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What Matters to Me in a Job Interviewee

By Marty Nemko

I just hired a new personal assistant. A few weeks ago in this column, I described how I screened the candidates’ applications. Here’s how I picked from among the half dozen applicants I interviewed.

First, I walked each candidate around my home, describing the job’s tasks. That relaxed them and allowed me to be forthcoming before I subjected them to my questions. Also, it enabled me to see how they behaved outside the formal interview situation. As I described the job’s tasks, were they enthusiastic? Did they ask questions that showed intelligence and curiosity?

After the walk-around, we sat down at the kitchen table, the most homey (and disarming) place in my home. Instead of asking them the interview questions, I handed them the list of questions and asked them to answer them verbally, one after the other. That enabled me to focus on listening to them. To keep things individualized and to avoid the process getting stiff, I did, every so often, ask follow-up questions.

I was surprised that the question that yielded the most revealing answers was “What are your goals in life?” Some candidates, for example, were primarily concerned with making money while others cared more about making a difference in the world.

All the candidates wrote good thank-you notes. (Maybe they read the article on my site on how to write one?) They went beyond saying thank you. For example, most of them reminded me of some attribute they saw I reacted well to. One candidate wrote, “For two introverts, we surekept a lively conversation going.”

I called the references only of my #1 candidate. I believe I got more candid feedback by explaining that I was hiring my personal assistant, my only employee, someone who would have the run of my home, and who I’d be spending more time with than anyone but my wife.

How did I choose among the candidates? Well of course, there were the obvious things: intelligence and enthusiasm. But I was surprised and a bit disappointed in myself that two other factors played a role.

-- Looks. I found myself giving a minus to a woman who was stunningly attractive (I’m married and didn’t want to be tempted having another beautiful woman running around my house.) Even though the job requires little public contact, I also found myself giving a minus to the one applicant who was very unattractive. Even though I’m no prize myself, I would feel a bit awkward having a very ugly assistant greeting my clients or even my neighbors. (I don’t like myself for feeling this way, and I tried to not let it unduly influence me, but I want to be honest with you.)

-- Age. I found myself giving a plus to the oldest candidate—she is 61--because I believe she is least likely to job jump. She is a programmer who had been downsized after the dot com bomb, so I knew her chances were small of landing a similar job. It seems all the programming jobs are going to 20-somethings and/or are getting shipped to India.

Who did I end up hiring? Jennifer Light. She’s a highly regarded office manager who just had a baby and wants to devote her primary efforts to being a stay-at-home mom for the first few years. That makes her less desirable to many employers, but perfect for me—there are few people of her intelligence, work ethic, common sense, and pleasant personality who want a very part-time job. We’re both excited about working together.

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