Monday, 30 August 2010

Don't forget... you're assessing us too

Many graduates find themselves nervous and in awe when attend an interview or assessment in a fast-paced office where dozens of people are employed. It is sometimes only when a job offer arrives and a decision has to be made that you may realise that the finer points of the experience have eluded you.

It is easy to slip into the mentality that an interview is a one-way assessment. The experience is harrowing enough without having to focus on what's going on in your surrounds. You should remember however, that this is one of the only opportunities you will have to decide whether this is a place of work that fits with your ideal, or even acceptable, working environment - and you should ensure you do not waste this opportunity by being aware of what you should be looking for. You are in a position where you can judge the company as much as they are judging you.

Most companies hold their interviews or assessment days on location - for example, IBM and Accenture both hold the majority of their graduate assessment centres at their base offices in London. If the opportunity to visit a company office arises, be prepared to observe as much as possible in order to decipher the kind of company they are - and occasionally this can be different to that is portrayed at interview or in company presentations. A visit to the location is often the only chance available to see the day-to-day inner workings of the company.

The Staff

Inevitably if the interview is held on company site, the staff who normally work there will be going about their work. Their demeanour is one of the most important clues as to the company culture. It is largely impossible for you to take everything in on the day of the interview, as focusing on the job at hand is of paramount importance, however trying to keep the following in mind will help to assess the culture:

-       Do the staff appear to be enjoying their work?
-       Is there a social atmosphere - are people chatting, or are any discussions very formal?
-       Do they smile at you and appear welcoming or do they avoid eye contact?
-       What is the dress code? Is it very formal, business casual or very casual - are people wearing jeans and t-shirts or wearing suits (be aware that sometimes companies have dress-down Fridays or 'Denim day' charity events)?
-       Look at the age ranges of the employees - are there many who look like they might be recent graduates? A large graduate intake may mean the company has a structured programme which will ensure that as a graduate you get the appropriate career guidance, training and support through your early years working in the industry.
-       Does there appear to be a hierarchy or is it difficult to tell the junior and senior staff apart?
-       If you have 'down time' between interviews, are any staff sent along to meet you for informal conversations?

The Logistics

Whilst the location, layout or office d├ęcor may not seem of great importance on the day of an interview, they can again reveal ways of working or indications about company culture to you. It is not always possible to observe everything, but looking at signs, layout maps and what staff are carrying can give some ideas about what facilities are in the building. 

-       How does the reception area look - is it imposing / welcoming / very modern and flashy? Does it have plasma screens promoting the company or posters and advertising campaigns?
-       Is the office open-plan or are there lots of smaller individual offices?
-       What type of facilities is on offer - are there a canteen / an outdoor area / a gym?
-       Do the chairs and desks look expensive? Do the desks have 21 inch monitors? This may imply a company looks after its staff - that their health, safety and comfort and efficiency at work is paramount, and that they are willing to pay extra to ensure this is the case.
-       Are there assigned desks or is 'hot-desking' in place? This implies there may be a degree of mobility involved in the work.
-       Are there a lot of branded folders, bags, and merchandise in view? This may imply that image and branding is of importance.
-       Do they reimburse any expenses you incurred travelling to/from the interview?

The Job

It is likely that there are a large number of job roles in view at any given time on a visit to a company site, there will always be indications which hint at the type of work the staff do on a day to day basis.

-       Do they have posters of their work or clients on the walls? Do you recognise any of the campaigns or customers?
-       Are there many meeting rooms with lots of meetings going on? This may imply lots of teamwork or client interaction.
-       Is the main entrance busy with people coming and going throughout the day? Do these people appear to be staff or visiting clients? Again, this may give an indication of the type of day to day work.
-       Can you see evidence of awards and achievements around the office? This is often a sign that the company invests in research & development, or recognises individual and team achievement amongst its staff.
-       Do staff work from fixed PCs or laptops? Again, laptops may imply that mobility is required.
-       Are there a lot of reference books and manuals on desks? This may be an indication of new development work, research, or an encouragement of on-the-job learning.

Some companies chose to do interviews at hotels or specialist conferencing facilities. Sometimes this is due to lack of office space, or the location of the interviewing staff, or sometimes it is because they want to put across a particular persona to the graduates being interviewed.  Whilst this type of interview does deny the opportunity to observe the company culture and staff in their native arena, there are still a number of indicators which can be taken into account.

-       What type of hotel or conference facility been booked? 
-       How are the staff dressed?
-       Is food, tea, coffee or drinks laid on for interviewees?
-       How many of the company's staff are on location to make sure that everything runs smoothly?
-       Is the time management good or are they constantly over-running and you find yourself waiting an hour for your interview?
-       Again, do they offer to pay any expenses you incur, if applicable?

Through these kinds of observations, you may be able to establish if the trip to undertake the graduate assessment is something which the staff approach with enthusiasm because they are rewarded by the company - with a nice hotel, reasonable travel arrangements and comfortable living whilst there.

