Interview Etiquette

How to communicate your value during a job interview Marianne Westphal and Julie Garwood

Interviewing can be a challenging communication endeavor for even the most seasoned candidates, and it can be helpful to review some basic etiquette in order to make the most of the process.

Employers use a variety of interview methods to assess technical skills, personality traits and overall fit of a candidate. These include on the phone, in-person, during a meal and virtually, and can be held one-on-one or in a group setting.

Throughout the interview process, you may encounter one or several of these methods. Bear in mind, the interview process is meant to be beneficial for both parties:

  • It is the prospective employer’s chance to evaluate appropriate candidates for a particular hiring need and consider their fit with the overall company culture.
  • It is a prospective employee’s opportunity to assess the company and position, as well as the fit for one’s background and career goals.
  • It can be an educational exercise for each party involved.

Phone Interviews

The phone interview is typically the first opportunity you have to demonstrate your skills and ask questions, and you want to make the best impression possible. Employers look for candidates who can express ideas and come across as polished and professional, in addition to having appropriate experience.

The first phone interview may be with human resources (HR) or a hiring manager. Consider the following:

  • HR conversations tend to be a high-level overview of your resume and may address any gaps in employment, exam progress and reasons for moves. Be sure you are able to speak about skills you have picked up in each role that relate to the position, and find a positive reason for each move you’ve made throughout your career.
  • Hiring manager calls will be more technical and position specific. Review the job description bullet by bullet, and draw parallels and give examples of your experience in those areas.
  • In group calls, expect questions from any party on the call, and don’t be overly concerned if you can’t identify who asked a specific question, as you will want to be thorough and demonstrate your interest regardless. Of course, if it’s important to you or puts you at ease to know to whom to direct a specific answer, you are welcome to ask.

Be prepared to answer questions about why the company and role are of interest to you. This means you need to have done your research ahead of time.

Since you are on the phone, take advantage of having the position description, company details, prepared questions/examples and your resume in front of you to reference. Take notes, as you will want to refer to them later.

Though you aren’t in front of the interviewer, there are specific things you can do to project confidence and interest. Be enthusiastic, ask questions, and speak clearly and enunciate. Smile! This translates over the phone. Occasionally, enthusiasm leads candidates to start speaking before interviewers finish their sentences; avoid this, as it comes across as impolite.

A few other tips include:

  • Frame experiences in the past in a positive light, and don’t speak negatively about former employers or colleagues. If you discuss a past conflict, detail how you were able to address it and move forward. If asked for a shortcoming, try to put a positive spin on it. For example, if you are leaving due to changes in leadership, you can say you seek a more stable environment rather than pointing out perceived negatives of the current leadership in your company.
  • Write out questions prior to the interview.
  • Do not ask about compensation and other benefits in your initial call. This is a valid inquiry, but it can give the impression that your focus is on your interests rather than the opportunity. It is more appropriate to ask these questions later in the interview process.
  • Find a private, quiet place to take a call. Prior to the interview, check that your location has adequate reception. If you need to cancel a call, give as much notice as possible and offer alternative availability. If the call is interrupted or ends before it should, follow up by expressing interest in continuing the discussion and, again, offer alternative times.
  • No matter how well you connect with the interviewer, avoid being overly casual. They are assessing how you interact in a professional situation.
  • Reiterate your interest in the opportunity and your appreciation for their time.

In-person Interviews

In-person interviews usually take place at the company’s office, but they can also be held off-site at a restaurant or other neutral meeting place. These meetings can range anywhere from one hour to a full day of interviews.

Typical in-person interviews allow the candidate to meet the hiring manager(s), potential co-workers and peers, members of other departments, and HR.

From the moment you step into the building, you are interviewing. Arrive with a prepared and confident demeanor, and remember to conduct yourself professionally throughout your entire visit on-site.

In addition to the information from the phone interview, there are several ways you can set yourself up for success before, during and after your in-person interview.

Prepare in advance. Here are some tips:

  1. Research the company, position and the interviewers.
    • Review the company’s website and search for recent press releases.
    • Use LinkedIn to research interviewers you will meet.
  2. Dress for success.
    • Dress business formal even if the company has a casual or business casual dress code.
    • Both men and women should wear business suits; choose a conservative style and color.
  3. Bring multiple copies of your resume printed on resume paper. Carry these in a leather-bound portfolio with pen and paper for note-taking.
  4. Arrive approximately 10 minutes early.

Be mindful of body language and overall behavior throughout the entire interview process. Here’s how:

  1. Keep your energy level and enthusiasm up and consistent throughout the entire interview.
  2. Smile, make eye contact and offer a firm handshake at introductions.
  3. Engage the interviewers and make them feel comfortable speaking with you, but don’t let your guard down.
  4. Ask questions, both prepared and unprepared, to show your intellectual curiosity and listening skills.
    • Do not dominate the conversation; do not give one-word answers, either.
  5. Turn your cell phone off (not on vibrate) so you have no distractions and can focus completely on the interview.

The Salary Question

Discussions around salary can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes companies want to know what a candidate needs and expects before making a career move, and vice-versa. This can be challenging, given the interview process is designed to educate both sides about the role and potential fit, and salary expectations may develop or change over the course of discussions.

Interestingly enough, in recent months there have been several cities and states that have or will be making salary history questions illegal. In most cases, companies may still ask for expectations, but not about previous pay. Judging by the current trend, we expect to see more and more companies unable to ask for salary history.

