THE INTERVIEW'S THE THING

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Edwina Klemm


Interviewing is an inescapable part of any job search. Even when I did contract work, I was some-times asked to “inter-view” first. I was often surprised at some of the things interviewers would ask and even more surprised when they were unaware that some questions were inappropriate or illegal.

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In the following scenario, the Human Resources interviewer is “HR” and the job applicant is “A.”

HR: Good morning. I'm glad you could make it for your appointment.

A: I'm sorry I'm late, but I had a bit of trouble getting started this morning. I really think mornings should start later, don’t you?

HR: Hm, well, I've looked over your résumé and the employment application you filled out. You haven't listed your date of birth. How old are you?

A: Uh, what age are you looking for? I'm, uh.

HR: Oh, it's not that important, we just don't want a gaggle of giggly young girls here, but we don't want a bunch of old hags out front either. In fact, quite often the attorneys ask me if I have a photo of the applicant so they can see what she looks like.

A: I've never been asked that before.

HR: Well, we've always done it that way. You know how difficult it is for attorneys to change the way they've been doing things. Let's see, now, getting back to business. You seem a little pale, you aren't an albino, are you? We couldn't have that. People would be uncomfortable.

A: No, I'm just fair complected. I guess that comes from my Irish heritage, although you’d think the Spanish blood would give me a more olive skin.

HR: Irish and Spanish, you aren't Catholic, are you? Our policies don't permit religious holidays.

A: No, I'm Baptist, does that count?

HR: I'd have to look that up. Now, about working weekends, would that be a problem?

A: Well, I do volunteer work on Saturday morning and teach a Kindergarten class and attend services at my church on Sunday, but I could come in Saturday or Sunday afternoon if necessary. Does this job call for much weekend work?

HR: That's hard to say, actually, but some of the attorneys do like to work weekends and evenings so they have afternoons free for golf. They say there are so many fewer people on the courses during the week. It would depend on the attorneys to whom you might be assigned. Well, if you teach Sunday School, I suppose you've never been arrested or convicted of any crime, have you?

A: No, I haven't. Does this job require me to be bonded?

HR: That depends. We like to be sure we don't have people in the office with criminal records. Now, your application and résumé don't mention your marital status. Are you married, do you have children, what about family?

A: I'm single, no children. As far as family plans, I can't say; I've been seeing someone who has children, but it's not serious yet.

HR: How old are these kids? We find that small children cause problems with attendance or call the office so often that it disrupts work.

A: Actually, they're teenagers, but . . . .

HR: Oh, teenagers are the worst–you want to stick them in a closet until they turn 21 so you can throw them out. Okay, single. Do you rent your home, and what type of credit cards do you have, if you don't mind my asking?

A: Well, I am buying a condo, but the bank actually owns it. What do credit cards have to do with this job?

HR: Not a thing, but we like to know that our people will be staying with us, and if they owe on credit cards, then they need the job. That's an administrative joke, hon.

A: Why, yes, I do have a few credit cards. Let's see–Spiegel, American Express, Discover, Master Card, Visa, Diner's Club, Dillard’s, Saks, Nieman’s, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Sears. I think that's all. Shop till you drop, that's my motto. I just love to spend my lunch hours shopping for bargains. But it usually takes more than an hour to search out the best buys, don't you think? That's why I just loved the job I had in Ohio–we had an hour and a half for lunch. I really found some great buys in those days.

HR: I see. Oh, have you ever been denied a fidelity bond?

A: No.

HR: OK, do any friends or relatives work with our firm? How did you learn about the vacancy? That's not covered on our application.

A: A friend of mine works for one of the associates.

HR: We want our people to be friendly, but we really don't like them to get too chummy. That usually means too much time spent chatting instead of working. Let's see, with all those credit cards you mentioned earlier, have you ever had a creditor garnish your wages?

A: Nope. I pay my bills every month–mostly.

HR: Well, all right then, what kind of salary are you looking for?

A: What kind of salary are you offering? I do have a certain standard of living to maintain, you know, so I need a substantial income. Your ad said "DOE." What is that here?

HR: Uh, what's the least salary you'd accept? 

A: What's the least salary you're paying? 

HR: Oh, let's just skip that question for now. Okay, next. You look healthy, but sedentary work does tend to make one soft. Can you lift heavy objects? We have the staff do all the moving when someone changes offices; we find we get more bang for our buck that way. We try to schedule any office changes during the lunch hour, so we have fewer interruptions to the work schedule. 

