Mastering the Employer's One-Minute Screen Test

by Steve Stromp

The well-known Pareto's Law applies to career coaching clients: One minute of a job interview can account for much of the final result. Employers may spend hours interviewing each candidate but dominant impressions can emerge within a single minute, heavily impacting the decision on who to hire and what to pay them.

When interviewing prospective employees, companies are driven by two burning questions: Can the person do the job? Is the individual compatible with organizational culture? During the interview, employers determine whether a fit exists by studying each applicant from three perspectives:
-Talent. Does the candidate possess the proper knowledge and skill mix to perform the required duties?
 -Experience. Has the person sufficiently demonstrated application of knowledge and skills in actual job settings?
 -Chemistry. Does the individual reflect an attitude and demeanor conveying professionalism, interest, and ability to work cooperatively in a team environment?

Importantly, hiring managers' decision models seldom assign equal, proportional values for the three measurements. Research suggests, in fact, that chemistry often overrides talent and experience in the selection equation, appreciably influencing the decision, often determining the choice outright, and dispelling the myth that the best qualified person gets the job. The person who brokers panache together with his or her professional portfolio gains the competitive edge. And for the employer, much of the focus occurs in a single fleeting minute. Which minute? The first, of course.

Opening impressions are indelible. Candidates must focus on surviving the hiring manager's one-minute screen test. Studies confirm that 60 to 90 percent of all communication is conducted non-verbally. A number of companies actually train their recruiters to pay more attention to candidates' physical behavior than to their actual answers to questions. They regard eye contact, posture, physical movements, tone of voice and other body language as more valid indicators of an individual's interest, energy, and performance potential than often-rhetorical answers.

That first minute of the job interview is when employers begin checking behavior. The manner of entering the room, greeting the manager, and settling into a chair sends immediate signals. Is the drill executed awkwardly or with grace? Does the handshake convey confidence, energy, enthusiasm and a pleased-to-meet-you message? Or is that first contact a warning sign that the person is nervous, indifferent, distant, condescending? Are personal appearance, dress, and hygiene appropriate and becoming? Or is the look disturbing?

Likewise posture - whether seated, standing or moving - should reflect a poised and forceful professional, never slouching, slovenly, or insecure. At times posture and gestures reveal damaging physical habits. A candidate who arrives for the interview in bad gear and then opens with politically-incorrect moves is backed into a corner before the first question pops.

Recruiters and employers typically have an assortment of horrific experiences to share involving interesting people they have interviewed. My most memorable happened two years ago while interviewing a forty-something gentleman who arrived decently dressed except for his shirt, which was two sizes too small. As we began the interview, the candidate literally coiled up in a chair, sitting at a twisted angle, left leg crossed over right, and arm draped over the back of the chair. And one minute into our discussion, I noticed two lower shirt buttons around his mid-section were open.

Admittedly, it was a challenge to ignore the spectacle and stay focused on the interview agenda. I frankly wasn't very successful. The unintended exhibition created a distraction and hampered the candidate's effort to present a positive, professional image. Hours later when reviewing my notes, I kept hauntingly associating with the candidate's appearance, not with his skills and experience.

Interview behavior, however, extends beyond body language. Once opening rituals are completed and discussions begin, the employer's conscious level shifts to verbals: Is the opening conversation engaging or cumbersome? Do facial expressions and eye contact lend credibility or skepticism to statements?

Preparing career coaching clients for the job interview usually includes researching the company, reviewing what questions might be asked, and deciding what to wear. These are important steps; but the most critical could be the candidate's first step into the room.

Actors rehearse entrances and exits to achieve the right effect. If you sense your clients are either wimpy or overpowering when meeting people, suggest they use a little theater to convey their message. Role-play with a family member or friend. Make videotape sequences. Isolate attention on posture, body movement, expressions, tone of voice, articulation and vocabulary.

Dialects often are instant killers: "Hi'ya," "yep," "y'all," "uh-huh." Job candidates must avoid such verbal slush. Likewise avoid a stiff, formal manner that sends a chill. Get feedback on the handshake: Have a partner close his/ her eyes and describe the sensation.

As sports coaches intently study game films, we need to help candidates dissect, replay, and polish their moves. If the body language creates an adverse impression at the outset, the interview could go "belly-up" moments into the meeting. Candidates want to trigger an immediate "ah-ha!" in that first minute, not "yuck." 

Steve Stromp is a consultant with BH Careers International, a global career management organization with offices in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. He writes frequently on career development and employment issues for the Dayton Daily News. Contact Steve at
Email: sstromp@msn.com.

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