If asked to provide current compensation, include short- and long-term bonus information, as well as any other considerations you have, such as a bonus you have earned but won’t receive, or anything you may need to repay to your current employer. You don’t necessarily need to go into detail about other benefits, as that is something that can be addressed nearing the offer stage. There is a balance between providing an accurate overview of considerations and getting too far into the details, where you might give the impression that your focus is on other issues rather than the opportunity. Keep this in mind in these discussions.

Whether you can or cannot provide current compensation, it’s fair if asked for expectations to say you are looking to be compensated at market value, or that your focus is on the opportunity. It’s also fair for you to ask for a better understanding of what is meant by compensation, as we see growing value placed on things like benefits, vacation, long-term planning, educational support, flexibility and other incentives. Prior to an interview, research the various salary surveys available, which can help you understand your value. Also, spend some time thinking about a range that would make sense for you.

Be prepared to navigate questions about compensation (see the “Findings” sidebar).

After the in-person interview, take a few minutes to write a thank-you note to the interviewers. It can be brief and sent via email directly to them or by your recruiter. The note should explain your appreciation for their time interviewing you, a reflection on a topic you discussed and an expression of continued interest in the role and/or company.

Prior to sending the note, always ask someone else to review it. A second set of eyes may catch an error or be able to provide critiques. This may be the only time a company has the ability to assess a candidate’s writing skills, so consider this another stage of the interview process.

Meal Interviews

Meal interviews are another means of evaluating a candidate. This type of interview can happen at any stage of the process and can be with HR, hiring managers and others.

Two important factors to keep in mind when preparing for a meal interview:

  • Act professionally, just as you would in an office setting.
  • Remember your table manners.

The meal is secondary to the interview. It is a good time to build rapport with potential new peers and other colleagues, and get to know people on a more informal basis. Though it is more informal, remember that you are still interviewing. During a meal interview, the conversation does not need to stay on the topic of the job itself. You may discuss other subjects such as company culture, hobbies or interests.

The goal of a meal interview is to demonstrate that you are able to interact well with others and engage in conversation in a less formal setting.

Consider the following dos and don’ts regarding table manners:

  • Do. Wait for your host to suggest the seating arrangement, place your napkin on your lap as soon as you are seated, chew and swallow before you speak, be polite to wait staff and thank your host for the meal.
  • Don’t. Be indecisive in ordering, begin eating until everyone is served, order food that is difficult to eat or requires eating with your hands, drink alcohol even if the host does, criticize the meal or the restaurant.

Virtual Interviews

Virtual interviewing is more common than ever. The ability to use video technology for interviews has allowed employers to meet interviewees face-to-face earlier in the interview stage than in the past. In fact, sometimes it takes the place of an on-site interview. This type of interview allows companies to reach a diverse applicant pool and can save the employer time and money on travel.

There are a variety of different mediums to conduct virtual interviews, such as Skype, FaceTime and web-based conferencing services. Because the virtual interview is face-to-face, it is important to treat it like an on-site interview.

When preparing for a virtual interview:

  • Set up and test the equipment you will use to conduct the interview. Make sure the internet connection is strong.
  • Make sure the area you are in is clean and quiet, with a background free of any distractions or personal items.
  • Dress professionally, as you would for an on-site interview.
  • Monitor behavior like shuffling papers or looking away from the camera, and be mindful of your posture.
  • When speaking, look into the camera and not at the image of yourself on your computer screen.

Technical difficulties are always a possibility in virtual interviews. If the internet connection is causing video/camera quality to cut in and out, turn off the video piece so you are not distracted. Keep your cell phone nearby (but out of sight) so if there are technical issues, you can continue the interview over the phone.

International Interview Tips

Of course, customs differ from country to country, but some etiquette holds true for any international interview. A few additional points:

  • Show that you have done your research, not only on the company and the role, but also on the country and its customs, and what it would be like to live there. Demonstrating that you’ve researched housing, education options if applicable, work style and so on will give the company confidence that you are serious about and committed to making a move.
  • If you’ve worked internationally, highlight and expand on that experience, even if it was in a different country than the one you are considering. If you have not worked overseas but have experience with or exposure to international teams, be able to speak in detail about this. If you have not done either, consider situations you have been in where you had little guidance or information but were able to successfully take initiative and adapt.
  • Research whether the company does business in the native language or other languages. Discuss experience, exposure and coursework in those languages. Be prepared to answer questions in a language if you say you are fluent.
  • Interview follow-up is always important, but it’s something that can be of particular significance in other countries and, in any case, will reiterate your interest. It also allows you to highlight your written language skills if you are interviewing with a company that requires knowledge of a particular language.


Interviewing can be both a challenging and an exciting time. It’s vital to be well-prepared, to present yourself in the best possible light and be able to gain the information needed to make an educated decision. There are countless situations that could come up in an interview setting, but this article provides some tangible approaches to use as a foundation.

Marianne Westphal joined DW Simpson in 2003 and is a partner and lead recruiter with the firm. She co-leads DW Simpson’s internal training and professional development program, has served on the SOA Marketing Executive Committee and is a member of the SOA Cultivate Opportunities Team.
Julie Garwood joined DW Simpson in February 2006. As a senior manager and lead recruiter, she enjoys the interpersonal aspects of keeping in touch with individuals throughout the evolution of their careers.