On Site Savvy
How To Prepare For And Handle Interviews At Corporate Headquarters
by Tom Washington

You've succeeded. The college recruiter liked you so much you've been invited to interview at corporate headquarters. But after briefly relishing the victory, you’ve started to worry about the visit. Will you be picked up at the hotel or should you take a taxi? How do you account for your expenses?

Don’t panic. You can prepare well by following a few simple guidelines. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare can increase the odds you'll get an offer. In fact, the key to succeeding at corporate interviews is preparation.

Throughout the process demonstrate enthusiasm for the job and the company.

From the beginning, make sure you understand the process. The invitation will come from your college recruiter or another human resources professional. Ask any questions you have at that time, but don't worry if you forget something since you can always call the person later to clarify any points.

Make your trip as worry free as possible. If you're not sure how to get from the airport to the hotel, ask your contact person. If you're not sure if you are to take a taxi to the corporate headquarters or will be picked up at the hotel, ask. It is your responsiblity to get the information you need. Also ask how you should handle your incidental expenses such as taxis and meals. You will be reimbursed after submitting your receipts. The major expenses such as air fare and the hotel will all be handled by the company.

Know the schedule. Some will send you a schedule in advance, but others will give you the schedule only when you arrive. To be psychologically prepared it is best to know in advance who you will meet and their titles. Ask your contact person who the people are and what they are likely to want to know. Sometimes one of the interviewers is a technical specialist and that person's primary task will be to test your technical knowledge.

Susan Hansen, Director of College Recruitment for R.H. Macy's in San Francisco, emphasizes thoroughly researching the company. Read the annual report and use Infotrac, Proquest, eLibrary, Factiva, and PowerSearch to obtain magazine, newspaper, and journal articles. Weave your knowledge into the inteview only as it seems appropriate. Don’t try to overwhelm the interviewer with your vast knowledge.

Julie Do, a business graduate from the University of Washington, is convinced her extensive research paid off during on site interviews with Shell Oil, NCR, Cargill, and Clorox. With offers from two of them, she accepted a position in finance from Clorox. As she put it, "I had lots of figures, but it was my knowledge of mergers, acquisitions, new products, and reorganizations that seemed to impress them the most. The research also helped me ask the right questions."

You will normally arrive the night before your interviews. Being well rested for 6-8 hours of meetings and interviews will be critical. Hansen, of Macy's, has seen bedraggled candidates who got to know San Francisco well the night before, but then performed poorly in interviews.

Your first appointment will probably be with a human resources specialist who will provide information about the company and will ask a few questions. Your next appointment will likely be with the person who would be your direct supervisor. After that you may meet future colleagues and perhaps your boss' boss.

Lunch may consist of a quick bite at the company cafeteria or a long lunch at an expensive restaurant. Lunch is often used to chat in an informal way. In such a setting relax and enjoy lunch, but remember that you are still being interviewed. Use the time to demonstrate you are an interesting, knowledgeable person capable of speaking on numerous topics. Your host may be a junior staff member who has been with the organization one to two years and is there to answer your questions and let you know what it is really like to work there. Make full use of the opportunity to ask questions.

Use good judgment throughout lunch. Avoid finger foods or potentially messy foods like spaghetti. Order beer or wine only if your host does, but a soft drink would be safer. After all, you've got to be at your best throughout the rest of the day.

Howard Figler, author of The Complete Job Search Handbook and former placement director of the University of Texas at Austin, points out the importance of being nice to everyone you meet. Some managers make a point of asking their administrative assistants what they thought of a certain candidate. Word that the person was rude is usually the kiss of death.

In the afternoon you may get a tour, particularly if you are interviewing at a manufacturing facility. The tour could be guided by your prospective boss, but it is more likely to be someone from human resources or a department staff person. Show enthusiasm by looking attentive and by asking questions. Tell them when something you are being shown genuinely impresses you. Ask questions about what they are doing to constantly improve quality or ask about any new products coming out. Ask what the person likes most. Then ask, “What would you change about the company if you could?”

Your last appointment of the day will likely be with the human resources person you met at the beginning of the day. The person will try to answer any remaining questions. If you are still unsure of growth potential, this is the time to ask. This person will also want to discern if you are likely to accept an offer if extended. If you know you would, do not hide your enthusiasm.

Later, your interviewers will gather to discuss you. If you have sold yourself throughout and have maintained a high enthusiasm level, you will likely get an offer. Offers will usually come 1-4 weeks after the on site visit. When you get an offer, express your strong interest in the position, but also ask when they need a definite answer. Be prepared to negotiate over the phone. (see Negotiating The Best Salary in Interview Power) Once you know when they expect an answer, do two things. First, contact other companies you've interviewed with to determine the liklihood of an offer from them. Second, do your final research on the company that has made you an offer and confirm that you do in fact want to work there.

When you get home, take fifteen minutes to compose brief thank you notes to the people who interviewed you. All you need is two or three sentences to express appreciation and your desire to work for the company. If you feel time is critical, an email note is fine. (see After the Interview)

Dos and Don'ts

Following the recommendations of campus recruiters and placement directors can help a lot. Tim Collins, Manager of College Relations with The Boeing Company, suggests, "Make the most out of your time with corporate people. With upper managers discuss the direction of the company, with first line managers cover the duties of the job, and with HR people discuss benefits and corporate culture." At the end of the day he wants candidates to know as much about Boeing as possible, and much of that responsibility rests with the candidate.

Collins also encourages candidates to bring supporting material including writing samples, engineering drawings, or anything that would help demonstrate the skill and knowledge of the candidate. Bringing extra copies in addition to the originals, can be helpful. (see Using Portfolios in Interviews)

Robert Thirsk, former Director of the Center for Career Services at the University of Washington suggests researching the region you'll move to. Learn about the cost of living, climate, and culture. Wayne Cochran, a 1991 Arizona State University graduate who was recruited by Macy's, confirms the importance of studying the area. Having grown up in a small Oregon town, he has adjusted well to San Francisco, but others have not. Some have left an otherwise very satisfying training program because they did not adjust well.

Michelle Weinberger, Senior Recruiter with Microsoft, recommends that when meeting with a human resources person at the end of your visit, ask how you should follow up. She also recommends knowing what job you are being interviewed for. She has seen candidates accept an interview for one position, yet try to interview for another. With likely opportunities to make lateral moves in the future, decide first whether you are interested in the organization and whether it can help you achieve your career goals. Then concentrate on the job for which you were invited.

The Ethics of On Site Interviewing

Recruiters and placement directors are in agreement on the ethics of on site interviews. If you have no interest in a company that invites you to an on site interview, or if you know you would be unwilling to relocate there, do not accept an offer for an on site interview just to get practice interviewing or to explore a new city.

If two companies invite you to the same area at the same time, notify both of them so they can split the air fare and hotel costs. If you are excited about the opportunity to visit a certain city and want to spend addtional time there, or if you have friends or relatives in the area, it is acceptable to ask if you may reschedule your return trip. As long as it does not cause added expense, the company may grant your request. Asking the day you arrive is too late.

Recruiters consistently state that they want you to have a good time while visiting their company. Cochran and Do both confirm that companies went out of their way to ensure the visit was a good experience. While each interview day was stressful, both Cochran and Do state that they enjoyed their visits and greatly benefited from them.

Go to each on site visit with the intention of exuding enthusiasm and confidence, and selling yourself at all times. Go also with the intention that you will learn and grow.

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