by Meridith Levinson

Job Seekers: Get Ready for the “Character” Interview

Jun 25, 20095 mins
CareersIT Jobs

In an employer's job market, hiring managers take their time getting to know a job seeker's character, personality and values. Personal questions and even table manners are fair game.

As laid-off executives flood the labor pool, some employers are seizing the opportunity to “upgrade” their management teams, say executive recruiters. In this job market, employers realize they might be able to recruit more experienced leaders—possibly at lower salaries—now than in the past, says Joe Goodwin, president of The Goodwin Group, an executive search firm based in Atlanta.

“There are a lot of very experienced, high-quality people who, through no fault of their own, got caught up in this economic tsunami,” he says.

Companies are also looking for new executives with the right skills to lead them through the recession, says Dean Bare, managing director of executive search firm Stanton Chase International’s Atlanta office.

“Employers today are asking themselves: Do I have the right talent set to take me through the next 18 months?” Bare says.

Because so many candidates are applying for a limited number of executive jobs, employers can be choosey. They’re screening many candidates, says Goodwin, and thus it’s taking employers longer to make hiring decisions.

Employers aren’t in a hurry, either. They’re taking their sweet time to get to know a candidate’s character, integrity and values, says Bare. Employers are still focused on making sure candidates have the right experience, of course, but that’s only the beginning. Now employers are looking hard at a candidate’s character to break ties among equally qualified candidates.

[ For more advice on preparing for job interviews, see How to Ace an Executive-Level Job Interview. ]

“A deeper discussion with the candidate about their life experiences is happening now,” says Bare. “There’s an effort certainly by search professionals and employers to get a sense of the value system a person brings to work. People want to make good and lasting decisions. Employers have learned that a poor hiring decision is incredibly costly.”

Got Character? Personal Questions and Gotcha Moments

Employers and executive recruiters are asking some personal questions during job interviews, and they’re putting prospective employees in social situations to test how they interact with others, says Bare. For example, a hiring manager or recruiter might ask the candidate to talk about his or her parents.

“Having a candidate talk about their family can tell employers something about the candidate’s value system and work ethic,” he says.

These personal questions can blindside candidates (particularly those at the mid-management level), Bare says. But they’re fair game because they can reveal how a prospective employee will handle surprises, as well as her ability to think on her feet.

Employers and recruiters are also taking out executive-level candidates and their spouses to dinner. While this isn’t new, employers are footing the dinner bill more often as a way to size up a candidate’s character: how the candidate treats wait staff, interacts with his spouse, and handles a social situation. Employers want to see a candidate who treats people with respect, says Bare, and to get a feel for his or her ability to work a room at a corporate event.

“In many organizations, entertaining at the top level is a critical part of the job,” he says. “If a CEO wants to see how a potential SVP will conduct himself in a social setting, one of the best ways to do that is to invite him or her along and see what happens.”

Spouses, too, will often need to accompany their executive husband or wife at fancy dinners and events. And so employers want to see a happy, healthy relationship, Bare says. (This may be difficult for CIOs in bad marriages.)

Even a candidate’s eating habits can reveal aspects of their personality and approach to problem solving, Bare says. Salting your food before tasting it, for instance, can indicate impulsiveness or programmed mannerisms. Bare says a candidate will not get tossed out of contention simply because she seasons a meal before tasting it. “Small things like that by themselves are not a reason to dismiss a candidate,” Bare says, “but if 10 of those things pop up, it adds an area of concern.”

[ For more information on working with executive recruiters, see How to Interview with an Executive Search Firm and Five More Tips for Getting on Recruiters’ Good Sides. ]

Another technique recruiters are using to size up personality traits of candidates is the car ride to the restaurant, where the recruiter is the passenger and the candidate is the driver. A person’s driving sheds light on how he reacts to stressful situations, as well as his levels of patience and aggressiveness, says Bare.

Turning the Tables: Evaluating a Company’s Character

Just as dinners and car rides provide employers with opportunities to get to know candidates on a deeper level, the same goes for job seekers. They, too, can use these situations to learn about a company’s values, says Bare.

“I think candidates are doing much more due diligence to make sure they’re identifying a company culture that will suit them,” he says. “When a candidate looks at an organization, they want to make sure they’re dealing with people who are ethical and fair-minded.”

Candidates can use unconventional job interviews to their advantage by coming prepared with questions that will help them zero in on the company’s long-term strategy, ethical standards and values.

“The most important thing people can do these days to distinguish themselves from the rest of the candidates is to be prepared,” says Goodwin. “Know your audience and be prepared not only to talk about your own background and how it fits with the company but also to ask questions about the company.”