Job Interview Tips in a COVID-19 World, with Toni Patterson

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Conducting a job search in a stay-at-home world requires a vastly different skill set than many of us are accustomed to, says Find Your Dream Job guest Toni Patterson. Video interviews have replaced face-to-face meetings, and technology know-how is now a requirement, not just an added benefit. It’s important to prepare a space to conduct your video meetings, and Toni recommends paying close attention to the background and lighting. Body language is still important, even over video, so be sure that you understand how to maintain eye contact through your computer or phone.

About Our Guest:

Toni Patterson is a career coach who helps smart, driven women get the salaries, promotions, and jobs they want. 

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 240:

Job Interview Tips in a Stay-at-Home World, with Toni Patterson

Air date: April 22, 2020

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

Because of the COVID-19 virus, most job interviews are now happening virtually. And that means you need to learn new skills.

Here today to share her job interview tips for a stay-at-home world is Toni Patterson.

She’s a career coach who helps smart, driven women get the salaries, promotions, and jobs they want.

Toni joins us today from Philadelphia.

Toni, here’s where I want to start. What changes are you seeing employers make in job interviews because of the COVID-19 virus?

Toni Patterson:

Yeah, thanks Mac. Really what I’ve been seeing, the overarching thing I’ve been seeing, is that more interviews are, for obvious reasons, happening online. It may have been that there was a period of time where just the HR interview or that first round of interviews would be happening on the phone or online, but now, over the last few weeks and certainly for the foreseeable future, perhaps all rounds of interviews will be taking place online.

Mac Prichard:

Toni, I want to dig into the strategies and tactics of these at home interviews. But I also want to acknowledge the extra pressure job seekers are feeling right now. Everybody wants to interview well, but it’s okay, in these days, to be imperfect, isn’t it?

Toni Patterson:

Absolutely, and I’m so glad you mentioned that, Mac. I think that, whereas, prior to many of us being required to work from home, we felt that we needed to be absolutely perfect even if we were doing a phone interview or even if we were doing a video interview.

We could find a quiet place to do the interview with no distractions, nothing going on.

Now that we’re working from home, at the same time that our spouse is working from home, at the same time that our kids are home doing school from home or just being home, we have everything going on around us and there is going to be a lot more imperfection. There’s going to be a lot more distraction.

There’s going to be a kid wanting to know where his or her socks are, there is just going to be a lot of stuff going on. But the good news is that that is the case for everyone. That’s the case for you, as the interviewee, but it’s also the case for the interviewer. We can all take a deep breath and relax in knowing that, although we’re going through a challenging time, we’re all going through a challenging time together.

If there is an imperfection, there is a distraction, there is a loud noise you wouldn’t otherwise have had in your space, it’s okay.

Mac Prichard:

If that kid comes on the camera looking for a snack or help with finding socks, or your cat walks across the desk, it doesn’t mean you’ve blown it, does it, Toni?

Toni Patterson:

That’s exactly right. What I hope that we’re conveying here is that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be imperfect in that way. There are certain ways in an interview process where you shouldn’t be imperfect, but certainly as it relates to this new weird situation we find ourselves in, it’s certainly not a deal breaker because probably, five minutes earlier your interviewer had the same thing happen to him. You know what I mean?

Roll with it. I hope to be basically giving you permission to be okay with it. We’ve all seen many examples now of terrible things that have happened on video because we’re human and it’s okay.

Mac Prichard:

A job interview is always a business meeting, and usually it’s with people that you’re seeing for the first time. What’s your advice, Toni, about at the start of the interview, asking others how they’re doing during these crazy days?

Toni Patterson:

Yeah, it’s interesting I think that, right now, we’re in the early stages, so people will feel comfortable if you ask them this question. Maybe they’ll ask you that question, too.

What I’ve seen a little bit of on the internet through social media is that people are starting to get tired of the question because it’s a constant reminder. Every Zoom call they get on, either with their work or their kid’s school, or with an employer, potential employer, that’s coming up. “How are you doing?” “How are you doing?” “How are you doing?”

I think we are so desperate, and looking for distractions to some degree, that maybe over time, in a month from now, we won’t want to start with that. Take the tenor of your interviewer. What kind of person are they? Get a sense of whether they would be asking you that first, that sort of thing, over time. I think we might be shifting a little bit away from asking that because we are already getting a little bit tired and stir crazy and we need the distraction away from the very hyper-focused Covid-19.

Mac Prichard:

What do you recommend to the clients you work with who are interviewing now, and we’re recording this on April 1, 2020, about sharing their own feelings in an interview? Do you recommend people talk about that or should they wait to be asked? What’s your advice here, Toni?

