Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thank You Letters in Employment Selection Interviews

Probably the first decision you’ll have to make after an interview is whether or not to write a thank-you or follow-up letter to the interviewer. One of the main points you learn from Sweaty Palms is that the vast majority of selection interviewers don’t want to be conducting interviews because it interferes with their job. So anything connected with filling the position is a royal pain, and the biggest part of that pain is having to interview prospects. They want to fill the job as quickly and easily as possible, while devoting the least amount of time to the chore as possible. After the interview is over, the last thing they want is to receive a letter from an interviewee.

Receiving a post-interview letter can have a negative effect on an interviewer for several reasons:

1. It’s a piece of paper with which they must deal. What do they do? Answer it? File it? Throw it away? If they answer it, they are probably not going to be thinking kindly of you, as you’ve just imposed a further burden on their time.

2. If they’re not interested in you, receiving a letter from you is going to be even more of an irritant. The standard and accepted protocol for rejection is for the interviewer not to make another contact. Your letter, breaching this protocol, may negate any possibility for a change of heart.

3. Sending a letter can look like you’re begging or more in need of a job than the interviewer might have believed before receiving your letter.

4. Your letter might say something that negates a positive feeling the interviewer may have formed.

5. The letter reduces the control of the situation that the interviewer might feel he has. The interviewer has the control of when and how to make further contact. If the interviewee oversteps the bounds by making the first contact after the interview, it could make the interviewer feel he has to reply and he might not feel he’s in a position to reply at that time. So if he has to make a decision before he wants to, the odds are that the decision will be negative.

An interviewer won’t contact you unless he’s interested in you, regardless of whether or not you write a letter, so, unless you know for certain you’ve been rejected, writing a letter subjects you to the risk of damaging your position. The interviewer knows that you are grateful for the interview, so you don’t need to tell him that. He also knows that anything in a letter is probably insincere, with the ulterior motive of getting an offer or another interview. Because of that very real fact, a follow-up letter is a very difficult document to draft. There’s not much you can say that doesn’t sound hypocritical to the reader, who will be reading the letter with a far different perspective than the perspective from which you wrote it.

Finally, there is no question of courtesy involved here. You are in a business environment. The interviewer didn’t do you any favors by granting you an interview. He was acting out of selfish motives because he has a position to fill, so you do not have an obligation to “thank” him for the interview.

There are three exceptions to this advice. The first is if the interviewer has asked you for additional information. That gives you an opening to provide the information and write a letter that could enhance your position. The second is when you know that you have been rejected in the interview. If you’ve been told that you won’t be considered further, then you’ve got nothing to lose by making an additional contact. The employer might change his mind or refer you to another firm. The third exception is if the interview has been conducted over a meal. Then it might be appropriate to write a very short, polite note of thanks for the meal if the interviewer picked up the tab. It’s not necessary to do so because the meal was part of the interview process, but this does give you the flexibility of making contact without breaching protocol and without looking insincere or hypocritical. If you do wish to write a note, limit it to a few words of thanks. Don’t grovel about how much you’d like the job or how much you liked the interviewer’s tie or what a terrific sense of humor the interviewer has. Don’t mention the job or include the lamentable “I look forward to hearing from you.” Just thank him for the meal and end it.

The effects of a follow-up letter in employment interviews was extensively researched for a 1996 master’s thesis by Mike Broadwell. This is, to my knowledge, the most detailed and professional analysis of the effects of a follow-up letter in interviewing for a job. The research was limited to professional recruiters whose main function is to interview, as opposed to selection interviewers, whose obligation to interview to hire someone is something for which they are not trained and for whom the interview is more often looked upon as an unpleasant but necessary chore. Since recruiting is a recruiter’s occupation, one would anticipate that the professional recruiter’s reactions would be more inclined to support the concept of a follow-up letter. Why? Because the pitfalls of a follow-up letter that I set forth above don’t apply to a professional recruiter. A follow-up letter would not be something that interferes with his or her normal routine, since the recruiter’s normal routine is to recruit. However, the research supported my position, even among professional recruiters! The research indicates that even among professional recruiters a follow-up letter will not help you if they have not otherwise decided that you will be offered a job.
To make certain that I had not misinterpreted the writer’s thesis, I spoke with him, and he reiterated to me that his research fully supported my position. Reinforced by this research, my advice remains unchanged from when I first wrote about it in 1992.

However, when I asked him what he would do, he said he’d write a thank-you letter. But he had severe parameters. He said it should be short and sweet and should not include anything of substance. It should be written solely as an expression of courtesy and appreciation for having been given the opportunity for the interview. He said it becomes a negative if it reiterates what took place in the interview or adds something new. In short, it should contain nothing of substance. He said that his research indicated that the only time a thank-you letter might be of help is if the writer is one of the top two candidates. In that instance it’s possible that it might be of slight advantage. But he said that his research never showed that a thank-you letter helped an interviewee who was not one of the top two candidates.