A: I have a back problem, but if it's not too heavy an object, I suppose I could push or pull it along the carpet. Is that really necessary, though? Couldn't the firm just hire some muscle to do the moving? 

HR: "Muscle," oh my, no, we don't do any criminal work here. And as far as moving furniture, we never push or pull anything–it causes the carpet nap to flatten and makes it shed–then we have to replace it before we've gotten the full depreciation. We much prefer that items be picked up and carried. Of course, moving only happens when the "nesting instinct" strikes, and that only affects our women associates–you know those biological clocks. We just never know when one of those things will go off. 

A: Well, I don't think I could carry anything very heavy. Does the firm have insurance that will cover medical and chiropractic bills? 

HR: Do you have any of those? We don't like to have claims filed against the insurance because they just make the rates go up. We encourage our staff to "tough it out." It builds character. 

A: No, I haven't filed many claims because most of my past employers didn’t have paid coverage, and with my addiction, I really couldn't afford medical coverage.

HR: And just what addiction would that be? 

A: Why, my shopping addiction, of course. 

HR: Oh, yes. Well, you're really interested in the firm's benefits, then? 

A: You have to think about those things, don't you? You said you had . . . . 

HR: Let's come back to that later, shall we? Well, then, there's no place on this application to list your former name, maiden name, or prior married name, also aliases. We really do need to revise this. Do you have any? 

A: No, only my maiden name, which is Irish, but . . . . 

HR: Oh? Do you drink much? Irish people are known to be heavy drinkers, I've heard, and we've had a problem in the past with a staff member who was out a lot because of alcohol problems. 

A: No, hardly ever. 

HR: All right, then. On the application, you didn't check the box next to "Sex." 

A: Well, there wasn't one that said "No." 

HR: That's not a "yes" or "no" kind of question. It's not like we have sex and no sex areas in the office, at least that we talk about. I can see that you're a female, so let's go on to the next item. You're not married, so I guess I don't need to ask where your husband works and what he does. Let's see, what about your residence addresses for the past 25 years, where have you lived, and how long have you been at your current address? 

A: Golly, I can't remember all the places I've lived in the past 25 years. There's been a bunch of them, because I always rented and was always looking for a better place to live. Now that I'm buying my home, I've been there 11 years. 

HR: Okay, fine. Now, what about this membership you list on your résumé, Legal Secretaries International. That's not a union, is it? 


A: Oh, no. It's a professional associa . . . . 

HR: It's not necessary to give me a promotional pitch. I just want to be sure that you have no union affiliations, because we certainly don't want any unions or union bargaining around here. We have enough trouble as it is, what with staff expecting raises every year, vacations and sick leave, medical benefits. We just never know what they'll think of next. Paid parking, I suppose. Now, do you have any questions you'd like to ask me about the job or the firm?

A: Yes, I do have a few. The first thing is salary. You haven't mentioned what the range might be. The only thing I've heard is "DOE." 

HR: Well, salary really is dependent upon experience and the job market. We're looking for someone with a minimum of five years legal, word processing, bookkeeping, and docketing experience, good grammar skills, possibly some paralegal training. We really want someone who is technologically advanced, someone on the "cutting edge," as we use the most advanced equipment here. For instance, have you used these marvelous Dictaphone belts? 

A: I don't think so; say, aren't those machines in the Smithsonian now? I thought you said you were cutting edge here. 

HR: Oh, yes, we are up to the minute. We have a committee whose sole function is to locate the best, most technologically advanced equipment to meet our needs. The attorneys who purchased these said we not only got a great deal, but we had something most other offices hadn't even heard of; and we also got a wonderful deal on a batch of Wangs. 

A: What about salary?

HR: We're confident that the $2,000 per month salary we're prepared to pay will get us the best candidate. 

A: Really, and what benefits do you offer? 

HR: We have an extensive and very competitive package: two-week paid vacation after one year, free parking, lovely office, a variety of people with whom to work, and, oh, yes, five days per year of sick leave. 

A: What about medical insurance? 

HR: We have medical coverage, with a $1,000 deductible, the premiums on which are split between the firm and the employee 70/30. Dependent coverage is available, but the employee must pay the premium. That shouldn't be of concern to you. 

A: And dental and visual coverage, disability income, life insurance? 

HR: We don't offer those coverages for staff. We've found that major medical is good enough. After all, the attorneys are looking for a profit, and you can't have one if you have to pay out a lot of money on frivolous stuff. 