The actual interview is also an opportunity to unearth something about company culture, but often the interviewers are well-trained and highly professional, so the image they portray may not always be representative of a typical person or personality in the company, depending on the type of interview which is in question. Take in everything they say and do, and then use that in combination with observations on the day, to make a decision about the kind of culture which appears to exist in the company. The culture is a very important part of the company and will be the driving factor of work hours, social activity and ways of working on a day to day basis.

Regardless of the marketing strategies or public perception of a company, what you should be most observant of during your time at interview is the opinions and attitudes of the employees and the atmosphere and ethic of the work place.

If, when that all important job offer arrives, you can see yourself in that place, with those colleagues, in that atmosphere, doing that work, then chances are, following that gut instinct is not something you will regret.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Assessment Centres: Dont be an OMDB

At the end of an assessment centre, everyone involved at the company - interviewers, assessors, HR -  will attend a 'wash-up' discussion. This is where every graduate who attended is discussed.  The majority of the discussion will be quite factual and evidence based, but every so often, despite the evidence, an OMDB will emerge. This is when a graduate has annoyed an assessor during the day that they have decided that "Over My Dead Body" will this graduate be given a job in my company.  I'd like to say it doesn't happen often, but if I'm honest, there is usually at least one OMDB in every assessment centre. And usually the assessor will speak so strongly against that person at the wash-up, that regardless of how well they've done during the day, they will not get a job offer. The severe doubts that that one person has will cast doubts in everyone else's mind too.

The wash-up is driven by a spreadsheet where your scores across the competencies assessed that day are shown.  Most companies I have worked at will add some kind of visual aid for the audience - e.g. using a 'traffic light' system to display who did well or not.

I've put an example here to talk you through the usual scenarios we encounter so that you can understand how to avoid being an unfortunate statistic and instead. The grading is 1-5, with 5 being the best and 1 the worst. 1-2 grades are shaded red - 'not acceptable', 3 - 'did ok' - is graded orange - and 4-5 are graded green - 'did well'.

The definite hire in the list above was Donald Chen him. He got 'greens' in most categories, no reds, and everyone felt they had a good interview with. After a brief discussion about how good he was and an argument about who wanted him in their team, he was immediately categorised as an offer. 

Nicola O'Malley didn't get scores that make a huge impact. But she also didn't get any 'reds'. There is a lot of talk about her potential at the wash-up.  She is a grad that I like to classify as having the 'likeability' factor. Although she might not have packed a huge punch at interview - she didn't reach the kinds of standards that Derek did - all of the interviewers liked her a lot and felt that if they got to spend some time with her in their team, they could bring out the best in her and turn her into something special. The "likeability factor" meant that despite the lack of 4/5 scores, they felt they were willing to give her a chance and put the time into her to develop her.  

John Sheldon was the other end of the scale. Lots of people scored him very highly. But the person who did the technical interview with him classified him as an OMDB. The really did not want him in the company. And that kind of vehemence is difficult to disregard.

Gemima Holden was perhaps the most unfortunate case in the list above. She didn't get any 'reds' and didn't annoy anyone. But she got a 29 in the reasoning test. And whilst there was some talk about her potential, just like Nicola, the low score in the reasoning test overrode this and she was declined.

Put yourself in the context of the above discussion. What would your scores be? Would you do anything to cause someone to put you in their OMDB category??

The best part of my job is making phone calls to graduates at the end of an assessment centre to offer them a role in our company. I love doing it, especially on Friday evenings. It sets me (and them!) up for a great weekend. I've had multiple graduates (male and female!) cry when they hear the news, because it means so much to them. And I'd be lying if I said that once or twice it hadn't made me cry too. For some graduates it has been four years of hard slog, studying during the day and working at night to fund that study.  When I get to offer someone who has clearly faced adversity and challenge in their lives and risen above it all to get an offer from a top company, I am incredibly proud of them, and very excited to have recruited them into our company.

Don't be a statistic. Questions or suggested future topics welcomed.  How can I help unveil the secrets of graduate recruitment for you?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

University Careers Fair Series: Part 1 - Who's who?

No matter what university you attend these days, you are bound to have a number of options when it comes to career fairs and company presentations. Given the time of the year, I'm going to start my blog with a series about fairs in particular, and how to make the most of them.  Let's jump straight to on-the-day:

What to wear?
Let's start with the boring stuff. You should look tidy and neat, but the majority of companies do not expect you to show up in a suit to a careers fair. There are some advocates for wearing something distinctive - a tartan scarf, a purple shirt, a brooch - so that you can be remembered - "oh, you mean the one with the red chunky necklace?" - in conversation later (because believe me, there will be conversation). But, be careful, there is a fine line between a distinctive shirt and 'quirky'. And you want to stay on the safe side of quirky for most graduate jobs.