Here’s what Brian Krueger, author of College Grad Job Hunter, advises: “Thank-you notes are not expected. However, they should always be sent. You have an opportunity to make a lasting good impression. Make the most of it.”

And the Los Angeles Times Career Builder says, “Recruiters and managers who are undecided over their potential new employee often rely on a gut feeling about someone when making their decision and your thank-you letter may be enough to put you over the top.”

The Times is correct when it talks about the “gut feeling.” However, the comments about the thank-you letter are misleading. In my opinion they are made by people who have no clue or experience in the job interview. It sounds good to say this, but in fact the truth is diametrically opposed to these opinions.

Here’s what one reader of Sweaty Palms, Canadian Athol Kelly, had to say about thank-you or follow-up letters:

"I found your book a refreshing drink of water from other job interview books I have read....Your book is the only place I’ve ever read that said not to follow up an interview with any sort of follow-up letter or communication. Every other book that has broached this subject has recommended follow-up letters to interviews and even rejections, which I always thought was odd. I’ve followed the conventional practices of sending thank-you letters after interviews and rejections, but I’ve felt that they really didn’t do anything to help me achieve the goal of securing the job. Sending thank-you letters just seems to add an unnecessary irritation to harried interviewers and most likely will leave a negative impression as being desperate or pushy, and I believe coming off desperate or pushy isn’t the way to go. Even if you are desperate, you shouldn’t make it obvious and portray yourself as such.

"I want to commend you on having the courage to buck the trend and affirm (at least for me) that while being polite is good, you don’t have to overdo it and grovel with needless thank-you letters. My last job interview was a telephone interview, and I didn’t send a thank-you letter afterwards. Although I wasn’t offered that particular job, the interviewer did tell me to contact her in a month’s time to see if they have other employment offerings. I figure if you give a good interview, then they will have a good impression of you, and if they have a good impression of you, then there is no need for thank-you letters."

Finally, here’s what Sandor Feldman has to say in Mannerisms of Speech:

"Like many others, the two beautiful words, 'Thank you,' are often misused....It is my personal conviction that the ideal situation would be one in which nobody should need either to expect thanks from or to express thanks to anybody. The stronger person should give help to the weaker for the reason that he is in a position to give help."

My final word on this subject is the way I react to a thank-you letter. I’ve conducted thousands of interviews, both screening and selection. As you’ve probably gathered, I don’t like to have to hire someone, so don’t like interviewing people, and I know what I’m doing! Receiving a thank-you letter is a real turnoff for me. It engenders several emotions:

1. The first is pity. I feel sorry for the person writing the letter because I know how it feels to need a job and not have one.

2. The second is a negative judgment resulting from my feeling that the letter is fawning and hypocritical.

3. The third is irritation. Either I’ve made a decision on the person or I haven’t. In either case, I don’t want to have to read an unsolicited letter from someone I’ve just had to take my time to interview. I didn’t ask for the person to contact me. If I had wanted her to, I would have asked her. I didn’t. So I’m not pleased that this person took an initiative I didn’t invite.

4. The fourth is frustration. What do I do? Do I answer it? If so, what do I say? Do I file it? Do I throw it away?

5. The fifth is that the letter (ergo the writer) is insincere. The interviewee isn’t really writing a thank-you note because she’s polite or considerate. No, the letter is written for purely selfish reasons: to get a job. It can therefore reek of insincerity to the reader.

Believe me, I’m not alone in these feelings. Most interviewers won’t be this frank. Who wants to sound like Simon Legree and put down someone who took the time to write a “nice” letter? Not many. So the people who give the advice to write a thank-you letter, most of whom have never actually conducted a selection interview, are relying on asking other people how they react. And whom do they ask? Counselors and employment professionals! I’ve gone through some of these books and there is virtually no personal experience relayed by the writers. And the people they quote aren’t selection interviewers, they’re screeners or consultants.

It would be well for you to understand why I feel that the opinions of consultants and recruiters on the advisability of writing a thank-you note and other advice quoted by writers on the interview are not reliable. How do consultants arrive at their conclusions? Generally a job search consultant sends prospective employees to prospective employers. After the interview the consultant contacts the prospective employer to find out how the interview went.

While the employer might be forthcoming, always lurking in the back of their minds is the possibility of litigation or other kinds of trouble. So they are circumspect in what they say to the consultant. The interviewer can’t be completely honest because what they say might get back to the person about whom they are speaking, resulting in problems. The result is a sanitized version of how they reacted to the interviewee.

When I am quoting selection interviewers they have no such fear. In the first place they are not talking about anybody specific, so there is no threat of trouble from anybody. Second, if they don’t want to be quoted they can request anonymity. So they can speak to me with candor. I don’t get my information about selection interviewers secondhand from consultants; I get it directly from the selection interviewer.