A: Well, what about paying dues for my membership in Legal Secretaries, paying for seminars, and that kind of thing? What about my attendance at the Legal Secretaries International Inc. meetings? 

HR: We might consider paying for some dues after an employee has been with us a few years. It would be up to the management committee; no one has ever asked that before. 

A: Okay, what about pension, profit-sharing, 401(k), or cafeteria plans? Do you have any of those? 

HR: The partners have retirement and profit-sharing, hence the desire to make a profit. I don't believe they've considered extending any of this to employees. Besides, what we offer has been good enough all these years, there's no reason to change. We don't have a cafeteria on the premises, but there are a number of restaurants and fast food places close by.

A: And what kind of staff turnover do you have? 

HR: We really don't keep track of that here, as we don't believe that staff leaving has anything to do with benefits. They just leave, moving on to something else.

A: I'm so sure. What about accommodations for any special needs? 

HR: Oh, certainly. You can bring in anything you need, but if the firm pays for it, the cost is deducted from your pay. Those things can be so expensive. That reminds me, we don't permit personal items to be displayed in the office area, so staff members are asked not to bring in any pictures of their children or any plants or anything like that. We find it too distracting, so our staff is less productive. 

A: Hasn't anyone around here seen "9 to 5"? 

HR: Our office hours are 8 to 5, and thank you for asking. Well, we have other people to interview. You're the first, and I have several other interviews. It will be another week or so before I wrap this up, so we'll probably be making a decision in the next two weeks. We'll let you know. 

A: Thank you for your time, and good luck to you. 

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Some Tips on Interviewing 


  • When preparing for an interview, it is a good idea to do some checking of your own to find out the firm's reputation, what the job turnover is, what type of work it does, how employees are treated, and any special job requirements. 
  • Dress appropriately. This does not mean you must be dressed in the latest fashion, but you should be clean and neat. 
  • Arrive on time or be a little early for the interview. You can find out a lot about a firm just by observing what takes place in the reception area. 
  • Give the interviewer a firm handshake. Smile. Make eye contact.
  • Be positive in your responses; do not make negative comments about your current or former employers. 
  • Speak clearly. Listen to the questions and think before answering a difficult one. If you are unsure what your response should be, try replying with a question (if asked about the salary you expect, you could ask what they plan to pay the best candidate). 
  • Give brief answers, elaborating only when necessary. 
  • Avoid negative body language (touching your mouth, faking a cough to think about the answer to a question, folding or crossing your arms, swinging your foot or leg). 
  • Do not smoke or chew gum during the interview. 
  • If you receive an offer during the interview, do not refuse it without thinking about it; it may be the only one you receive. 
  • Thank the interviewer for his or her time when you leave. Follow up with a thank you letter. Many applicants may fail to do so, but not you. 




What Questions Should You Expect?

Questions asked by the interviewer should relate to the job, the candidate's specific qualifications for that job, and the candidate's career qualifi-cations. Questions relating to age, marital status, spouse's employment, children, financial situation, social, religious, or community group memberships, or ethnic origin are not appropriate. 

You may be asked to tell about yourself, what you look for in a job, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. You should prepare answers to these questions in advance, so you can respond without having to think about what you should say. 

When telling about a weakness, put a positive spin on it ("I worry about my work and sometimes work late to be sure the job is done well."), turning it into something an employer might perceive as a strength. 

You will probably be asked why you left your last job. Your response may be relocation, dissolution of the firm, a temporary job, or no chance for advancement. If you had a problem, be prepared to be honest about it, without going into detail and without being negative about the employer. If possible, show it was a learning experience that will not affect future employment.

A job candidate should also know what questions not to ask the interviewer, such as those of a personal nature ("Are you married?"), those that would raise a warning flag ("Would I really have to work overtime?"), or those about only one topic (salary or benefits). 

Now that you've done your homework, checked the prospective employer’s references, prepared for the tough questions which are bound to come, and have some questions of your own to ask, you're ready for the interview. Go out and dazzle them.

Edwina Klemm, PLS, is a charter member of Legal Secretaries International Inc. and is presently serving as President. She has attained certification as a Professional Legal Secretary and is the author of our Legal Secretary’s Creed. Edwina is also currently serving as president of Legal Secretaries of Texas and has held numerous positions, including president, of other professional associations.  She regularly serves as a seminar instructor and frequently contributes articles for In Brief.