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Candidate Advice

Click on the sections below to explore the tips we offer on how to write your cover letter, how to create an effective resume, how to prepare for an interview, how to react during an interview, what to do after an interview, and how to respond to interview questions in both a standard and a behavioural interview format. Our last section deals with one of the most important candidate concerns – how to negotiate salary and what to do in a counter-offer situation from your current employer.

You have found the perfect position, something that really interests you. It is time to prepare your cover letter for it.

Cover letters are designed to do one thing: summarize why you are the person for the job. To do that effectively, there are several steps that you should follow. The most important of these is to keep your cover letter SHORT, SIMPLE and SPECIFIC.  Ideally, you should tailor your cover letter to the position you are applying for – highlighting the skills, experience and knowledge that you would bring both to the position and to the organization.  Do your homework; find out what the company does and what makes them unique.  Then build a letter showing how YOU are unique and a good fit for them.  Here are some pointers:

  • Before you begin writing, think about two things: what you can do and what the company wants from the position.
  • Address your letter to a specific person. If the ad doesn’t list a contact name, call the company or do some research to find out who is in charge of hiring for that position.  Include the job title and reference number if possible.
  • Get to the point. If your cover letter is more than one page long, do some editing. Employers often use cover letters as a way to evaluate your ability to present your ideas in a concise, logical manner.
  • Present your abilities in a positive light, but be careful about bragging. “I know I’m the perfect person for this job” is not going to convince anyone to hire you. Detail your experience which is relevant to the position.
  • Always check your grammar, punctuation and spelling – especially for names and titles. Attention to detail is one of the qualities that all employers look for.
  • Request an interview with the company, indicating your availability and best method of contact.
  • Keep in mind that the cover letter is often the LAST item read by an employer if there are hundreds of responses to qualify.  Be sure your relevant points and experience are also clearly stated in your resume.

A resume is a valuable document – think of it much like insurance certificates, tax receipts or a will.  It is a document which may begin your next few years of opportunity or may fail to begin that process for you.  A wise person, from the CEO to the new graduate, should have a current version saved on a hard drive and on a separate medium at all times.

At least once a year this document should be reviewed with additional positions, responsibilities, achievements, skills, and education incorporated into it.  Whether by sudden downsizing or the unexpected appearance of a terrific opportunity, having a current resume on hand removes much unneeded stress from the process of seeking new employment.

The first time you make contact with a future employer is generally through a resume submission. Interviewing well is the key to getting the position you desire, but without a good resume you’ll never get to impress them in person. Remember, the purpose of your resume and covering letter is to present yourself in such a way that prospective employers will want to meet you.

Hiring managers typically have to wade through hundreds of resumes sent in response to an open position and typically spend less than 30 seconds reviewing each resume.  Recruiters faced with dozens of resumes are often looking for reasons to quickly exclude candidates from current and future searches.  In this environment, it is vital for you to communicate clearly and effectively how you and your skills will benefit your next employer.  While your resume should be comprehensive, it should function just as an overview which is clear, professional, on-target and easy to read.

The following are some rules of thumb that you can use to ensure that your resume makes an impact:

  • If your work history cannot be summarized in 3 pages, you need to do some editing. If you are a CTO, a potential employer does not necessarily need to know all of the details of your positions as a programmer 15 years ago.
  • Do not use nouns or pronouns.   “Developed a system” rather than “I developed a system.”
  • Use a standard font in 10-12 point sizes for text and 11-14 point sizes for headings with wide margins for scanning.  Do not use exotic fonts, ALLCAPS, graphics, photographs, headers, footers, tables or any other extravagant formats. Simple is better -and much easier to scan into a database.
  • Focus the content on the information needs of the reader.  Highlight boldfaced titles, subtitles and key words.  Use indentations and bullets to guide the reader’s eye.  Use language which is clear, specific and professional.
  • Do not include personal information such as age, height, weight, race, marital status, or social insurance number.  It is illegal for companies to ask for such information and indicates poor judgment to send such sensitive information electronically.
  • Include your full name and address, telephone number, and a private email address.  Hiring managers assume they can leave messages on all contact information on a resume.  If you cannot speak at work, do not include that number.  Be sure to check daily for messages on all contact numbers and emails in your resume.
  • If applicable, include a technical summary to list your relevant technical expertise.  Ensure that all key technical terms in the summary also appear in the body of the resume.
  • List your educational and professional qualifications and accreditations.  Make sure to include all dates.
  • Describe your work experience in reverse chronological order.  State the date, position and company name and location.  A website link is a good idea.
  • The first bullet should state the size and nature of the company and the position to which you reported, followed by bullets stating your responsibilities and achievements.
  • Expand upon your last two positions in greater detail.  Include promotions and the dates they occurred.
  • Document your strengths with concrete results.  Be specific. “Helped increase profits by 70% through the implementation of a new web-based order tracking system.” rather than “Helped grow the company’s profitability”.
  • Briefly outline your leisure interests.
  • Indicate a willingness to have references checked – “References available upon request” is the common phrase.  Have a select reference list available to be sent if requested.  Keep in touch with previous supervisors – a smooth hiring process should not include scrambling to find references.
  • Check all details carefully for any chronological, grammatical, punctuation, or spelling errors.  Do not rely on your spellchecker – be especially careful with technical terms.  Have two other people review it.
  • Enclose your resume as a Word document within your electronic covering letter. Tailor the covering letter to draw attention to your relevant strengths.  When responding to an advertisement which may have hundreds of responses, it is safe to assume your cover letter may not be read.  Be sure that all relevant points in your letter are also in the resume.