The only reason to write a thank-you letter is to thank someone for a kindness that they performed through no obligation on their part and for no ulterior motive. Someone gives you a birthday present. You should write a thank-you note. Someone takes you out for a meal. You should write a thank-you note. Someone recommended you for something. You should write a thank-you note. Someone interviewed you for a job? You should not write a thank-you note. The interviewer did not do you a kindness, and he was not without an ulterior motive. In fact, his only motive was selfish!

That said, you will always find exceptions to the rule. I’m not denying that there are instances when someone has received a job offer based in large part on a thank-you letter. I’m sure that there’s an interviewer out there who will read this and say, “I hired Peggy Sue because she was nice enough to write and thank me for granting an interview.” That has happened and it will continue to happen. 

Additionally, there is so much seemingly consistent advice from advisors who say that everyone should write a thank-you letter that it seems to be the norm today. Maybe if you don't write one, you will stand out (that might be a positive and not a negative!). Maybe the interviewer will think you don't care. That's certainly what the advice implies. I think that's good-sounding rubbish from people who don't know what they're talking about because they have never been in the arena, have never actually conducted a selection interview. Writing a thank-you letter will not get you a job if the selection interviewer has already made up his or her mind. But it could redound to your detriment if the interviewer hasn't made up his or her mind. True, it could save the day, too. But my feeling is to let it go and let the interviewer make the decision. Don't risk grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory by doing too much.

What I’m trying to do is to tell you how I feel and how many others feel. It’s my opinion, based my personal experience and based on talking to a lot of people who know that I’m not going to sue them over what they say, that in the majority of cases writing a thank-you letter is more of a risk than a help. You’re risking more than you might receive. 

But in the final analysis everyone has to make up his or her own mind. If you want to write a thank-you letter, if that’s what makes you feel right, then go ahead and do it. I just want you to be aware of the negatives. If you read this and still want to write the letter, go ahead and good luck. But if you do, keep it short, just a few lines thanking your interviewer for the interview. Period. End of letter. Don’t flatter or fawn or plead.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eye Contact in the Interview

Where do you look during an interview? Should you always look the interviewer straight in the eye and stare him down? Should you look away? This is one of the real traumas many interviewees go through during an interview.  Almost all writers and advisors on the subject say this it’s very important to maintain eye contact.  When you hear this, you know that whoever is saying it hasn’t ever been an interviewer. Those who insist on the importance of constant eye contact probably say this because it sounds right, or because some consultant said it. Unlike all the other writers on this subject (who came in the game long after I wrote Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed, the first book ever written about the job interview for the interviewee), I didn’t need research or interviews to know what is correct because I am an interviewer and I know how an interviewer feels when an interviewee stares him or her down, and I tell it like it is, not like people with no actual experience think it might be, or should be, or sounds right.
        If they are honest, most selection interviewers will admit that it is enormously disconcerting to have an interviewee sit and stare at the interviewer's eyes constantly. One thing you don’t want to do in a selection interview is to make your interviewer uncomfortable. It’s not normal to constantly stare anyone in the eye.
        Dr. Gerhard Nielson of Copenhagen conducted a study of how and where interviewees normally looked, and you should be aware of the results. He filmed interviews on a fast-running camera. In replaying the films in slow motion, his results showed that there is actually very little eye contact maintained during an interview. The most an interviewee looked at the interviewer was 73 percent of the time, which means that there was no eye contact 27 percent of the time. One man looked away for 92 percent of the time. Nielson found that half of the interviewees looked away for 50 percent of the time.
        Nielson discovered other interesting things. When people are speaking, they tend to look away; when they are listening they tend to maintain eye contact. It’s normal for you not to look at the person to whom you are speaking. But I have found that interviewees worry about this and feel they should always look their interviewer in the eye. Yet, as Dr. Nielson’s study found, this is abnormal. Being abnormal, it would strike the interviewer wrong and could very easily make him uncomfortable.
        Nielson also discovered that interviewees tend to look away from the interviewer when they start to speak. There is a subtle timing in speaking, listening, looking, and looking away. Interviewees tend to look away just before or just after the beginning of one-quarter of their statements. Fifty percent of the interviewees look at the interviewer as they finish speaking.
        Speaking from experience, I can tell you that staring down your interviewer is not going to win you points.
One reader of Sweaty Palms wrote to tell me:
As a shy person it makes me self-conscious and nervous to look the interviewer in the eyes. A trick I use that really works is to look at his nose. It is impossible to detect (except at very close range) and helps me to relax.
If it makes you feel abnormal, like self-conscious or uncomfortable, you can assume that it will make your interviewer uncomfortable, too. Some eye contact is important. I would not like to interview someone who never looked me in the eye. But constant eye contact is not the solution.
The best solution is to not worry about looking the interviewer in the eye. If you force it, it will come across unnaturally and leave a bad impression. The best advice is simply to act naturally. Talk with the interviewer as though you were having a cup of coffee with a friend, which means look the person in the eye occasionally, and look away when you feel like it, which is generally when you are speaking. Try to treat the interview as a conversation and act as you would in such a situation. The best rule is to act naturally and not be overly concerned about eye contact.