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Tooling Up: Mr. Manners Hits the Interviewing Trail

On interview day, one applicant totally ignores Jim, Dr. Kumar's assistant, who sits in front of the Director's office. Jim--who in most offices is actually Sally, or Jan, or Suzie, but we'll call him Jim so as not to condone this gender imbalance--put the schedule together and arranged the candidates' travel. But in the eyes of the first applicant, Jim isn't worth a "hello" on the way in the door.

Then, when the second interviewee comes by Jim's desk, he smiles, makes eye contact, and offers a cheery "Good morning"; No faux-friendliness -- just a little common courtesy. It's such a small gesture, it couldn't possibly make a difference.

Or could it?

I'm here to tell you that it can. More than likely, Jim is a graduate of a top-level college, the possessor of a fine mind, and a valued advisor to Dr. Kumar. But even if he isn't, the way you manage these and other etiquette issues during your job search can send signals about the kind of person you are and what you might be like to work alongside, which has a considerable impact on your ability to attract offers. Just like your mother told you all those years ago: your manners speak in a voice the whole world can hear.

The subject of etiquette has never come up in "Tooling Up." I am surprised it turns out to be me who writes about it. My wife has complained for years that I slurp when I eat soup, and that watching me consume a bag of popcorn in the theater is not a pleasant experience. However, after being inspired recently by a great new book on business manners, I thought I would write about those areas of etiquette that I do know about: civility in the job-seeking and interview process.

My inspiration for this month's column is a new book called The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules for Business Success, (AMACOM, 2005). Author Beverly Langford covers a broad range of topics in this quick read, which is directed toward both the job seeker and the experienced executive. It's worth a spot on my bookshelf for those situations in my business life that leave me etiquette-challenged.

The advice that follows, in the form of a series of questions and answers, is distilled from my own experience and the experiences of people I've worked with on behalf of my client companies (and, of course, on advice from Langford's book). Here's hoping that after reading "Tooling Up" this month, you will emerge with a better sense of how small actions on your part can leave behind a much more positive impression. And leaving behind positive impressions is just what you need to do if you want to be hired.

Etiquette Issues in the Job-Seeking Process

Q. I've tapped out my contacts--friends and acquaintances--and I now need to start making networking calls to total strangers in my field of expertise. How can I politely ask for their time and seek their help? A. Making contact with strangers can be unpleasant because not everyone is interested in talking to you. But if you introduce yourself first, then politely request a few minutes--rather than diving right into your sales pitch--you'll open far more doors. No matter whom you are calling or how friendly they seem, always start with a request for a moment of their time. If they refuse, thank them anyway and hang up courteously.

Here's an example of how such a conversation might sound: "Dr. Finnegan, my name is John Chang, and I'm researching a career move that I'm planning to make next year. Can you spare a moment for a question or two, or am I catching you at a bad time?" Then, when your contact says she has a moment, make another promise: "Thank you. I'll be brief, since I know how busy you must be." Proper etiquette means making--and keeping--a promise to respect their time.

Q. I made a good contact with a scientist inside a company; this scientist was kind enough to submit my resume to the Human Resources department. Is it OK to call this person back and check in? I am concerned about being too aggressive and making her uncomfortable.

A. If you are sure that person has indeed forwarded on your materials, your future dealings should be with someone in H/R. It is appropriate to ask the scientist for a contact within the H/R department, but for this a quick e-mail should suffice. From that point on, any inquiries about open jobs should be directed to the recommended contact or to H/R, and not to your networking acquaintance. He or she will not be up to speed on the company's openings, and you risk becoming an annoyance.

But don't let that stop you from keeping in touch. Continue to drop your contact a line with something of mutual interest--a scientific article you've come across, a comment about something you two have discussed in the past, etc. As a rule of thumb, making contact once a month is plenty. Depending upon the weight of the item you're offering, you may decide to call or just to e-mail. Though some people prefer a phone call, generally e-mails are less disruptive, so save the phone for times when nothing but a personal contact will do. The important point is to stay in touch.

Q. I'm interested in a couple of positions within the same company, and they are all quite different. One is a business position and another involves much more hands-on science. What is the proper etiquette for juggling multiple-position applications?

A. There is nothing ethically wrong with having two different job applications submitted to an employer, or even more than two. But, for courtesy's sake, it is important to remember not to make yourself look like different people on each application. While you certainly will want to have specialized CV's in their hands, each fine tuned to the job at hand, anyone who reads them should see that it's the same person applying but with different highlighted strengths. Don't use conflicting objective statements or cover letters ( i.e., you wouldn't want the cover letter accompanying the business application to state your desire to leave the bench, while the letter for the science position talks about a love of experimental science). Though etiquette doesn't always require--or even favor--absolute honesty, in most situations it's important not to mislead intentionally, for tactical reasons and for common courtesy.

Q. I'm curious whether the old-fashioned rules about special courtesies to women still apply. When going through a doorway, should the man always open the door for the woman? When a woman walks up to join a group at lunch, should I stand?

A. Author Beverly Langford states in The Etiquette Edge that the first person to reach a doorway should open the door for the others. That would include a woman opening the door for the men in the party. When you are at a business lunch and another person you don't know comes up to join your table, stand and introduce yourself with a handshake, whether it's a woman or a man. It is not necessary to stand when someone joins your group if you are already acquainted, whether that person is male or female.

Recommended Reading

As mentioned in my column, a new release on etiquette may help you avoid an embarrassing and harmful job-interview faux pas. The Etiquette Edge: Unspoken Rules for Business Success, is aimed at people further along in their careers but also clearly explains many examples of difficult situations in everyday life. I particularly like the examples of "on the job" manners and situations involving company politics which play into all our professional lives whether in industry or academia.

Another wonderful book on my shelf on a similar topic is Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct, which is written by a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland--P.M. Forni. Dr. Forni's essays about manners have been heard regularly on National Public Radio. This book is good background for someone who would enjoy living a courteous life with respect for others. It sets up a lot of broad philosophy about civility and manners, and it is a great foundation for the everyday rules of etiquette in The Etiquette Edge.

Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, by P.M. Forni. Published by St. Martin's Press, NY, NY. 2002. ISBN 0-312-28118-8

The Etiquette Edge: Unspoken Rules for Business Success, by Beverly Langford. Published by the AMACOM, NY, NY. 2005. ISBN 0-8144-7242-7

Q. I'm heading out for some postdoc interviews and I want to choose a lab where the advisor will be around for awhile. How should I go about asking--politely--if the PI plans to move to a different school or retire?

A. Courteously inserting a personal topic into a standard interview dialog can be tricky; necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. The best etiquette--and tactic--may be to enclose it in a bigger question. Ask the P.I. to describe how his or her career has developed. It's courteous to ask others about themselves (as long as you don't get too personal) and most people enjoy describing their work and their career paths. Then, when the conversation turns to the P.I.'s more recent history, you'll be in a position to ask--with good eye contact and maybe with a smile--whether his or her career plans include sticking around for the next several years.

This last question is a great example of how ethics and tactics interweave. Etiquette is important in its own right, as an expression of respect and common decency. But it's also a means to an end, a way of getting closer to that job you really want.

The best battle plan is of little use if you don't know how to fight. Similarly, the best job-search plan is useless if you cannot to translate strategy and tactics into personal relationships, moment by moment. The key to doing that is etiquette.

'Til next time . . .

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