out from the boys. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with. There’s a story a friend tells of his stress interview with a major bank.

“What if you had to deal with someone who had raped your sister!” screamed the first interviewer.

“But I haven’t got a sister.”

“Hypothetically” came the retort.

“Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room. Unless the job does involve being shouted at in an interview room – maybe the interviewer was rehearsing a hostage situation? – No it doesn’t work does it? If you want to find out how people perform under stress at work a great line of questioning might be “Can you give me an example of a stressful situation you’ve been involved in at work? Tell me what happened? What did you do?”

Another alternative is the ‘good cop / bad cop’ interview – which is truly bizarre. A person you may have know for the past twenty years turns into Torquemada for twenty-five minutes. What does this interview prove? You tell me. I have no idea unless it’s a spin on the stress interview. I detest it when interviewers put on their “I’m a real interviewer” head and refuse to be themselves, laugh or even smile. I know it’s a serious business but come on….

There’s the casual interview. “Hi – just a chat. Let’s get a coffee and sit over there.” pointing at two strategically placed chairs – set at the prescribed ninety degrees to each other, no armrest, low coffee table. There are benefits to this. I like it when that tone is right, both are relaxed and there’s genuine information being passed between each other. Unfortunately most candidates dislike it intensely. It’s an interview; it’s for a new job, a better job. They want some formality not a chat with a senior executive in immaculately ironed black jeans.

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview (and I’m not convinced this is the best approach in ninety percent of cases) then do it properly. .

Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;

“Neither”

“Neither – then they’d both die?”

“Good”

“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates. Don’t have a list of questions. This can be staid, ridiculous and downright embarrassing. I was once asked if I knew the “Seven layers of OSI” (it was a buzzword to do with computers at the time).

“I’m sorry Mr Barry but I know nothing about OSI”.

He looked at me. He looked back at his notes “What’s the first layer?”

“I’m really sorry Eric but I honestly have no idea.”

He didn’t even look up “The second layer?”….

Decide who will ask questions about each of the skills required – teamworking maybe or management skills. Then explore those areas, look for examples, ask follow up questions, listen, listen, listen. Don’t show off. Let the interviewee guide you. The examples can come from anywhere as long as they meet the requirements. I once interviewed someone for a managerial post – ideally qualified but could supply no evidence of organisational skills.

“Never get the chance to do it in my job – just get given a set of tasks.”

“In your previous job?”

“No I’m afraid not.”

“Outside work?” I asked desperately.

“Not really, ” he said, “Most of my time is taken up with football.”

“Oh ” I asked – he looked more like Pavarotti that Pele.

“Yes – I’m secretary of the Boys’ teams”.

It transpired that he had to deal with twelve teams of various ages, arrange the fixtures, referees, pitches, kits, corner flags…. No organisational skills indeed!

It’s as simple as that. Then at the end watch out for that final question. Candidates can be too relaxed. They’ve seen the finishing line and anything can happen. Ask something open. Ask if they would like to reconsider some answer they’ve given maybe. Ask if they’ve anything to add. You never know it could bring results. There was a candidate doing reasonably well until that last question. “I’m glad you didn’t ask me anything about equal opportunities”. He started to dig the hole.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well I couldn’t never work for a woman again.” he kept digging. “I worked for one once but, you know, they’re different aren’t they. No, never again”.

“Interesting. Would you like to tell us a little more?……..”

How to Catch an Employer

First appeared in ‘The Guardian’ (U.K.)

To land a fish, start thinking like one – six tips for interviewees

There are a number of rules to the ‘interviewing game’. What makes it different to other games is that most of these commandments aren’t written down anywhere. But the best piece of wisdom I can give you is “Think like a fish”- the sage advice handed to a colleague of mine by his granddad, along with his first rod and reel. If you want to catch a fish, you need to think like a fish, study the currents, shade and wind. And ask yourself, if you were a fish, where would you swim?

1. Test the water

Find out as much as you can (legally) about the organisation you’ve applied to join and the people who will be interviewing you. What’s happening in the organisation at present? Check its website, look in newspapers and relevant trade magazines, talk to people who’ve worked for or with the organisation.

As for the interview panel members – what can you find out about them? Which department do they work in? What interests do they have? You’ll get a much better feel for the conditions in the ‘water’ this way. There’s no guarantee that because someone on the panel works in IT that they’ll ask you questions about the company’s website. But if it were you, it’d be at the front of your mind, wouldn’t it?

2. Swim with the fishes

See the interview from the fish’s perspective. The paperwork the interviewers will have in front of them consists principally of the ad for the job and your application form. You need to know both these documents inside-out. Look again at your application form. What stands out? What are your strengths, weaknesses? Is there anything on the form that looks slightly odd? For instance, have you had an unusual job at some time? If you’ve been orange picking in the Andes for three months one summer, can you explain why?

3. Baiting and luring

Give the job ad another thorough examination and any other information about the role that you’ve been sent. What are the criteria or skills that the interview panel is looking for? Sit down and write at least one example of how and when you’ve met each skill or competence required. It’s so much more impressive to answer a question fully. For example, say they ask: “So tell me about your communication skills?” A good reply? “Well, I believe I’m an effective communicator. An example of this was when I worked in a call centre for eight weeks in the summer and I had to deal with a number of difficult situations. For instance, once…”

Spend a great deal of time thinking of evidence you can bring to the panel that will show you meet the criteria. It will do wonders for your confidence. Interview panels don’t want to take chances. They want to make risk-free judgements. They want solid performers, and the more evidence you bring to the table, the safer the panel will feel. They want people with ideas, of course – but more importantly, they want people with a record of turning those ideas into action.

4. Take me to the river

Do a ‘reccy’ of the interview location before hand. You don’t want to be worrying about parking spaces, train problems or where the office is on the day of your interview.

Do a dry run. Arrive for the interview on time. On time doesn’t meet ten minutes late, nor does it mean 45 minutes early. If you’re too early either the overworked secretary will feel obliged to amuse you for three-quarters of an hour or you’ll have to sit in a lonely room imagining the worst and desperately wanting to go to the toilet. You will be stressed and feel that you need to go to the toilet. So go. Then when they call your name and you think you need to go again, you can reassure yourself that it’s just nerves.

5. Go with the flow

At the interview, be yourself. Don’t turn into Mr or Ms Serious Interview Person (unless that’s who you really are). You’ve got the interview because of who you are – don’t try to be someone different now.

6. Reel ’em in

As the interview approaches its climax – be careful. You have two options.

If at the start you were so nervous that you talked of your experience at Microsoft but couldn’t remember who Bill Gates was, explain that now along with any other factual inaccuracies – but nothing else. Alternatively a simple “Thank you very much” and “Goodbye” will suffice.

The panel is already thinking about the next candidate, so walk out, close the door – and stop thinking like a fish.