Mastering the Panel Interview

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Establishing a rapport with a single interviewer is hard enough. What happens when you need to face a panel of three or four? Worst of all, the employer might not tell you that you’ll be meeting with several people at the same time.

“Nobody’s going to tell you about a panel interview in advance,” said Don Georgevich, a 20-year IT veteran, author of “The Complete Interview Answer Guide,” and career expert. “And if you let the group run rampant with questions, they’ll burn you out. The key is to treat a panel like a one-on-one interview by breaking it down into small, manageable chunks.”

Group interviews present a unique set of dynamics and challenges. If you remain calm, and practice the following techniques, you can still prevail:

Get Names and Titles

Create a “seating chart” by jotting down the names and titles of the interviewers or placing their business cards on the table in front of you. Having a roster will help you address them by name and discern their concerns, agendas and pecking order. Sure, you’d like to impress everyone—but in reality, some interviewers have more clout than others.

“While the manager may solicit feedback from everyone, there’s only one decision maker,” Georgevich said. “Gear most of your answers toward that person, because that’s who you need to win over to land an offer.”

Control the Pace

A panel interview can morph into a rapid-fire interrogation, unless you make a concerted effort to control the pace.

“Take a few sips of water or jot down a few notes after you finish answering a question,” Georgevich said. “Those 15 to 20 seconds belong to you—don’t give them up.”

Notes can help you remember key details and formulate insightful follow-up questions at the end of your meeting. Make eye contact with the manager or leader when you’re ready to proceed.

Tailor Your Responses

Since panel members usually have different roles and responsibilities, customizing your answer toward individual questioners’ issues and concerns showcases your capabilities from different angles, said Laura Smith-Proulx, an executive resume writer and career coach.

“For instance, an engineering manager or technical lead may be concerned about your technical strengths, especially if the last developer he hired didn’t work out,” she added. “While the IT director is looking to see if you’re easy to manage and a fellow developer or PM is looking for a supportive team player.”

Framing your answer is an effective way to acknowledge the questioner’s position and demonstrate your range in front of a group with diverse agendas. For example, you might say: “As a member of the development team, I realize that I may need to acquiesce to avoid conflict. Here’s how I would handle the QA issue you just described.”

Engage the Group

Build a rapport one person at a time by addressing the questioner, but pan your head around every so often as you’re talking to keep the other panel members engaged. And be sure to limit your answers to two minutes or less.

“As you’re wrapping up your answer, go around the circle and tip your head, smile or acknowledge the other panel members especially the hiring manager,” Georgevich said. “Using body language, facial expressions or gestures is an effective way to draw in the other observers.”

Avoid Traps

Strange things can happen when a group of tech pros gather around a conference table. One may try to dominate the conversation, while another may play “bad cop” by posing difficult or “gotcha” questions. The panellists may even disagree about a testing methodology or when it makes sense to reuse code.

Whether it’s a genuine conflict or a ploy to see how you react, don’t get sucked into the drama. “By remaining calm and professional, you’ll convey that you can confidently handle any situation,” Smith-Proulx said. “And employers hold group interviews to see which candidates can handle stress and how they work with others.”

Image Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

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