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From the April 29, 2005 print edition
Business Smarts and nail the execution

The interview dance
Master the moves, step on no toes

Lucy Webb
Staff writer

But I don't know how to do the Lindy Hop/Mashed Potato/Electric Slide/Achy Breaky. If I ask him to dance, do I look like a loser? What if my palms are sweaty? Can I call after? How soon? How do I know if she just likes me as a friend?

Is there anything scarier than trying to figure out how to behave at your first high school dance? Well, yes. Trying to figure out how to navigate the job hunt isn't really that different, except that your livelihood and what you'll do 40 or 50 hours a week depend on it. We've talked to some experts -- your job-hunting big brothers and sisters -- and we'll have you out on the floor with the popular kids in no time.

Remember, all those employers should be concerned with impressing you as much as you are with impressing them. And if they aren't nice to you, they aren't your real friends.

When can (or should) you start talking about money? Benefits?

We all know you're going to have this conversation eventually. The consensus seems to be: Wait.

Shelly Goldman, Reston-based co-author of "Insider's Guide To Finding A Job," says to wait until there's an offer made.

Clay Parcells, of Right Management, says to wait at least until you're actually talking to the hiring manager and have a good idea of what the job and company are like. But what if the employer brings it up first, before you're ready to talk?

Goldman and Parcells advocate basically the same strategy: Browse to find a reasonable salary range you'd be willing to consider. Then ask anyone who broaches the subject what the expected salary range for the job would be.

As long as some part of the salary range lines up with some part of what you're looking for, you're golden, and you can say: "I'd really rather not talk about money right now; I'd rather not weed myself out on the basis of salary. But what you're thinking is pretty much in line with what I'm looking for."

Can you ask for relocation expenses if they aren't offered? When?

Absolutely, you can. But again, wait until you know you want the job and you know they're offering it.

Think of it as another part of the benefits package. Barbara LaRock, a Reston career coach, says, "Discussion of money is called salary negotiation because these parts of a compensation package are all negotiable."

It's a good point. Generally, hiring managers have more room for negotiation than job hunters think. And, according to Goldman, you will never lose a job offer by asking for anything within reason.

What if you have ethical concerns about the company? About individuals who
interview you?

Robbie Miller Kaplan, the Vienna author of "How to Say It In Your Job Search," says it pretty simply: If you have ethical concerns about a company, "don't work for them."

It may happen, though, that when you've researched a company thoroughly and found it to be in line with your own values, one person might say something that strikes you as questionable. How you proceed from there will depend on several factors, including whether you have friends in the company, whether you'll be working directly with that person and exactly how questionable the behavior is.

If you can, ask around. Gently, cautiously, ask people who work, or have worked, there questions to continue to gauge the company. And if you get into a position where you can reasonably do so, bring up discrepancies and clarify them.

How can you handle borderline rude remarks (about yourself, about others in the new company, about mutual acquaintances)? Should you just take them in stride?

In line with Kaplan's "don't work for them" remark, be aware that anything not in line with what you consider acceptable is just a giant red flag.

Any company that has brought you in to interview should be putting its best foot forward, and if its best foot is unethical or rude, you do not want to see what happens when you're working with the whole corporate body.

But even beyond that, see the inappropriate remarks as an opportunity.

"We teach people how to treat us," Goldman says, and this is your chance to be kind and strong.

"Courageous conversations," as Parcells calls them, are easier said than done. Goldman agrees that it's a risk, but if you can keep your head about you, you will feel more comfortable with yourself later if you have been calmly brave. Weigh the realistic risks in your mind.

If your response terminates the interview, that may be just as well for you under these circumstances.

When they ask for a salary history, is it OK to give salary requirements, or nothing?

Again, if you're talking to a live person, this may be a good opportunity to launch into your, "What is the range?" routine. But if you're applying for a government job, Goldman says, you're just going to have to give up that information.

If you're responding to an ad or applying online, realize that they're looking for reasons to weed you out, and non-responses are such reasons, LaRock says.

Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and provide the information. But, Goldman says, even with an online form, in some cases you can enter a response like "I'd rather wait to talk about salary until I've talked more about the position," and the form will still go through.

What if you have a friend at the office? How much of the process should you share? If you aren't interested, how do you handle a friend who got you an interview?

Friends at the office can be a huge asset because they can fill you in on the company culture, warn you about quirks of individuals and introduce you to co-workers.

How much you share will depend on who your friend is, both in your life and in the company. If things don't work out, let the friend know as soon as you are sure and be appropriately grateful that the person hooked you up with the opportunity. Kaplan suggests lunch or a small gift, along with an offer of, "If there's anything I can do for you... ."

To whom, exactly, do you send thank-you notes? Everyone you talk with?

Um, yes.

Most of us have heard this advice over and over, and most job hunters don't do it.

Which means, if you do send them, you stand out.

Hand-write it if you can, although LaRock says typing is good if your handwriting isn't great. Everyone agrees that you should send a note to every person with whom you spoke. (Get business cards at the interview to be sure you have good contact information.)

"Each note should be somewhat different," Kaplan says, "and reflect a particular part of the conversation you had with an individual that you'd like to reinforce."

How long should you let them string you along? Do you look desperate (or less desirable) if you're still interested after months of being put off?

Stay in touch. Goldman recommends that you ask how often the person doing the hiring wants to hear from you; suggest every two weeks or so. And ask how he or she prefers to be contacted. Then do it.

If you feel like just "checking in" makes you a pest, you're probably wrong, but sending an article on a subject the manager is interested in is a good way to add some value for him or her.

You don't look desperate, but in order not to feel desperate you should continue to look elsewhere. Keep your options open. If you get another offer, you can always call the stringing-along employer to explain your situation.

When (and how) can you get out of the process gracefully? If you've decided you don't want a job, should you let them know before they offer it?

Generally speaking, the nice-person thing to do is to stop the process as soon as you're positive you're not interested. Don't say anything negative but explain as kindly as you can that you don't think it's going to be a good fit.

Call, do not e-mail.

That said, both Goldman and LaRock agree that it can be OK to continue the process, for a couple of reasons:

You may need the practice. Goldman says that companies occasionally interview people they're not interested in, as well.
You may find that even if you don't want the particular job you're interviewing for, you like the company and might find another opening of interest. Or, LaRock, says, your interviewer may know someone else in another company who might be interested in you.
What if you think you might get another offer? Can you use that to speed up (or slow down) the process?

Only if you're not playing any games. And really, it's wisest not to say anything to anyone until you have an actual offer letter.

What if you get a better offer after you've accepted an offer? Can you extricate yourself at that point?

Eek. Yes, but weigh the risks carefully. Parcells says to do it in person, and quickly, with a good reason. More money, by the way, is not by itself a good reason.

"They're going to be pissed," Kaplan says. Is that OK with you? Is your industry big or small enough that your reputation can handle it?

LaRock's advice: "If an applicant knows of someone who would be a good fit for the position, this can also soften the blow."

When do you tell your current employer that you're interviewing (or that you've accepted a position, if it doesn't start immediately)?

Avoid telling your employer you're interviewing.

Once you have an offer, it is tempting to use that offer to negotiate with your current employer, but this can burn bridges, and you can really only use this trick once, Parcells says.

Your best bet is to wait until you have an actual letter of employment from the new company, and even then to look at your relationship with your current employer before resigning. A good rule seems to be that you should let the employer know when you're willing to risk losing the job you have, or at two weeks, whichever comes first.

2005 American City Business Journals Inc.

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