First Rule: No Navels

By: Randy Dotinga

The job candidate walked in wearing black biker shorts and a top that exposed her belly button. A nice look, perhaps, but not for someone who wants to work in advertising at The Dallas Morning News.

“No one in our office took her seriously,” said Kerri McSween, senior human resources manager at the newspaper, who had a similar reaction when a male applicant leaned over her desk and declared he would do “absolutely anything” to get a job. “Don’t come on to the interviewer,” McSween advises.

OK, spandex is out, and making a pass is a bad idea too. These seem like no-brainers, but many personnel directors know that common sense during the interview process isn’t as common as it should be.

Here, then, are tips from the experts about what to do when a newspaper decides to take you for a test drive.

* Be prepared: “Do your homework on the employer who will be interviewing you. The Internet is great for this,” said Sherry Huffman, employee relations director for the jointly operated Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. “Be able to give a brief description of your best skills and job experience. Bring copies of your resume and references. Make sure you have addresses, phone numbers, dates of employment, etc., to accurately complete an employment application.”

* Don’t dress down: A business suit or dress isn’t always necessary at a newspaper job interview, but looking professional is still a must, even in these days of “business casual” clothing. “I’d advise applicants to take it up a notch for an interview, so they’re not remembered as that wrinkled, sloppy guy or the girl in the flip-flops,” McSween said.

Trish McConnell, director of human resources at the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, doesn’t worry about things like earrings and hair color. But she said applicants must be well groomed, and she likes to see someone dress up if they’re applying for a position that requires contact with the public, like an outside sales representative or a circulation counter receptionist. Dress slacks and button-down or polo shirts are acceptable, but jeans and T-shirts are never a good idea, she said.

* Turn the tables on your interviewer: “The biggest mistake is not coming prepared with your own questions,” said Kay Tucker Addis, editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and a former human resources director. “The more curious someone is about your newspaper, your newsroom, your organization, the more they show a level of interest. In most jobs, curiosity and initiative are important. It’s a real downer when someone doesn’t want to know anything from you.”

If you can’t think of good questions, ask the interviewer about the newspaper’s strengths and weaknesses and about his or her goals.

* Send a thank-you note: “It’s a common courtesy that’s fallen by the wayside,” said Huffman of the Detroit papers. “That can really make a difference for an applicant. It might not get you the job, but it might be something that a manager is waiting for before making a decision.”

You’ll make the best impression with a thank-you note sent by snail mail, but an e-mail will still set you apart from the pack. Just make sure you don’t send a computer virus along with it.

* Keep your eyes on the prize: Don’t let your disappointment get the best of you. McSween, the Dallas human resources manager, remembers sending a rejection letter to an applicant for a receptionist job. The woman sent the letter back, scratching out words and adding a few of her own. Where McSween had written that “another candidate” had been hired, the applicant scrawled “21-year-old blond bimbo.”

Actually, the new hire didn’t fit that description. “I called her and I said, ‘I can see you’re very upset, and I’m sorry to hear that. As a matter of fact, the person we hired is older than you are.'” The applicant began to cry and said: “I’m sorry, I’ve been looking for a job so long and the market is so terrible. I just knew I was going to get this job.”

Extra points for honesty didn’t get the woman a position. But avoiding her mistake might have gotten her a job down the line.

COMING NEXT WEEK: The caller wants to know about the job performance of the worst employee you’ve ever had. Should you tell the truth? Will you get sued? Learn the ins and outs of giving references.

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