by CIO Staff

Recruiter’s Advice, Part II: How to Interview with an Executive Search Firm

Apr 03, 20066 mins

By Jane Howze

When I make speeches about career strategy, one of the first questions I get is how to ensure that your interview with the executive search firm will result in an interview with the hiring company.

First of all, it helps to understand that an executive search firm is paid in advance by the client to recruit for a particular position. The client has very specific requirements, and it is the recruiter’s function to seek out individuals who match the company’s hiring leadership and culture requirements. That said, there are many people who, on paper, are a good fit for a company but do not get past the executive recruiter. Many times, candidates are never given the reason why they do not make it to the next step, other than a vague answer such as, “We did not see you as a fit for the company’s culture.” What happened? The following are some recruiter pet peeves that could eliminate you as a candidate.

1. Basic Manners. One would be surprised to know how many individuals do the following during an interview:

  1. Arrive late without calling or apologizing.
  2. Answer cell phone calls during the course of the interview.
  3. Repeatedly sneak peeks at their BlackBerry during the interview.
  4. Arrive smelling like cigarette smoke.

Obviously there are exceptions for the above etiquette breaches, which can be ameliorated by alerting the recruiter in advance that you may be late, have to take an important phone call or respond to an important e-mail.

2. The Spanish Omelet Rule. If you are meeting a recruiter for a meal, follow the recruiter’s lead in ordering. Do not order a Spanish omelet with a side of pancakes if the recruiter is having only coffee. This is a business meeting, not a dining experience. You want to be able to present your qualifications without worrying about spilling food on your clothing or having the recruiter ask you a question when your mouth is full.

3. Alcohol. Many recruiters automatically disqualify an individual who orders alcohol at an interview, even if the interview is after working hours. While I personally do not feel as strongly about this, it is always better to follow the recruiter’s lead, so if he or she does not order alcohol, you should not order alcohol.

4. Religion/Politics. Keep your religious and political views to yourself. It is important that you focus on the position. Anything that takes the recruiter’s attention off your professional experience is a risk (and this includes listing religious and political organizations on your resume), unless you are absolutely sure that your views or interests dovetail with those of the recruiter. If you talk about your religious or political leanings, you run the risk that the recruiter and/or the client may have a different perspective.

While religious and political views are high-risk topics in an interview, personal “ice breakers” can set a positive tone. For example, one candidate noticed a golf ball on my key chain. This resulted in a warm but brief exchange about golf courses. It set the tone for a more relaxed interview for both of us.

5. The “I Used to Work for Bill Jones” Detour. Many interviewees, in an attempt to establish credibility, drop names of their managers. While this may be helpful if you worked for someone who is nationally known (e.g., Jack Welch, formerly of GE), you cannot assume that the recruiter will know the people you are mentioning, unless it has been established that the recruiter knows your company very well. It is always good to ask if the recruiter is familiar with a particular person or company and, if not, then stop dropping names. You have only a limited amount of time with the recruiter, and it is important to be as succinct as possible. Most recruiters do not care about the name of the person you worked with; they are more concerned with what you have achieved.

6. Interview Location. In case you cannot leave the office and the recruiter agrees to come to your office, schedule the interview in a conference room. Many recruiters with whom I have spoken resent coming to a candidate’s office, especially if that person keeps them waiting, puts his or her feet up on the desk, takes phone calls or otherwise creates an environment of vertical communication.

7. The “Tell Me a Little About Your Background” Trap. Many recruiters will start an interview with this question. It is very important to look for body language from the interviewer to see whether you are offering what he or she is seeking in the answer. I typically ask this question to see how articulate candidates are in explaining the decisions that formulated their career. Having said that, it is a “death blow” when a candidate has been talking for 30 minutes and has only gotten to his or her first job 25 years ago. It is important to make your answers interesting and somehow applicable to the position for which you are interviewing.

8. The “I Work for a Scumbag Company/Manager” Rant. While it may be tempting to bash your company or manager, it never works and instead portrays you as a whiner. One cannot help but think, “If you do it to them, you will do it to me.” Focus on the positive reasons you would be interested in making a change, and remember that each minute you spend bashing your current employer is time you could spend talking about your accomplishments.

This list is by no means complete. I would be interested in hearing about your interview highs and lows, including advice from either side of the desk.

Jane Howze is the founder of The Alexander Group and can be reached at Her recruiting experience has focused on banking, legal, human resource, information technology, administrative, health-care and financial positions. She also directs board of director searches and is actively involved in the firm’s diversity practice. She answers readers’ questions as one of our Career Counselors.