The panel interview, at some companies, is the last stop in a multi-step search process. Other firms see it in a more informal light, as a way for people within a division to learn a bit more about a candidate. Whatever the approach, a panel is often an intimidating experience for job seekers—but it doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s important to remember that the panel is not an interrogation chamber: You wouldn’t be in the seat if you didn’t already meet significant criteria. For employers, it’s a time-efficient way to bring all the parties involved together for a conversation about what you can bring to the table.
Here are six tried-and-true steps to making the most of your panel experience:
Research and Practice
If possible, prepare by researching each of the people with whom you’ll meet; check LinkedIn and other social networks for profiles and comments that can give you necessary background information. This is an incredibly valuable step: The intelligence you gather will make you better able to anticipate the mood of the interview and inform your approach.
“Your search may uncover some interesting information, e.g., that they have only been at the company for a short while, which can be a red flag; or that you share people, interests and/or experiences in common,” said Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “If you happen to know people at the company, reach out and ask them if they would be willing to offer insight on any of the individuals.”
Cohen, noting the sometimes-complicated dynamic of a panel, strongly advised practice and focus prior to going in: “You’re juggling the attention of a number of stakeholders… Be prepared to explain the obvious; why you are there and what you have to offer.” Many candidates neglect to think such things through.
“Make eye contact with everyone, and if it makes sense and you can easily reach everyone, shake hands,” recommended Miriam Salpeter, social media mentor, consultant and principal at Keppie Careers. “Don’t rank the people in order of importance based on job title or the org chart pecking order. Consider everyone on the panel important enough to impress.”
If you’re lucky, someone will introduce you to everyone; but if not, ask for introductions before you start.
There is a lot going on at once in the room, so it’s critical you be an active listener and take moment before you respond. “When you show that you are a skilled listener,” Cohen said, “you also demonstrate that you have the potential to be an effective team member.”
Since multiple people are observing you at the same time, even if only one person is speaking, it’s important to remain aware and mindful of your reactions. “Don’t bounce eye contact all around the room,” Salpeter added, “but work to connect with each person on the panel.” While you may be tempted to focus on those interviewers offering positive feedback, “don’t forget the stone-faced manager who may be the one with all the influence.”
A measured response can go a long way. While there’s a right time in an interview for debate, discussion and opinion, candidates need to wait for the most appropriate moment. “You may forget the fact that an interview is essentially a conversation… not a debate and definitely not one-sided. Be patient,” Cohen advised. “Never speak over, or interrupt your interviewers, no matter how excited you may be, or if you disagree, or if they interrupt each other.”
Always be prepared for your interviewers to drill down, he added: “Your interviewers are carefully listening, too, and while one may be interacting easily, another may be ready to pounce on any inconsistency you present.” While pushback may be inevitable, it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker if you’re ready and responsive.
Body language heavily influences how people perceive you. “Don’t let your body language indicate you’re tired or bored with the questioning,” Salpeter said. “Also, avoid slumped shoulders, downcast eyes, remaining expressionless or frowning.”
Whether it’s three or 13 people in the room, you must follow up with all of them. If possible, ask the point person who arranged your interview to provide email contacts for each of the interviewers. If it’s a large group, it’s permissible to send a group email. If it’s a handful of people, write individual thank-you notes.
The follow-up should illustrate that you listened to their needs, challenges and concerns. Reiterate your unique qualifications and how you can meet their wants and needs. “If you don’t follow up to demonstrate your interest,” stressed Cohen, “another, and perhaps, less qualified candidate will. That is how you level the playing field and beat out the competition.”