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Published Sep. 21, 2009

New York Times

It's fun to hear hiring managers recall the most boneheaded mistakes they have seen job seekers make during an interview: showing up in flip-flops, say, or taking a cell phone call while meeting the company president.

But that kind of cluelessness is rare. More common are the subtle missteps or omissions that can cause one candidate to lose out to another. If one person is sending out the right signals and behaving in the right way through each step of the process, he or she has a much better chance of landing the job - even with an inferior resume.

Now here's the tricky part: There is no single set of rules. While certain standards of courtesy always apply (be punctual, treat everyone you meet with respect), your success may depend on the company's culture and the preferences of the people doing the hiring. Your ability to sense, and to act on, these factors could make a big difference.

When Susan L. Hodas, director of talent management at NERA Economic Consulting, is hiring, she looks for the right cultural fit as much as the right experience. To some degree, she goes with her instincts, she says, but she can also identify certain preferences. Here is one: "They should come in a suit," she said.

Body language is also important, Hodas says. She is looking for an assured but not overly casual demeanor, along with good eye contact. She is also looking for people who can enunciate their words (mumblers beware) and who can communicate their thoughts and ideas clearly.

Overall, she says, she is looking for people who are "confident but not cocky."

She says she and her colleagues apply the "airport test" to candidates. They ask themselves: "Would I want to be stuck in the airport for 12 hours with this person if my flight was delayed?"

It seems that just being yourself - albeit a formal, polite, alert and attentive version of yourself - is the best way to behave during interviews. That said, there are certain things you can do to give yourself an advantage.

You should always research the company (easy to do on the Internet), and be prepared to give specific examples of how your experience relates to the job. Also be able to describe as concretely as possible how you made a difference in your previous jobs.

Make sure to have questions, said David Santos, director of human resources for Interbrand, a brand management firm. Not having questions shows a lack of interest and preparation.

Make sure your questions show knowledge of the company and your interest in contributing to its success. You'd be surprised how many people focus on themselves, not the company, by asking right off about things like salary, benefits and bonuses, said Annie Shanklin Jones, who manages U.S. recruitment for IBM.

Try to establish common ground with your interviewer so you stand out, Shanklin Jones said. Maybe you went to the same college or you pull for the same sports teams, she said. During the interview, "leverage your referrals," she said, finding ways to highlight the people you know within the company.

What if you don't have these advantages?

Shanklin Jones said that one candidate for a sales position, after his first interview, sent a file listing his software certifications and showing that he had exceeded his sales quotas quarter after quarter. This was an important factor in the decision to hire him, she said.

Depending on the job you apply for, you may be called back for an interview several times. How you follow up after each interview is crucial. Not following up shows a lack of interest. Following up too much, or in the wrong way, could take you out of the running.

Given that all companies and hiring managers are different, getting through the interview process can seem like walking a tightrope. But common courtesy, combined with common sense, plenty of research and a dose of intuition can go a long way toward bringing you safely to the other side.