Thursday, January 22, 2009

Want a Job?

The best time to look is before you need one. And the best way to stand a chance of getting one is to make a great first impression.

Harvey Mackay shares his thoughts:

A winning suit trumps today's job market

No firm came to symbolize the opulence of the economic boom better than Google. With some "workplaces that feature pool tables and volleyball courts," this Internet giant has bent over backwards to woo top performers. Tough times are upon us all, including this mega-search engine. "Google has also begun chipping away at perks," the Wall Street Journal reported recently. "In recent months, it reduced the hours of its free cafeteria service and suspended the traditional afternoon tea in its New York office."

Just months ago, you could get your foot in the door of many an employment office sporting a tattered sneaker. Talent was king. According to the Department of Labor, more than 10 million people were unemployed in December. Of these, more than 1.2 million lost their jobs between September and November. Overnight, job hunting has become a buyer's market, and employers have turned downright picky about who will be offered a coveted spot on the payroll.

A crisp and businesslike appearance is back as an expectation on the part of many prospective employers. A recent New York Times article announced "The Return of the Interview Suit." It quotes Gloria Mirrione, a managing director of a financial services placement firm: "We are back to a time when every company expected both women and men to wear suits and we didn't have a Casual Friday. . . . They are looking for a sharper style. I recommend a strong suit that says you are collected and ready to work."

The article highlights some critical appearance details. For example, a solid black suit screams attention to dandruff flecks or gray hairs. White shirts should be "pristine" and preferably new. Ladies' tote bags need to provide a professional-looking home for one's BlackBerry. In other words, don't look like you're going camping.

The clothes you wear—and they don't need to be expensive—say a lot about your discipline, taste and social poise. That accepted, the most important thing you need to dress for an interview remains your mind.

Learn everything you can about the company and its immediate needs. Any company hiring in this economy is banking on their new employee making a key contribution immediately. Find out what that is.

Times author Eric Wilson suggests scouting a prospective employer's tastes and expectations before an interview. "The key is to research the corporate culture to learn what a potential boss might expect." I like that research to go well beyond appearance preferences. If your prospective boss is a golf nut or is crazy about symphony music, be prepared to say something sensible about these topics.

Sometimes standing out can win the day. One reader, who was no hockey wizard, got a job as a hockey announcer by suiting up as a goalie in everything from mask to skates.

Rob Donkers, a Canadian educator, recently emailed me that a young woman sewed up a job as a "software programming ninja" when she appeared for the interview in a Japanese warrior costume. For most jobs, though, the button-down look is the better bet.

When you enter an interviewer's office, zero in on memorabilia and personal touches:

  • What books are prominently displayed on the shelves? Can you share a comment or two about an important lesson you learned from reading one of the authors?
  • Autographed photos and civic or industry awards can be particular points of personal pride. If you can offer some authentic praise or admiration, consider making a passing comment.
  • The individual's laptop, monitor or other office equipment can open up a conversational opportunity.

A job interview is fundamentally a sales encounter. People buy from people they like. And people hire people they like. It's that simple. People like people who are genuine, pleasant, sincere, easy to talk with and friendly.

Have a clever story, quote, or anecdote or two in mind that you can slip into the conversation. Something positive and memorable. Billionaire Oprah Winfrey, for example, uses an unforgettable trademark line: "I still have my feet on the ground, I just wear better shoes."

Follow-up a job interview with a handwritten thank-you note. They are essential, especially when they mention how you will fit into the company's culture or help meet its immediate business needs.

Paying attention to how you look can help you get a job. For that matter, it can also help you keep one. With companies trimming right and left, they want to retain people who best present their firm's image.

Mackay's Moral: Dress like a mess and you won't see success.

Miss a column? The last three weeks of Harvey's columns are always archived online.

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