Let me tell you about my friend Mary.

She is a very qualified accountant from Cameroon and has her CPA designation – that puts her at the highest level of qualified accountants in Canada. For almost two years she has been single-mindedly trying to find work in her field. She perfected her resume and wrote cover letters that were so good you could have framed them. She found wonderful Canadian references to send potential employers to. And, in spite of the down economy, Mary was very successful at getting interviews. But she just couldn’t land the job. What was it? She asked herself this question every time and was getting increasingly discouraged.

I asked Mary to talk me through her last interview so I could see what was happening and suggest some tips. As Mary explained her last interview, it was pretty clear to me why she didn’t get the job. Here are the strategies I suggested to her that might also be helpful to you or someone you know:

  1. Get to know the company in advance: Get specific about the company that is interviewing you and find out as much about the company as you can in advance of the interview. Investigate their website and see if you can connect with any current employees to find out what it is like to work there and what the company needs from its employees. Use this research to formulate three strong questions that both show what you know and that sincerely communicate what you would like to find out.
  2. Consider how you can help them rather than how they can help you: Think about what the company needs and frame your responses to show how you can respond to those needs rather than trying to impress them with your skill set. Remember that they are looking for a “fit,” so you need to warm them up to you in ways they can imagine themselves working with you over the long term.
  3. Be personable: During an interview the company representatives are trying to get a feel for your interpersonal skills and preview how you might fit in with their team – they can already see you have technical expertise. If they have technical questions, they will ask or they will test you on them. Instead of dwelling on your technical capabilities, explain how you work with a team to compliment each others’ strengths.
  4. Frame a weakness as a strength: Respond to the tricky behavioral question, “What would you say is one of your weaknesses?” by showing how you overcame an obstacle at work by being aware of your weaknesses. Explain how you go “beyond the call of duty” even when it is difficult. This shows that you are solution-focused and capable.
  5. Deal with the accent issue up front: Start the interview by naming your accent, so they get that issue out of their minds and focus on your skills. Try something like, “You probably noticed my accent. I’m from ________. My accent has not stopped me from being a capable accountant, understanding my colleagues or working with clients. For example….” Then share a short example (no more than a couple sentences) that highlights one of your skills.
  6. Overcoming racism from the interviewer: Racism can show itself in many ways, but basically it comes in a couple of formats. One is the blatant racist; you can recognize this in an instant because it feels terrible. The other is the person who simply has not had much experience with people of a different colour. If you sense that your interviewer is showing the first kind of racism, it is best to just get through the interview and leave without any expectations. You don’t want to work in a place where people are like that anyway. Stay strong in your belief that the right job with the right kind of workforce is out there and you will get to it: this one job is not the only “fish in the sea”. The second kind of racism is ignorance based. In most cases, your approachable and warm attitude combined with your expertise will win them over. Approach the situation as an opportunity to educate and attract. Usually you attract more flies with honey than vinegar so give them every reason to love you – because you ARE lovable and capable.

OK so now you are probably wondering what happened to Mary and her next interview, right? Here is the rest of the story.

A week after my conversation with Mary she had another interview and she followed all, I mean ALL my tips. She was confident, warm, had researched the company and prepared excellent questions, and she overcame the panel’s hesitation about hiring her by addressing her accent head on. They loved her. In fact one of the interviewers who herself had an American accent said she really liked what Mary had said because she too had experienced accent prejudice when she was job seeking.

Then they asked Mary why she was applying for a lower level job when she was such a highly qualified accountant. Mary answered that when she works in a new company she likes to be on the ground level working with the immediate issues so she can get a better picture of the whole company. They were sold and offered her the job the next day.

So what can you take away from Mary’s story?

Preparing yourself for an interview in Canada is not so much about your technical expertise as how you warm the interviewer(s) to you and show how you would fit in to your future workplace. Approach the interview with the attitude that your strengths can help meet the employer’s needs. For the behavioural questions and the accent issue, find ways to honestly show your vulnerability because this draws people to you – but don’t stay there – bring the interview around to how you bring solutions to problems and strengths to weaknesses. If you experience racism of the “not-much-experience-with-people-like-me” kind, treat it as an opportunity to educate. And finally, if you are seeking an entry level or lower level job than what you are qualified for, have an answer for why because this is a big question in many employer’s minds.

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