Ask HR: How Can I Ace My Interview?

 

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP February 28, 2020
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Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

​SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.,  is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

Question: In a previous job, I discovered a $29 million theft inside my company and reported it to top management, along with evidence. Four months later, nothing had been done, and I received no feedback about the report. When I asked for an update,  the company director became furious with me and asked me to resign or face dismissal. My fear now is going to interviews and being asked why I resigned without having another job. I know it's not acceptable to bad-mouth my previous employer, but how do I answer this question without getting into my feelings about the injustice done to me? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: First, I commend you for bringing such a big discrepancy to your employer's attention. That takes courage—and not every employee would do it.

While I don't know all of the facts, a real problem exists when an employee, in good faith, notifies an employer of potential misconduct or wrongdoing and is asked to resign instead. This indicates an unhealthy workplace culture.

On the bright side, your resignation gives you a great opportunity to find a better workplace.

As you go through the interview process, it is best to answer questions as honestly as possible. You can say that you resigned due to a conflict of ethics. If pressed further, you may say something like, "My previous employer asked me to resign because I reported a discrepancy."

Be prepared to explain what happened leading up to the resignation, but keep it surface-level and dispassionate. This way, you can avoid defaming your previous employer if the theft was only alleged and never confirmed.

You should also avoid discussing your feelings about the incident. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying you felt you were doing the right thing. Stay positive during the interview, steering the conversation to your performance and relevant accomplishments. Emphasize what you can offer a prospective employer because of your experience and skill set.

Practice makes perfect, so you should rehearse your answer before the interview. Once your "talking points" flow naturally, you're ready to go.

Good luck!

Question: I'm finishing up my senior year at college, so I'm preparing to interview all sorts of prospective employers. Beyond working at my hometown cafe in the summers, though, I don't have much interview experience, especially with high-profile companies. What do you recommend for a successful interview? – Anonymous

Taylor: To ace any interview, do your research. Learn the company's history, culture, and business. Familiarize yourself with the education, experience, and skill requirements of the position. If possible, try to figure out what you'd be doing on a day-to-day basis.

Since you don't have much relevant work experience, focus on the skills you have refined in other areas. Consider any volunteer work you've done or school projects that have gone extremely well.

Don't discount your experience at your hometown cafe either. Any and all experience matters! Take time to reflect and look beyond the specifics of what you were doing to start seeing the skills you applied to do them. Perhaps you had to service customers during busy hours, allowing you to hone your time management skills. If you trained other employees or exhibited any other leadership qualities, that is certainly noteworthy. Communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving are other highly valuable skills you could be taking for granted about yourself.

The goal is to demonstrate your unique "value add." Ask yourself: How does your past prepare you for the position at hand? What can you specifically bring to the table?

Once you do your background research and list your strengths, you can explain why those strengths are relevant to the prospective employer. You should also think about why you want to work for that employer in the first place. What attracted you to them, and how can you help them succeed?

But don't forget: You're interviewing the employer, too.

Often, candidates and employers alike get fixated on who is qualified and competent. But it's just as important—for the success of both parties—that the candidate is also a good cultural fit. Interviewers will likely ask you if you have any questions for them, so prepare several questions you might ask about the culture in the office—whether it's individualistic or more collaborative in nature. In other words, "how do things really work around here?"

And, of course, remember the little things. Arrive on time. Dress for the job you want. Be professional. Best of luck!

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