For further advice or a free confidential assessment of your CV, Contact Us now.

Your resume has earned you a job interview, and now you have the most highly competitive stage of the recruitment process to overcome.

The interview process, in general, has become less subjective and more structured – with increased use of psychometric testing as an example. Despite this, first impressions still count and the key to success still lies in being prepared.

  • The time to start thinking about the potential employer, your aspirations and questions you may wish to ask, is not when you are sitting in reception immediately before the interview (or in the car afterwards!). Careful and effective thought before this stage will pay dividends later. Here are some pointers: Research the organization thoroughly – most organizations expect candidates to undertake research prior to the interview. Look at their website, read the annual report, press releases and brochures. Find out all you can about the organization, including company history, organizational structure, size, locations, profitability, and competitors. If at all possible, speak with colleagues who may have worked there.
  • In advance of the interview, and immediately before, think about the likely questions you are going to be asked and how you will answer those questions, as well as the questions you would like to ask. Bear in mind the two most common formats are the Standard Interview and the Behavioural Interview. Give some thought to how you would answer some of the questions for each, then have someone ask them to you.
  • Know where to go for the interview – be sure you can arrive 15 minutes early.
  • Make sure, if possible, that you know who you will be seeing for the interview, what position they hold within the organization, the amount of time they have allotted, and the likely format of the interview.
  • Dress smartly – you are generally less likely to offend by dressing conservatively. Put another way, it is generally wiser to be the best dressed person in the interview room than the worst dressed.

You have done your homework. You are thoroughly prepared and fifteen minutes early. These actions have eliminated most of the stress from the process and will likely produce a positive interviewing experience. Here are a few pointers to keep things running smoothly:

  • Switch off your mobile phone.
  • Be polite to everyone – receptionists and administrative assistants often have a lot more influence than you might suspect.
  • Greet the interviewer with a firm handshake and a smile.
  • Project a positive image. Poor non-verbal communication can really hurt your chances. Sit up straight, speak clearly, and don’t fidget.  Look the interviewer in the eye.
  • In a panel situation speak to the whole panel.
  • Know what you want to achieve. Be able to articulate what you want to do in your career and how those goals fit in with the company’s mission.
  • Create conversation rather than a question-and-answer situation.
  • Be positive. Always frame your answers in a positive light – turn weaknesses into strengths and negatives into positives. In an interview, you are your own press agent.
  • Be honest. Evasiveness and falsehoods do not help you in interviews.
  • If a question “throws” you, admit it and make a commonsense, imaginative, honest reply. If you need to pause to compose an answer, don’t use any vocalizations. Silence is not terrible, thoughtful people often pause before answering.
  • If at any stage you conclude that the position is unsuitable, inform the interviewer of your concern.  They will appreciate your respect for their time.  If you genuinely like the company, tell them so and ask if there are other suitable opportunities available.
  • Ask several questions about the role and questions which demonstrate your research on the company and interest in the interview.  (Politely taking a few notes during an interview is completely acceptable).   Be prepared to explain your reasons for asking the questions. Try to ask about the history of the interviewer, the length of time at the firm, where they were before.  They will remember people who are interested in them.
  • Do not ask questions about salary, holidays or bonuses at the initial interview. However be aware of your market value and be prepared to specify your required package if asked. Your consultant will negotiate a package on your behalf if required.
  • Leave with another firm handshake and thank the interviewer for their time.

If you are being interviewed over a meal, there are several additional things to keep in mind.

