How Recruiters Use Your Emotional IQ in an Interview

Posted by Jared Shelly on November 7, 2011

Meet Wayne. Coming out of college, he had terrific accounting skills, completed a solid internship, and was an A-student. But Wayne can be a bit arrogant, has trouble working with teams, and frequently blames others when things go wrong.

Meet Charles. He has also earned an accounting degree, was a B-student, and will need plenty of training from a future employer. But when it comes to
working with him day-to-day, he’s polite, relates well with others, easily takes direction, stays focused, and has leadership potential.

So which one would a job recruiter hire? Without question, recruiters want Charles.

That’s because Charles demonstrates emotional intelligence, defined by experts as a person’s ability to manage his or her emotions effectively, relate to others, read and adapt to a cultural environment, and influence other people positively. In the workplace, an
employee who demonstrates emotional intelligence can lead, work effectively with others, deal with change, take criticism, and stay positive in the face of adversity.

Sure, skills, education, and experience are important to recruiters, but they’d rather hire a less skilled worker with high emotional intelligence than a highly skilled person who is lacking it. A company can teach new employees the technical skills needed to be proficient in a given position. It’s much harder to train them to manage their emotions—and employers would rather not try.

The term emotional intelligence was popularized in 1995 by author and psychologist Daniel Goleman. He analyzed jobs at 121 organizations, finding 67 percent of the 181 competencies that distinguish the best performers at work are emotional competencies. Compared to IQ and expertise, emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ) mattered twice as much.

Today companies are increasingly using EQ to evaluate job candidates. Not only do they buy into the value of emotionally intelligent employees, the incredibly competitive job market has given them large pools of candidates to choose from—so why wouldn’t they try to hire employees who are emotionally fit?

They’re even including words and phrases such as mature and resilient in the face of setbacks in their job postings. “The balance of power has shifted to employers,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist, author, and former professor at New York University. “They can be more discerning and stringent in what they’re looking for.” 

Being emotionally intelligent will help you break down the stereotypes many hiring managers have about Generation Y workers—namely that they’re entitled, need constant encouragement, and have inflated self-worth. “Emotions need to be taken seriously,” says Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “They can provide a company with information [about] what people really feel and can help predict what kind of decisions will be made, what kind of behavior will occur, and what types of relationships will be formed.”

Take for example: The online shoe retailer purposely weeds out job candidates who don’t have their emotions in check. “We ask a lot of questions to make sure they’re humble,” says Christa Foley, senior HR manager at Zappos. “People who are arrogant don’t have the patience to talk to people in a constructive, positive way. ‘I’m better than you’ is not something we want hear.”

One question Zappos interviewers ask to get to the heart of the issue is, “Can you tell me a common perception people have of you?” If someone answers, “I always have an opinion on something” or “People think I’m a know-it-all,” that’s a sign that person may be arrogant—and it’s a red flag for recruiters.

Even high-tech companies—where you might think skills are trump—are placing a high value on emotional intelligence. TE Connectivity, makers of electronic components for automobiles and consumer devices, would rather have a new hire with limited technical skills but a high emotional intelligence. “We as a company offer lots of good training. If a person can’t play in the sandbox with others, that’s a problem and very difficult to correct,” says Dmitry Zhmurkin, manager of university relations.

A job interview can be your best chance to show your emotional intelligence to a prospective employer. Be on the lookout for behavioral-based interview questions. (They typically begin with “Can you tell me about a time when…?”) While companies have used these types of questions for years to predict how you would behave on the job, they’re increasingly employed to determine how you will react to problems on an emotional level. How did you deal with adversity? Did you remain calm under pressure or panic?

The key to nailing behavioral questions is to not be caught off guard. Think about how you can answer this kind of question in advance. “It’s important to pick specific examples that can show the ability to stay cool during stressful situations or perhaps illustrate your compassion,” says Joe Bohling, senior vice president and chief human resource officer at Aflac Inc.

Recruiters also ask references about a candidate’s emotional intelligence, so it’s a good idea to remind your references of a time you excelled on collaborative work or dealt with uncertainty.

Showing you can manage conflict is very appealing to employers. Often, the opportunity will arise when interviewers ask something along the lines of: “Can you tell me about a time something didn’t go as planned on a project and what you did to correct it?” Here, you want to provide examples of times you’ve managed conflicts, solved problems effectively, and used your influence to achieve positive results.

Demonstrating you’re self-aware can convey high emotional intelligence. It may be tough, but try to figure yourself out. Can you be rude? Impatient? Do you often blame others when things go wrong? Are you impulsive? Make sure you can control those compulsions rather than just jumping to conclusions quickly.

“By understanding yourself, you have a better opportunity to be aware of your emotions, particularly strong emotions that may affect job performance,” says Casey Komnick, campus relations program manager at Ecolab, a cleaning and sanitizing company.

You can acknowledge your self-awareness in an interview to show you know your emotional weaknesses. For example: “I realize I have very strong opinions, so I try to keep those in check and ask what others are thinking before offering my own opinion.” 

In today’s volatile business climate, employers want to hire people who can adapt to change. For example, health-care reform has made sweeping changes to the insurance landscape, and Aflac wants to make sure its people are ready. “The business is always changing and we need talent that is capable of adjusting to change and contributing positively,” says Bohling. To demonstrate your adaptability, try to illustrate to recruiters times when you’ve faced the unexpected and persevered.

Some employers are using EQ tests to screen job candidates. These assessments are often developed by organizational psychologists, and aim to get to the heart of your emotional fitness. Some typical questions include: Do you stay cool under pressure? Do you identify negative feelings when becoming stressed? Can you receive criticism without becoming defensive?

To prepare, try doing a self-assessment. How do you cope with stressful situations? Can you deal with stress with humor or play, or do you always get negative?

There are also plenty of EQ tests online. Take one and see what you learn about yourself. Many websites will offer tips to improve emotional intelligence based on how you scored.

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