What is so special about those opening few minutes? The interview has seldom progressed beyond the social exchanges intended to put the candidate at ease. The initial impression given by the interviewee is clearly crucial.
Most professional recruiters, seeking to make the process as objective as they can, structure their interviews using one of two well-established assessment systems. There is the Rational Institute of Industrial Psychology's seven- point plan created by Alec Rodger, and Munro Frazer's five-point plan. In each case candidates are assessed against the appropriate number of personal characteristics.
The seven factors looked at in Rodger's plan are physical make-up, attainments, general intelligence, special aptitudes, interests, disposition and circumstances; Frazer's are impact on others, acquired knowledge, innate abilities, motivation and adjustment.
ln both plans physical characteristics head the list. Under physical make-up Rodgers asks if the candidate has any defects of health or physique that may be of occupational importance. He then asks "how agreeable" is the candidate's appearance, bearing and speech - what might be described at the initial physical impact. Frazer, under impact on others, looks at the individual's appearance, speech, manner and self-confidence, among other things.
In an ideal world, only characteristics that are directly relevant to the job should be taken into account. "Impact on others" and an "agreeable appearance" are an obvious asset in sales but seem irrelevant in a private office. How- ever, interviewers are just as fallible as the people who face them and studies have shown that physical attractiveness, posture, mannerisms and speech have an effect on interviewers' judgments.
Even in panel interviews, where several people are assessing candidates, it has been shown that physical traits are important. Successful candidates in panel interviews look at interviewers more frequently, smile more, and shake or nod their heads more than unsuccessful ones.
What can the individual do to improve their chances at interview, particularly during those first few critical minutes? One can do quite a lot in terms of appearannce and posture, but little about mannerisms and speech.
Most vacancies need to be filled by people who are fit, energetic and have stamina. Application forms usually ask about one's health, but writing "excellent health" or "never lost a day's work" carries less weight than looking fit and healthy at interview. Perceived health is more important than reality during selection. Only successful candidates get invited to a medical.
We can do little about our basic physique, but this is rarely of importance in white-collar employment. What matters most is to avoid giving the appearance of poor health or even self-neglect.
It is obviously sensible to look after our long-term health. We should eat moderately and ensure we have a balanced diet including plenty of fruit and vegetables. We need regular exercise and fresh air. We should have regular dental check-ups, drink only moderately and not smoke at all. Looking after our health is a good life and career investment.
Bad teeth or gums need treatment. They not only look unsightly but can foul the breath. Stained teeth, common among smokers, should be cleaned and polished by a dentist. A mouth deodorant can help mask bad breath.
A brisk daily walk of a mile or more in the fresh air can visibly improve a poor complexion within days. A tan is no longer recommended because of the cancer risk, although a light artificial tan from a bottle may improve an otherwise bad complexion.
Until a better health regime can take effect, we need to take cosmetic measures if called to interview in the near future. Clothes should be chosen carefully. The cut, pattern and colour of our clothes can accentuate or conceal a weight problem and a poor complexion. Good cleaning and pressing are vital.
The old cliches about conservative dress, clean shoes and immaculate grooming at interview hold true. Arrive early to allow time to use the lavatory, tidy one's hair and rub-up one's shoes (a few tissues in one's bag or brief case are handy). After-shave lotions and perfume should be used sparingly, particularly if facing a female interviewer. Women tend to have more sensitive noses and what may not be noticed by a man to a woman seems overpowering.
People who get breathless easily or who perspire a lot should travel to the interview by the coolest and most relaxed means possible. They should also arrive early so they have time to relax.
In the interview room an upright posture, with head erect, not only gives a slimmer appearance but suggests alertness and energy. Once invited to sit down, adopt a relaxed upright posture - neither slouching nor rigidly "at attention". Make plenty of eye contact with your interviewers, look interested, and smile often when it is appropriate.
All this is conventional advice. However, its importance still tends to be underestimated by job candidates. They need to be aware that first impressions really do matter.