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Six Tips for Surviving a Screening Interview

The young screener who interviewed me

The young screener who interviewed me

If you’ve been laid off, and you’re a Baby Boomer, chances are that once you hit the interview trail you’ll be confronted by the prospect of being screened by young men and women half your age.  This is assuming, of course, that you’re lucky enough to score any interviews.

Personally, over the several months since I was displaced from my last job, during which time I’ve applied for between 100 and 150 jobs, I’ve been granted a single interview.  This occurred fairly early in my job hunt, and I seemed to be, if anything, over-qualified for the job, so I made the mistake of thinking I was a shoo-in.

In this economy, the only shoo-ins are Wall Street bunco artists who have bilked tax-payers of TARP money at one bank, and are now trying to pull the same trick at a different firm. They’re often welcomed with open arms, their new employers all too willing to start throwing fresh money at them, in the form of exhorbitant bonuses, paid on top of exhorbitant salaries.

The CEOs of some of the most venerable financial instituions in the land have decried attempts by Congress to bring the stratospheric bonuses normally paid to Wall Street gamblers back to a lower orbit.  They’ve used the rationale that they won’t be able to attract top drawer “talent” into the casino unless they’re free to offer the entire U.S. treasury as bait. Apparently, in financial services, “talent” is a term that’s analagous to the term “arsonist” in the insurance industry.

But I’m straying from my main theme.   As I was saying, if you’re in the meaty part of the age curve, and you’re lucky enough to have been granted an interview, you might find that your screener, the person who takes your pulse before she allows you to speak to someone who matters, is all of about twelve.  Or at least, she’ll look to be that age.

While screeners rarely have the acumen to make a final decision about hiring, they’re fully deputized make nasty notes on your resume, effectively scuttling your chances of talking to the hiring manager.  It’s easy to throw a gutter ball in these meetings.  Ive set out below what I think are some of the standard pitfalls you might encounter, and how to avoid them.

1. Avoid the temptation to talk to the screener in a paternal tone.  The fact is, if you’re hired, this person will probably outrank you.  She knows it, and she wants you to know it.  So don’t be cheeky.  Also, if you sound paternal, you’ll remind her of her dad, which, no matter how you parse it, will definitely not work in your favor.

2. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that she’ll equate your age with experience.  To someone of her age, experience is merely an abstract quality, like telepathy.  She’s heard of it, but she doesn’t know anyone who has it.  In her eyes, your age just makes you…old.

3. Dont emphasize your basic computer skills.  Nowadays, telling a young person that you’re “computer literate” sounds pathetic.  It’s like boasting that you know the alphabet.  Anyone below the age of 30 assumes that a normal person is facebooked, myspaced, iphoned and twittered up to the eyeballs. On the other hand, if she asks you a direct question, such as, “Are you familiar with Microsoft Office?” and you’re feeling adventurous, tell her, “Of course…although I think that within another five years traditional proprietary applications will be replaced by cloud computing.”  There’s a slim chance that she might actually think that you know what you’re talking about.

4. If the screener uses trite business jargon, avoid wincing.  As far as she knows, she’s a pioneer, part of the first wave of people to use terms such as “economies of scale,” and “lateral synergy,” and “vertical integration.”  She hasn’t been around long enough to know otherwise.  In fact, if her memory is bad enough, she might even think she coined these terms.

5. If she asks you about what your grade point average was in college, don’t say, “I don’t remember,” even though that’s probably the truth.  Most of the people she’s interviewing not only know their GPA’s, but also the names of all of their professors, the location of their lecture halls, and the grades they received on their most recent term papers.  They remember their college years as though they’d graduated only yesterday.  Because it was only yesterday.  You can’t compete with that, so don’t even try.  Just make up a number, and make it high.  And, word of warning, just in case the current scoring system wasn’t used back in the dark ages when you were in college, the highest GPA in use is 4.0.  So don’t pick a number like 98.

6. If the screener seems to be flirting with you, ignore it.  Middle aged people, particularly men, are susceptible to Benign Flirting Syndrome, and you know this.  BFS may be defined as mistaking ordinary pleasantries for serious flirtation.  Example: the barista who makes your latte every morning smiles at you, and says, “Have a nice day!”  You interpret this to mean, “I want you…”  There isn’t much downside if you make this mistake with the twenty-year-old who makes your coffee.  In a job interview, it’s a different story.  If the screener gets even a hint that you’re being flirtatious, she’ll scribble in the margin of your resume, “SH risk!” (SH = sexual harassment.)  While you might be perversely flattered that the young screener was able think of you in a sexual context of any sort, even a negative one, this is no compliment.  They’ll keep a file on you, even if they have no intention of hiring you, merely to let future screeners know that you’re a potential groper.

Ultimately, in an interview, instinct is as important as preparation.  When in doubt, go with your gut.  And don’t let age be a stumbling block.  Address your screener with confidence.  Remember, you know something that she doesn’t: in another 30 years, she’ll be sitting where you are right now.

Image by quinn.anya, licensed through Creative Commons.

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