What you need to bring, even though you probably wont need them:
- Some copies of your updated CV 
- Business cards, if you have them
- Pen and paper
- For your top 5 employers, a printed copy of some of the details from their graduate website so that you have the exact details and programme names to hand so you can demonstrate that you have done your research... even if it was only when you were hidden around the corner 5 seconds before reading through it.

Once you have figured out the stands you want to visit, do a fly-by. Figure out who is manning the stand. This is generally quite easily done. There are three types of attendees at a company's stand at a careers fair. One or two will be from the graduate recruitment team, at least two graduates from the last 2 years or so, and maybe a couple of people from 'the business'/'the line'. This basically means someone from a manager or slightly more senior level in the company.  They are fairly easy to categorise into one of these three.  The recruiter is often a woman - it is a HR-based career that even in this day and age, is still dominated by women - although don't take this as a given. There is nothing more career-limiting than assuming the Partner is the grad recruiter....

The Grads
They are easy to spot. Keenly wearing their company name badges when the pros often just pocket them absent-mindedly. Graduates love attending these events. A year ago, they were in your position... wondering where to go next, and then figuring out how to get there. Now they are sitting pretty in a top graduate job with a new ready-made set of friends to spend their steady income on overseas holidays and nights out with. They are a mixture of relieved, overwhelmed, out-of-their-depth and just a little bit smug too. And who can blame them? It's tough out there.  

All of this means that they are a great source of information. Being on the 'other side' at the assessment centre is still fresh in their mind. The reasons they decided to join, the people they met along the way, how their first impressions are different to their expectations....  Use the conversation with the grads to ask the questions that you should not ask a recruiter or senior staffer (sorry, but that's the reality....):  "What are the working hours really like?", "How much travel is involved?", "What's the social scene like?", "What type of work do grads really get in their first six months?", etc. The repercussions of asking a grad these questions are usually minimal. And if you need to know the answer before you would join the company, then they need to be asked. If they like you, they will do what they can to give you tips on how to join them.

Business attendees
Making a great impression on a business representative is the gold at the end of the careers fair rainbow.  Business reps are the 'customer' of the graduate recruiters. They are not always ones for due process around applications.  If you make a good enough impression, they will want to get you into the company, or even into their team. I once had one hound me for weeks after an event where he talked to a girl called "Carly wearing a pink coat" (not being a pro at the graduate recruitment thing, he did not get any further detail from her...).  He made me go through all the applications from that university and interview all the Carlys... Thankfully her name wasn't something more commonplace!  Anyway, four Carly interviews later, I found her and she got through to the final assessment centre stages with us. 

To make an impression on a business rep you will have about 2 minutes.  (If I'm being completely honest, I would probably say you have about 10 seconds - the length of time it takes you to ask your first question - but let's assume that it is early in the day and they are still engaged). You need to ask a question which demonstrates recent knowledge of the company/industry, without just showing off (although obviously this is what you are trying to do).  It also needs to be a question relevant to the job, an answer you need to know to help you decide whether to apply / what to apply for. Do the best you can in the short time you have to build a rapport with them. Concentrate on where you are, don't get distracted or start thinking about the next stand. These two minutes could change your life. I might sound melodramatic, but I've seen it too many times not to stress the importance of first impression. Don't press your CV or business card on them. If they didn't ask for it, then they've been instructed not to take them and are following orders. If you haven't slam-dunked on getting them to take your details, don't beat yourself up. Most of them don't. And you have plenty more chances at the job.

Grad Recruiters
The vast majority of grad recruiters are on your side. They do the job because they enjoy working with young people and are excited about the vitality and new ideas that you will bring to their company.  Help them to help you. To make a friend of them, don't ask anything that you can get from the website - timescales, what programmes they offer, how to apply, etc. Talk their language by asking about key competencies they look for, what the different stages of the interview process are. What tips would they offer to a candidate for succeeding to get a job at their company?  Again, make sure you write down that information as soon as you leave the stand. Any info you get from the graduate recruiter is info that you have over the many other applicants (often thousands) who will apply without having met anyone from the company. We will talk another time about how to use this during your application.

As you leave the stand, take a copy of each brochure. They are great for using later when making an application to talk the same language as them. If it's a busy fair, don't take up more time than you need. Don't hang around staring longingly at the stand. Once you've got the information you need, step aside and move on. Perhaps listen to someone else's question & answer if it is a really busy fair and people are having discussions in groups.

Finally, as soon as you move away from the stand, if they are a company that you might want to work for write down the name(s) of the people you have met - even if it is only briefly. Quote that person's name in your cover letter / application.  A letter/app definitely catches the eye if it says "A conversation with Joe Bloggs at the LSE careers fair on Oct 6th advanced my knowledge of your graduate programme....etc", or something to that effect. This is definitely one way to make your app different to the hundreds of others a recruiter will see in a day. (Note: this does not mean saying "I met Joe Bloggs and he encouraged me to apply" (unless he did, which would be great....))