In the film The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock is advised by a family friend that the one-word key to success is “plastics.” And what does it take to create plastics? Chemistry. And that’s also what it takes to get the job in most cases. Interview chemistry.
According to Wikipedia, plastics are “polymers: long chains of atoms bonded to one another.” A lot like the workplace where different people are in effect bonded together to create something or produce a service of some kind.
That’s not to say that you don’t need some basic skills and/or experience for most jobs. But usually by the time you get to the interview, you’ve been screened for that at least to some extent.
It’s true that the employer will want to make sure you can do the job. And in jobs where there are specific high-level skills like in technology, you will be quizzed at a much deeper level.
But before you can get to any of that, there has to be a feeling that you would be a match for the company. As well as the particular department interviewing you. And that feeling can be summed up in the words “interview chemistry.”
Interview chemistry a two-way street.
Not only is the employer trying to decide if you would be a fit for them, but you have to figure out whether you think the job would be right for you. You can get a lot of cues about the way a place operates and how you might be treated from the interview.
I’ve usually been pretty lucky when it comes to the chemistry thing in interviews. But there’s was that one interview a few years ago I’ll never forget. Here’s the story:
I had heard about a job helping to improve public employment policies and, even though I hadn’t worked in a government agency in many years and wasn’t quite sure that was what I wanted, I decided to apply. I figured it was worth a shot. When I arrived at the office, my instincts went off immediately.
My instincts started “talking” right away
Something about the environment felt cold and not really a place I’d want to be, but still I shook it off and just put myself fully into interview mode. You always have to do that, no matter what else you’re feeling. It’s a little like acting: energy up, smile…the interview must go on!
There was a preliminary interview with someone who worked there already and it just clicked for us. She was delightful and I could see working with her. And she was genuinely enthusiastic about me when her boss walked into the room, telling him what a great interview we’d had so far.
I was feeling pretty good about the job at this point. But when the boss walked in, even before the woman spoke so glowingly about me, he glanced at me briefly and in that instant I could see he wasn’t interested. Seriously — his look showed it all.
Now not all bosses are that transparent…
But as he looked at me you could see his eyes deaden. Could it be that I’m in my 50s? Or maybe I just reminded him of someone he hated. I’ll never know. Anyway … we shook hands, and he sat down across from me. And then he proceeded to give me one of the toughest interviews I’d ever had — more like a grilling!
“Exactly how did you perform that analysis?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. Now this was a complex analysis involving lots of proprietary details. So I assumed he meant I should give him the basic steps. But almost with anger in his eyes, he said “I asked EXACTLY how did you do it. Give me details.”
OK. So you get the point. This wouldn’t work for either of us. I tried for a bit longer, since I always believe in giving things a chance. But we both knew it was over. Mercifully, we admitted it after only 30 minutes.
Like a blind date, first few minutes key.
It’s a time to make the best impression possible — and also to watch for cues. Bosses are looking for people who show appropriate enthusiasm and a positive attitude. If you walk in with your head low and don’t even look the interviewer in the eye, this is a big turn off from the git go.
Hard to get interview chemistry when they can’t even see the real you.
Sure you’re nervous — that’s ok. But make an effort to come in looking like someone who at least believes they deserve the job. A firm (not painful) handshake if the situation permits and a warm smile as you say hello always helps.
I prefer candidates who are natural.
Not that I’m telling you to take off your shoes and put your feet up on the desk (always a bad idea). But I need to see the real person behind the stiff, nervous interviewee so I’ll know if there really is chemistry.
By the way … it’s ok to say you’re a little nervous if that helps you relax. You’ll see right away what kind of person you’re dealing with. If they smile, that’s a good sign. If they are turned off by your honesty, then that might reflect something about the company. And whether you’d be comfortable working there.
Of course interview chemistry is not quite that simple. So no matter what the reaction, take a breath, ramp up your attitude, and keep your best interview energy going. And come well prepared so that you can let the real you shine.
Still … watch for those cues, and be ready to shift your own approach if needed.
[Post updated in 2020]
About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe and Work To The Wise, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker.
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