  • Order a mid-priced item; avoid the most or least expensive item on the menu.
  • Avoid items that are difficult or messy to eat.
  • Do not order alcohol.
  • Do not talk with your mouth full.   Really.
  • Avoid discussing controversial topics.
  • Draft a thank you letter, which you can easily customize and send an email within a day to everyone who interviewed you.
  • Always call your recruiter immediately with feedback from the interview. It is important that we hear from you as soon as possible.
  • Be honest with your feedback; tell us whether you are interested in the position and why.

Every interview will be different, but there are some questions that you can almost guarantee will be asked (after all, everyone reads the same books on interviewing). Typically, the interview format will have a chronological work-through of your education and work history, followed by a general set of questions. You will find some of these questions below, along with some guidelines for your answers. As always, be honest in all your answers. It is OK to put a good “spin” on them – demonstrating how you’ve learned and grown as an employee. Here are some questions you’re likely to encounter:

Why are you leaving your current position?
Avoid criticizing your current company. No matter the circumstances behind your leaving, try to find a positive way to express your desire for a new challenge.

What can you bring to this organization? Or, more bluntly… Why should I hire you?
Here is where your company research pays off. Make sure that you speak about the skills that you possess that will most help the company in achieving its goals, not your personal goals (although, ideally, these two things will coincide).

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
This is, admittedly, one of the toughest questions to answer. The interviewer uses this question to assess your ability to think strategically – do you have a plan for your career and the ability to set goals? Is it in line with their goals for this position?

What is your greatest strength?
Again, this is a tough one to answer. People generally do not like to appear as if they are bragging, but this is the time to do it. Make sure that you tailor your answer to the company that you are interviewing with. If one of your greatest strengths is your ability to lead a team, explain how that strength applies to and will benefit the company.

What is your greatest weakness?
This question is designed to test your ability to assess yourself. The best way to answer this is to describe an actual weakness and the steps you have taken to overcome it. “Like most people, speaking in front of large groups of people makes me uncomfortable. Early on, I recognized that this could hinder my career growth and I decided to take classes on public speaking from the local community college. While I still don’t love to speak to an auditorium full of people, my presentation skills have improved quite a bit.” This approach demonstrates your ability to face a challenge, determine a course of action, and take steps to remedy the problem.

What are you looking for in a new position?
This is the question that you should have asked yourself before you began your search for a new position. Describe the type of challenges you have excelled at, the types you are seeking, the types of skills that you would like to learn or refine, the responsibilities you would like to take on, and the type of environment that you prefer to work in. Remember that these answers should align with the position for which you are interviewing.

What accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction?
The interviewer asking this question is trying to find out about both what motivates you and whether you have accurately portrayed your worth to your current employer. Think of something that you did at work that you are really proud of, and tell the interviewer about the experience. Include why the accomplishment was significant for you and your employer and what you learned from it.

What is the worst mistake you’ve ever made at work, and what did you learn from it?
Be honest, explain the situation, how you handled it, and the lessons you learned. If everything worked out okay, show a sense of humour about the situation. It may have seemed tragic at the time, but is probably fairly amusing in hindsight. Companies expect employees to make mistakes, and the interviewer is trying to gauge your ability to respond to criticism, take responsibility, and learn from a difficult situation.

What did you enjoy least about your last position?
This question is hard to answer, because you want to try to avoid speaking negatively about your current employer. Use this to your advantage: “At my last position, there was a lot of emphasis on working independently, and I prefer to work as part of a group. One of the things that attracted me to your company specifically was your emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.”

Other typical questions may include variations of:

  • What motivates you and what de-motivates you?
  • Describe a typical day on your present job.
  • How has your position changed over the past 2 years?
  • How do you approach problem-solving?
  • Why have you moved employers?
  • How would your employees describe your management style?
  • What is the hardest thing you’ve ever overcome?
  • How do you like to be managed?
  • What is the greatest compliment a supervisor could give you?
  • What is the greatest compliment a co-worker could give you?
  • What is your current salary? What range are you looking for?
  • What is your opinion of our company?
  • Have you had many dealings with us?

Of course, there will be additional specific questions asked of a Vice President of Sales which will differ from those asked of a Technical Architect. Think about the potential questions, the reasons they would be asked, and PREPARE. Write down answers first and refine them, then work with a friend and answer these questions out loud. There is simply no substitute for good preparation.