Toni Patterson:

I think we should take it step-by-step, how it may come up naturally. For instance, to your earlier point, if, in the middle of the interview, your husband or your wife, your partner bursts in to ask some question because they didn’t realize you were in an interview, and it’s distracting and it’s a bit embarrassing or whatever, then you might mention something along the lines of, “This isn’t normally how things are, but because we’re in these weird circumstances.” That might lead into a conversation about it. Because one of the things that I often try to recommend for my clients is to be upbeat, to be positive.

If you don’t feel like you can have the discussion, and it’s certainly challenging for any of us to be upbeat and positive about what’s going on in this country related to Coronavirus. It may be hard to have that discussion, especially in an upbeat manner, but you might be able to do it in a joking fashion related to something that might be going on around you.

If that doesn’t come up in that way, I would say to let the interviewer raise it.

Mac Prichard:

In the candidates that you’re working with or employers that you’re in touch with, are you seeing questions about health and safety come up in job interviews now?

Toni Patterson:

To date, I really haven’t, and I think it’s so very sensitive. What we’ve all seen a lot of, with regard to Coronavirus in particular, whenever someone has the virus, they’re openly sharing it.

“I have the virus”, or, “My aunt has the virus”, or, “This celebrity has the virus”. I think that to some degree, in the populace, there may be a desensitization to the fact that these are still very private health matters. As it relates to an interview, we have to be more sensitive.

To date, I haven’t seen that. The way that I’ve seen it addressed, more so, is just, in a very glancing, “Because of the virus we’re working from home.” “We’ve made these changes to the way we work.” Or, “We’ve made changes to our hiring process.” In that sense, but not specifically to the health aspect.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about specific interview strategies and tactics in this new world. You mentioned at the start of our conversation that you’re seeing many interviews happen by video. Do old-fashioned phone call interviews still matter too?

Toni Patterson:

Yeah, absolutely. Phone interviews have been going on forever and typically we would see them as a first-round interview. The screener interview you might do with a recruiter or an internal HR person. Those are still happening.

I think that because the next round interviews would normally happen in person, those are the ones that we’re more seeing as happening over video, going forward.

What I’ve seen a little bit of is, because people are getting so used to using Zoom, Skype, and other technologies for those later round interviews, and because people know that they’re not going to be able to do in-person interviewing at all in the short term, some of the first-round interviews, those screener interviews, are even happening over video.

Mac Prichard:

I’m curious Toni, are you not seeing in-person interviews happening at all? Are people actually getting job offers without having met a hiring manager in person?

Toni Patterson:

The only interviews over the last month…the only offers that I’ve seen being extended over the last month are ones where they’ve had either in-person interviews prior to the many stay-at-home orders that have been put in place, or where the last round interview has been over video to meet the CEO of the company, or to meet that one last person.

To date, I haven’t seen any interview that’s been solely over the phone without any type of face-to-face or eye contact.

Mac Prichard:

Do you think that’s coming or is it just impossible to say?

Toni Patterson:

I think it’s impossible to say because we’re all trying to find new ways of working and certainly HR departments are as well. But given how fast the technology is and how inexpensive it is to meet someone virtually over video, I would find it highly unlikely that an employer would completely do away with all of that and just do all of the interviewing over the phone without even getting a chance to look at the person and see their gestures, get a sense of who they are.

Mac Prichard:

I want to talk about that technology, and I also want to talk about how to make the most of these tools, particularly when you’re on camera and talking to a potential employer.

Let’s take a quick break and when we come back, we will continue our conversation with Toni Patterson. She will continue to share her job interview tips for a COVID-19 world.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Toni Patterson. She’s a career coach who helps smart, driven women get the salaries, promotions, and jobs they want. Toni joins us today from Philadelphia.

Toni, before the break, we were talking about your interview tips for a COVID-19 world.

We talked about technology and how so many interviews now are happening on platforms like Zoom and Skype. Are you seeing that employers prefer a particular platform and how important is it for job candidates to understand how these platforms work?

Toni Patterson:

That’s a great question. I haven’t found that employers prefer a particular platform. Meaning that, I haven’t found that all employers like Zoom, or all employers like Webex. What I’ve found is that the platform that’s being used is the one that a particular employer has contracted with.

If we, internally at our company, use Webex for internal meetings, when we’re talking to people across the country, that’s the platform. Unfortunately, what that means for job seekers who are going to be doing these interviews, is that they need to have a bit of comfort or familiarity with numerous platforms.

There are many of them. Most of us are familiar with the more casual ones like Facetime or Whatsapp. For companies, the big three that I see being used are Zoom, Webex, and Skype.

The good news often is that you as the interviewee will get an invitation, a weblink invitation, to those platforms beforehand. You can click on the link, you may not be able to get into that particular meeting that’s scheduled for a particular time but you’ll get a bit of comfort with the platform. Download the software, sign up, poke around, and get a little bit comfortable with it before your interview begins. It’s free for you to use.

