Over 40 and Looking for Work? Be Prepared to Run the Gauntlet

March 15, 2012  
Filed under Business

Employers using new hiring tools

By Dr. Stephen A. Laser

If you’re looking for work and unacquainted with the new reality of proving your mettle, you’re in for a big surprise. If landing a job isn’t hard enough for today’s unemployed worker, companies have added a layer of difficulty to the process which makes getting hired that much harder. Specifically, you will probably be asked to take an on-line test just to be considered for an interview. And once you do earn the opportunity to be interviewed, you will likely face another challenge in the form of behaviorally-based methods of questioning your qualifications for the job.

As a business psychologist who has practiced my profession for over 30 years, I’d like to offer some helpful and practical advice without trying to teach you ways to “game” the system.

With unemployment still lurking near 9 percent and little likelihood of going much lower, job seekers can use all the friendly advice they can get. Remember, nothing is gained from distorting your answers to test questions or lying during a job interview. In the event you do manage to fool a prospective employer, the chances of succeeding on the job are small, and you will be back at square one while suffering another embarrassing loss of employment. On the other hand, many people are totally uninformed about the gauntlet they must run, and this includes being unprepared for testing and interviewing techniques which, with a little groundwork, allows you to give a good account of your qualifications.

On-Line Testing: What are employers looking for?

Using on-line tests to screen job applicants before meeting them face-to-face has become commonplace among employers. The explosion of eligible job applicants, especially during the past several years during the recent recession, has made the practice of on-line testing even more advisable for companies looking to winnow down the pool of available candidates. So what are these tests and what are they looking to find?

Most on-line tests are really surveys seeking to measure a job applicant’s attitudes and likely responses to certain job-related situations. In particular, these tests are looking to measure a person’s conscientiousness and attitudes toward work, to include paying attention to detail and being organized as well as the ability to meet assigned deadlines. At the same time, these tests focus on a person’s ability to get along with others in the workplace, where operating as part of a team is often a very important component to achieving overall company goals and objectives. The numbers and names of tests used on-line are legion. They run the gamut from name-brand instruments to tests developed by various statistically-trained individuals and sold to companies for their own use.

There is no best way to game the system. Furthermore, giving a misleading picture of yourself can lead to unintended consequences, such as being asked to interview for a job where you will be a poor fit for the demands of the role. At the same time, there are some helpful hints to aid you in responding to on-line testing tools. First, most test-takers struggle with the question, do I answer items as if I’m at work or more generally, to include when I am with my friends and family? The best approach is to consider your behavior in the company of your colleagues at work, not your family and friends. For example, the freedom to say what is on our minds is a luxury most of us enjoy with family and friends, but which can be detrimental in the workplace.

Another word of caution is about answering questions in the extreme, if asked to “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” with an item along with milder responses in between. If you do have a strongly held belief about something, then by all means express it, but answering in the extreme to show the strength of your convictions is not always a good idea. In addition, don’t manage your impression too hard. Most sophisticated tests have scales which measure “faking” and you don’t want to be flagged for making yourself appear unrealistically attractive as a potential employee.

Behaviorally-based Interview Questions: At one time, companies were caught for asking personal questions of job applicants which had little relevance to performing the job. Specifically, questions about marital status, children and childcare arrangements along with inquiries into national origin or background were routinely asked and often used as a basis for selecting job applicants. It’s illegal to hire and discriminate on this basis, and so enter the neutral behaviorally-based interview questions.

These questions center on specific situations any job applicant might have encountered in a previous place of work. For example, employers will ask a candidate to tell about a time they dealt with a difficult employee or had to plan a project from start to finish. Other behaviorally-based interview questions might ask about handling an unexpected change at work or dealing with an important customer that wanted you to bend the rules for them. The number of questions like this can be quite daunting, and to get an even better picture of what might be asked, Google the topic “behaviorally-based interview questions” to learn more about what to expect.

Let me offer a couple of helpful suggestions. First, when giving an example from prior jobs, make sure you can recall situations from different employers and not just one particular position or company. Second, make sure you come prepared with two or three examples of successes and setbacks during the course of your career. Be able to explain what happened as briefly as possible along with your role and the role of other people in the situation. No one likes an egomaniac. Next, tell what you learned from the situation, and more importantly, how you have applied those learned lessons going forward in subsequent situations.

Finally, what about answering the most dreaded of all interview questions, “Tell me your biggest weakness?” Remember, your biggest weakness is probably your biggest strength taken to extreme. For the very bright job applicant that can mean thinking you’re smarter than everyone else. For the socially-skilled candidate that can mean trying to please all the people all of the time. For the super-organized and efficient individual that can mean an obsession with detail. A response like “I could spell better” or “I work too hard” makes you sound silly at best and disingenuous at worst.

It’s a new world out there for today’s job seeker. Companies have become more sophisticated in their screening techniques, and you need to stay ahead of the game. While faking tests results and lying on interview questions will only cause you more problems in the end, being prepared and doing your homework to know what to expect is only sensible given the gauntlet you are being asked to run in order to find a new job. Good luck!

Stephen A. Laser, PhD has more than 30 years of experience as a business psychologist. Over the past 10 years, Dr. Laser has been a guest speaker to various groups of unemployed individuals, typically over the age of 40, and previously taught courses in business psychology at Northwestern University, Roosevelt University and the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.

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