Being on the candidate side of a behavioural interview can be somewhat stressful. If you have never encountered one, a behavioural interview is one in which the interviewer asks detailed questions about past specific experiences. Instead of asking “How would you deal with an irate customer?” the interviewer may say, “Tell me about the last incident in which you had to deal with an angry customer. What did you do? What was the outcome? Is the customer still a customer? Why not?”

It is pretty easy to figure out what the interviewer wants to hear with the first question and tempting to give them that hypothetical answer. As the probing continues, the interviewer -like a detective – continues to seek substantiated facts and patterns of behaviour. At this time, inconsistencies will generally arise if a candidate is continually fabricating.
Like any interview, stick to the facts as best as you can recall. If you are unable to recall a specific incident, a skilled interviewer will ask for similar types of situations until a memory is recalled. If you hesitate or tiptoe around questions, the interviewer will delve deeper to get at the truth.

Behavioural interviews are designed around the generally agreed premise that the best indicator of future performance is past performance. The basic traits that interviewers most often search for are: assertiveness, clarification, commitment to tasks, communication, dealing with ambiguity, decision making, interaction, leadership, management skills, organization, prioritizing, problem solving, and team building. Questions are developed around these traits to determine a candidate’s capabilities in each of these areas (or other areas relevant to the position). The interviewer, in asking these open-ended questions, wants to hear a detailed account of what happened – not just a general overview. By providing a thorough account, including a background of events leading up to the situation, your reaction and role in it, and the outcome and lessons learned from it, the interviewer will be able to better predict how you may react in the future to a similar situation.

Like everything else, a behavioural interview is something you can prepare for. Even if you never encounter a behavioural interview, you will be surprised at how thinking about your experiences in these terms will improve your ability to present yourself and your qualifications in any situation. Candidates should prepare for a behavioural interview by thinking of instances that correlate with each of the above traits – a situation in which you showed leadership, how you functioned within a team, or how you architected and implemented a new system. Thinking of a negative example may be even more useful, as interviewers will often ask about the times when things did not go as planned. If your interviewer takes this approach, make sure that you include the lessons you learned and how these will impact your future behaviour in your answer. “If it happened again, I would make sure to…”

Behavioural interviews are not nerve wracking if you’re prepared. Just remember to stay calm and to be honest.

Almost nobody likes negotiating salaries – not HR people, not hiring managers, and certainly not job seekers. The process can be uncomfortable, time-consuming, heart-breaking, and very costly if not handled well. In our many years of search experience, we have found that the best strategy is for all parties involved is to say what you mean, mean what you say, and back up your words with your actions.

Before you begin looking for a new position, it is a good idea to do some research into how tight the job market is in your field, what other people with comparable experience in your industry are making, and cost of living factors if you are considering relocating to a new city. This research will not only give you a good idea of what a fair offer will be, but can be accomplished with ease using the internet. A relationship with a recruiter experienced in your area may also prove valuable as they are continually updated on current salaries, benefits, relocation allowances, and the like. Once you have this information, you have to decide on three realistic numbers: the dollar amount that you would absolutely turn down, the amount that will make you satisfied, and the amount that will make you ecstatic (keeping in mind the value of benefits, bonuses, stock options, and other perks a company might offer).

The Offer
You have made it through several rounds of interviews. You are excited about the opportunity and the company is excited about you. An offer is made. If their offer meets your “ecstatic” number, take it! Companies like to see employees who have done their homework, know a good offer when they see it, and do not make the process into an adversarial one. If the offer is not quite what you had hoped for, take some time to consider it. Determine what is acceptable and what you would like to change. List all the things on your mind and go back to the company and let them know what you desire. If the company has a rigid salary structure, you may not be able to get a bigger base, but a sign-on bonus, relocation expenses, more vacation days, or an accelerated review schedule might be attainable. Be sure any amendments to the original offer are made in writing – there is no guarantee that the person you conclude your negotiations with will still be employed there when you arrive on your first day at the new job. Negotiating an offer does not have to be a painful experience. Be honest with yourself and with your prospective employer and you will both end up with what you desire.

The Counter-Offer
You announce your resignation at work and within hours you are made aware of the promotions that have been in the works for you and the big salary raise that matches or exceeds your new offer. This is called a counter offer. Think very carefully if you are considering a counter-offer. It is flattering to believe that your current company cannot get along without you, but in reality it is very expensive to replace a current employee. A counter-offer is often times a quick fix. The employer retains your services and skills but now has time to make contingencies for when you are gone. Now that your employer knows of your desire to sever the relationship, it is much easier for them to do it on their terms rather than yours. Remember why you started looking in the first place. Those concerns may well amplify once your current firm has the contingency plans in place.