Mac Prichard:

I know there are little tricks that each of these platforms allows you to use; for example, putting your name under your photo, and there are other things you can do to highlight yourself and put your best foot forward virtually, aren’t there?

Toni Patterson:

Absolutely. So, using Zoom as an example, you’ll get the invitation to join Zoom, if that’s the platform the interviewer is going to use. If you haven’t already downloaded it, you download that. It’s free for you to do so. Then there’s an opportunity for you to click certain settings.

One of the settings would be to add a picture of yourself so that even if you’re not on video, there is an image of you. That might be helpful for you if, for instance, you are doing a first-round interview. If it’s a quick, thirty-minute, HR interview, your interviewer may not even want to be on video. I’ve seen that, too. They might just have their image up there, in that case, you want to have your image up too. Then there is an opportunity for you to put your name.

In addition, you can adjust your settings so that when you get into the session, you can automatically have your audio settings so that they can automatically hear you or not, that they can automatically see you on video or not. My recommendation is that everything is off until you turn it on so that you know when you’re ready to go and no one hears or sees anything they shouldn’t see before you’re all set.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about that. What kind of setting do you recommend a candidate choose when getting ready for an interview that will happen on camera? What do you want the employer to see?

Toni Patterson:

Yes, so one of the main things to think about that we obviously didn’t have to think about when we were doing an interview in person was where the interview is going to take place.

If you have a home office, that’s great. Many of us do not. Even if you do have a home office, you need to look at what’s going on behind you and what’s going on around you. Turn the camera on, on your computer, or if you’re using your phone or webcam, turn it on and see what’s happening to the sides of you, around you.

Be sure it’s a neat, clean space that suggests that you’re an organized person. Also, ensure there’s nothing in the shot that you don’t want your interviewer to be distracted by. A photo of something or a poster of something.

In my office, one of the things I have that’s totally personal is my vision board. I don’t want my interviewer looking over my shoulder trying to understand my vision board. Take a moment to look around and see what’s in the office.

That’s one basic thing that you should be doing before the interview.

Mac Prichard:

And there’s an opportunity there to share, in a positive and professional way, some of your personality too, by the objects that might appear in the background, isn’t there?

Toni Patterson:

Exactly. That is a really great point. That’s the converse. If there’s something that you want to be a conversation starter or something that projects the kind of person you are. There’s also an opportunity for you to highlight your expertise, right? It’s the equivalent of, you always see in lawyers’ offices on television, there’s always that big stack of books to show, “I’m an expert on the law”. If you are in a technical field and you want to highlight some of that stuff, or if you’re in the photography field and you want to highlight that, that would be a great way to use the space behind and around you.

Mac Prichard:

What about lighting, Toni? While this isn’t a Hollywood film, there are some basic steps people can do to put their best selves forward in the best possible light. What are some basic steps that you recommend to your clients?

Toni Patterson:

You’re right, it doesn’t need to be a Hollywood studio. But when you are in person with an interviewer, there’s an opportunity for them to see you, as clearly as possible, to perceive all your gestures, to ensure they’re looking in your eyes that they’re understanding your body language, that sort of thing.

You need to make sure that, even though you’re virtual, that they can still see all of that. A small facial expression can make a huge difference. You want to make sure that they can see that. This doesn’t have to be some expensive lighting kit that you’re buying. You don’t need to go out and get the lights that a professional photographer or videographer would use.

Once you decide where your space is that you’re going to be having these interviews, look at the lighting situation. Are there a lot of shadows in the room? If so, for the interviews, you might want to bring in some light, some of the standing lamps or table lamps from some of your other rooms.

Many young people today have little lights that they clip on top of their phone to take all of their glamorous shots of themselves. Maybe for your interviews, you could borrow that light and clip it around the camera that’s on the front of your computer or your phone, if you’re going to be using that for the interview. Just be sure you’re in brightness and not in shadow.

Even if you have the same exact posture and expression in shadow that you do in brightness, it seems more energetic, more inviting if it’s in the light. You have to do all that you can do to make sure that you’re seen in the best possible light when you are engaging with someone over video.

Mac Prichard:

This could be as simple as experimenting with shades up or down, paying attention to where you sit in a room, knowing that a conversation is going to happen at a particular time of day, and knowing what the light is going to be like in that room. Moving table lamps or standing lamps around, it’s not necessarily about buying a lighting kit. It sounds like maybe a young adult or teenager who is paying attention to photography might have a helpful tip or tool as well.

Toni Patterson:

Absolutely. If you feel like you absolutely need to, because of the setup and where the best place would be for you to have your interview, that it’s not feasible to do any of those things, then you can go on Amazon and find something very, very inexpensive.

