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First impressions

By: Robert Half

Robert Half, CPA and founder of Robert Half International Inc., the world's leader in specialized staffing and the parent company of Robert Half and Accountemps

"She wasn't well-groomed."
"He never smiled."

"She sounded totally disorganized when I returned her call."

"He slouched in the chair and seldom looked me in the eye."

These are just four of countless observations I've heard over the years from hiring authorities in response to candidates with whom they had come in contact. Each has something in common: They all represent negative first impressions.

There are two first impressions job-seekers make.

The first is on paper with your resume. Assuming it's been carefully and skillfully crafted, at least to the extent it prompts a hiring manager to ask for an interview, the second impression occurs when you walk through the interviewer's door, or when you answer this individual's call. It doesn't take long for a first personal impression to register. It happens in a matter of seconds, and it can set the tone for the rest of your contact with perspective employers.

On the Telephone
Let's start with first impressions on the telephone.
1. When making that initial call, don't wait until you've dialed the number to decide what it is you want to say. Plan ahead, even preparing a script to remind yourself of the points you wish to convey. Know what you want this call to accomplish--advice, referral, interview--and then focus on it.

2. The person on the other end will not be able to see you, but more important factors, like your attitude and enthusiasm, are reflected in your voice. Be upbeat. Smile. Act as though you were across the desk from this person with whom you are speaking.

3. Be prepared to accept calls from prospective employers in a business-like manner. Avoid attempts at humor or music programming on your answering machine's outgoing message. Brief your family on how you would like business calls handled. As always, return calls promptly. Also, if you call and reach the company's voice-mail system, leave your name and telephone number. Speak slowly and repeat your number so that someone has enough time to write it down.

Face to Face
Making a positive in-person first impression involves common sense.

1. Make sure you dress appropriately in a stylish, yet business-like fashion--shoes shined, no loose buttons, personal grooming attended to.

2. Practice "attitude adjustment" before each interview. You may be down about something, but do not allow this to reveal itself to prospective employers. Instead, carry an upbeat, energetic attitude during the interview (and through life).

3. Do your homework about that company before going to the interview. Nothing builds confidence faster than being prepared.

4. Be on time. Even better, be early, allowing yourself to calmly collect your thoughts. A breathless, last-minute arrival does nothing to enhance your initial impression.

5. Don't think the only person with whom you must make a good first impression is the person in position to hire you. Be cordial and polite to everyone, from the security person and receptionist at the main entrance to the interviewer's secretary. Jobs have been lost because secretaries or administrative assistants, when asked their opinions of you (and this is probable), indicated they were unfavorably impressed.

6. Exude warmth and enthusiasm the first moments of the interview. Be determined to like the interviewer, no matter what direction your conversation takes. Stand and sit tall. We tend to believe what we see more than what we hear. Extend a firm, sincere handshake. And, establish immediate eye contact, not in a challenging sense, but as a sign of interest in that person and the company he/she represents.

7. Take in your surroundings and spot something to comment upon. A framed picture, awards on the wall, an unusual piece of furniture or sculpture. Or, use what you've learned about that company, perhaps even about the interviewer, during your pre-interview homework to break the ice.

Finding a job is a job in itself, demanding many things of you. Among them is realizing how important first impressions can be. Take stock of yourself and how you impact people for the first time. Obtain feedback from trusted friends. If you have the means, videotape yourself and analyze the results.

We've all heard that first impressions aren't always accurate, and shouldn't be trusted. We've also heard that first impressions are lasting ones. No matter what your view, accept the reality that your initial interaction with a hiring authority, either in person or on the phone, will determine to a great extent how successful you will be in your quest for a job with that individual and that company.

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