Don't let small talk derail your shot to land the job.

Share story

Whether it’s a summer job or a career launch, job search specialist Cheryl Hyatt has a word of caution for aspiring candidates: Don’t get tripped up by small stuff or, more specifically, small talk.

Hyatt has heard some doozies about too-nervous interviewees. There’s the applicant who inquired about the company’s policy regarding employee theft, or the one who sought a $90,000 salary so he could finance his new Camaro.

“Most people have common sense and would not ask those questions,” says the co-founder, CEO and partner of Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search, located outside Pittsburgh.

But even savvy and experienced candidates can get tripped up by little things, she says.

First, she says, job candidates should assume the evaluation process begins the minute they drive into the parking lot. Be professional with everyone from the security guard to the executive assistant who rides with you on the elevator up to the C-suite.

You think arriving 20 minutes early will impress the interviewing committee? Think again. “They won’t know what to do with you.” Her suggestion: Arrive five minutes or so before the scheduled time unless you’ve been told there will be application forms to fill out beforehand.

Also, get familiar with the company’s culture. If it’s a workplace where everyone wears jeans and polo shirts, “You need to come in one step above what you think the company policy is.” In this case, a shirt and tie with khakis would work for men, a pantsuit, skirt or dress for women — “whatever feels most comfortable.”

Once that preparation is done, you’ve come to an often-overlooked phase: Those first few minutes of “small talk” after introducing yourself to the interviewing committee.

Even if the topic is weather (and hopefully not religion or the current election cycle), remember that you’re making a first impression. If they offer a beverage, Hyatt says, “The best answer is, ‘If you have water, that would be great.’”

Touch lightly on the personal, if at all. It’s OK to say you have relatives in the area but telling them you want the job so you can move closer to family will not help your chances. Watch for unknowing tics, such as talking with your hands or dropping “ums” into every sentence.

Once the formal interview begins, she says the best responses fall in the 2-4 minute range, touching on how you would handle the situation and drawing on a related personal experience.

If you don’t understand a question, don’t fake it. “Just say, ‘I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for.’” Not every answer will be a winner, she says. “You just continue to smile.”

If you’ve been invited to interview, the company has probably already decided you have the technical skills for the job “so they want to find out if you are the right fit for us,” she says.

The objective of the “small talk” phase is to avoid giving them reason to choose someone else.

“You want to make them like you for who you are and what you can bring to the institution,” Hyatt says.