Especially if you are feeling like right now is your hiring season; you know you’re going to be out there interviewing, you know multiple interviews are going to be happening over the next few months. If they’re all going to be over video, it might be worth it to you to invest thirty dollars or so to have a light you can really shine on your face to make sure that you’re being seen.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned body language a moment ago. What kind of gestures or posture can help or hurt a candidate when doing a video interview?

Toni Patterson:

Most of the gestures and posture that you would correct if you were doing a face-to-face interview is applicable here for an interview video. One main difference that I like to highlight is eye contact.

It’s a struggle. We’ve never had to think about it in this way before. If we are doing Whatsapp or Facetime with friends, we are on our phone and we’re kind of looking at the screen of our phone, and they’re looking at the screen of their phone. And that’s normal. It’s casual conversation, it doesn’t really matter.

What we don’t really realize is that to the other person it doesn’t look like we’re looking at them in the eye. It’s so commonplace for us to do that now, that it’s not even something we think about. We know the importance of connecting with someone and looking them directly in the eye.

But it’s a bit counterintuitive how it works when you’re doing it over video. Typically, over video, our natural inclination is to look at the screen. To look at the person we’re seeing on the screen because that’s where they are. But when you do that on video, it doesn’t appear that you’re actually looking at them directly in the eye. In order to appear that you’re looking someone directly in the eye, you actually need to be looking at the camera lens. On a laptop, it tends to be at the top of the screen. If you have a webcam, you know where your webcam is. On your phone, it’s a tiny little lens at the top or the side of the screen.

You need to practice that to get comfortable with it.

Mac Prichard:

That’s a great tip and I can see why practice would help. Because it is unnatural; you’re looking over someone’s head, basically, while they’re speaking.

What about dress, Toni? These are informal times even before COVID-19, but how important is it to perhaps dress a little more formally for a job interview that’s happening virtually during the COVID-19 period?

Toni Patterson:

Yes, absolutely. So, although I know a lot of us are taking work meetings in our PJ’s and our sweatshirts, that sort of thing. Yes, for a job interview, it’s still important to be professional. At least on the top half, it’s important to wear the same type of professional attire you would be wearing if you needed to be there in person. Worst thing to happen would be you had to stand up for something, or you dropped something, and all of a sudden it’s your pajamas on the bottom. I think it’s okay for the interviewer to do that if he or she wanted to, but for you, it’s important for you to set the tone for how you want to be viewed.

It needs to conform with your industry and what’s the norm. If the norm is t-shirts and jeans, and that would be completely comfortable, then maybe there’s a bit of leeway there. But for most of us, in an interview, we would wear a suit or certainly, semi-professional attire. That’s what I would recommend for this interview format as well.

Mac Prichard:

Finally, about the follow-up. Often the gold standard is a handwritten note. Do you still recommend that? Given that many people might not be checking their US mail at their office, is an email better when it comes time to say thank you for an interview?

Toni Patterson:

That’s a great question. I think it’s important to send an email right away. I often recommend both. I personally like handwritten notes and I feel like they stand out more. Because it’s important within twenty-four hours to send a thank you note, that’s where the email comes in.

At least the email, and if you feel comfortable, perhaps you don’t even feel comfortable going to the mailbox anymore, but if you do feel comfortable, follow up with a brief, handwritten thank you.

Mac Prichard:

I appreciate all of these useful tips and it’s been a great conversation, Toni. Tell us, what’s next for you?

Toni Patterson:

Yeah, because of everything that’s been going on with COVID-19, and there’s a lot of concern about not just interviewing, but whether there will even be jobs, and how to stand out in a very, very competitive time, I’ve put together a resource that I hope will be extremely valuable to your listeners. And it’s The Ten Easy Ways to Update Your LinkedIn Profile So That The Jobs Find You. It’s practical things that you can do in these times to make sure that you stand out for employers.

Mac Prichard:

That’s very generous of you and I know people can find that resource by visiting

There are many other useful resources and information about your services on your website. That’s

Toni, given all the useful advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want our listeners to remember about your job interview tips for a COVID-19 world?

Toni Patterson:

I think we are in a very strange time, certainly an unprecedented time for all of us. There is certain fear and uncertainty around the job market and hiring altogether.

I think an overarching tip that I would share is to look if you are so inclined. Don’t feel like interviewing is not happening, because it is. Don’t feel like hiring isn’t happening, because it is.

If you’ve been in the process of looking, continue to look. Take these tips and use them to adjust your interviewing, but continue to look. If you’ve been considering looking for a new job but have been putting it off for X,Y, Z reasons and now you’re feeling like, “Is COVID-19 another reason to put it off?” I’m telling you that it’s not.

People are still hiring. There are still opportunities for you out there. You just need to position yourself in the right way and remember the tips we talked about today. It’s going to be very helpful for you doing that.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Lisa Orbe-Austin.  She’s the author of the new book, Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life.

Lisa and I will talk about how imposter syndrome can affect your job search and what you can do about it.

I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job!