Secretarial: Have you got the stamina to apply for a new job?

An interview used to be a quick chat with the boss. So why does the process now drag on for weeks?
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INTERVIEWS FOR secretarial posts have changed beyond recognition during the past decade, according to the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). No longer can you be guaranteed a simple 15-minute chat with the boss. Instead, you might have to attend three or four interviews, give a presentation, complete psychometric tests, or even attend an assessment centre.

So how can secretaries best prepare for the recruitment process? Debra Allcock, of The Industrial Society, claims the first step is be positive about the latest methods. "It's easy to feel intimidated by them, but research consistently shows that a single interview is an unfair means of assessment. The person best at manipulating situations or revealing charisma tends to be selected rather than the best person for the job. That's why the new recruitment processes are in the candidate's - as well as the employers' - best interests."

When it comes to the face-to-face questions, The Industrial Society identifies two areas where today's interviewees are particularly likely to fall down. The first concerns inquiries about "shortcomings". "Candidates think that because of increased competition in the job market, that they have to make out they are faultless," says Ms Allcock. "But nobody is faultless. Employers really do want to hear evidence of how you have failed because the way in which you dealt with it shows how you solve problems."

The second area where candidates tend to lose points is that daunting question: "Have you got anything to ask us?" "The number of interviewees who simply respond by shaking their head is amazing," says Ms Allcock. "But if you've bothered to research the company - which you always should - you will have queries. Refer to the company's plans for the future, its policies on equal opportunities or specifically about the job spec. But never, never, ask about pay at this point because this is your chance to show the level of your commitment and interest in the post."

Paul Jacobs, communications director at Office Angels, agrees. "There's no excuse for lack of research," he says. "Prior to the interview, you can use the Internet or simply call the company or recruitment agency and ask for a more detailed job spec."

Research by Office Angels found that employers point to three key areas where interviewees are most likely to fail to impress - inappropriate dress (30 per cent), arrogance (27 per cent), and monosyllabic responses (25 per cent).

This report - which surveyed more than 500 UK employers - also says that the latest practice in which secretaries get caught out is the "killer question". Three out of four employers admit that they will ask unexpected questions such as: "Tell me a joke"; "What was the question you didn't want me to ask you?"; "Name five members of the Cabinet".

In fact, candidates are now being warned that their career prospects may depend on how they cope with the unexpected poser. "These tricky questions are not designed to deliberately catch people out," explains Mr Jacobs. "They are supposed to encourage those in the `hot seat' to think on their feet."

Employers' interest in measuring competencies, claims Dr Steve Blinkhorn of Psychometric Research and Development Ltd, is the reason that psychometric testing is becoming increasingly popular. "Companies want to know about your abilities rather than simply your knowledge," he says. "Candidates fear them but in fact they are good for applicants because it means the job won't necessarily go to the person with the most qualifications." Rather, what counts are qualities such as communication and problem-solving.

The best news for secretarial hopefuls, claims Office Angels, is that new research shows two-thirds of employers now have extensive training in interview techniques. And this means they should get the best out of prospective employees.