Interviewing in Cyberspace

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It's official: Virtual jobs fairs aren't just for techies anymore. In finance and accounting, they took a giant step toward the mainstream last month when KPMG offered 600 jobs via a global, online career fair.

The event included online visuals that mimicked a real job fair, including an exhibit hall filled with booths staffed by recruiters and other KPMG officials who talked to job candidates via instant messaging.

Visitors were able to see a live webcast, visit a country booth to learn more about the company's operations there, chat with senior leaders and apply for jobs, says Paloma Alos, KPMG director of global people marketing and communications.

Really hip companies, like data-storage firm EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Mass., have already taken the idea of virtual job fairs further by holding them in Second Life, a 3-D virtual world inhabited by millions of avatars (virtual world personas). In Second Life, 20,000-employee EMC has a round, glass headquarters building where visitors watch birds fly and dolphins jump. They can pour a glass of virtual lemonade, click on paintings to connect to EMC's Web site, or fly upstairs to virtual interviews.

Tomorrow's Job Interview?

Not only do virtual interviews change the playing field (no one can see your palms sweat online), they speed up the job game itself, says Polly Pearson, EMC vice president of Employment Brand and Strategy Engagement. You can submit a resume on Tuesday and have an interview on Wednesday.

"In the virtual world, I could say meet me at this address in five minutes and we could go there and sit down and look you in the face (or at least look your avatar in the face), and get to know you and have what feels like a face to face meeting," she says. "Except it's more fun."

Ironically, one of the company's latest Second Life hires was a global controller who lives in, of all places, in EMC's neighborhood of Boston. The controller elevated her personal brand because everyone in the company heard about the virtual career fair. And, like others ultimately hired as a result EMC's Second Life job fair, she was the center of attention at every social event she went to for months.

Virtual vs. Real Life

A virtual job fair differs from a real life job fair in ways that benefit some candidates, but not others. For instance, the anonymous nature of online recruitment fairs make them unique. In the virtual world, the recruiter won't see a handicap or your skin color, and can't hear your accent, either.

"That matters a huge amount to a proportion of the job seekers," says KPMG Global Recruiting Director Keith Dugdale. "You're only judging by what's presented. It's got to be good for independence of judgment."

Yet, communicating via instant messaging also strips away the benefit of verbal charisma. "You lose the ability to make the impact and forge the relationship," Dugdale adds. "And maybe that's something that they shouldn't be doing at that stage of the process. People should see it as an opportunity to find out about opportunities and to make an initial contact, but you're never going to get a full detailed 45 minute interview."

Much that occurs in a virtual event could occur in the real world, says Brent Arslaner, vice president of marketing for Unisfair, a Menlo Park, Calif., virtual event firm. "You can be a wallflower and sit in your corner and not communicate with anyone," he says. "Or, you can put together a list of subjects you really need to know about and really learn. It's an opportunity for bi-directional communication."

Pitfalls and Tips For Virtual Interviewing

The way people communicate virtually is often more direct than the way they communicate in person. "Don't be rude or abrupt, but be specific, Arslaner says. "The purpose of these events is for companies to sell themselves. Use it as an opportunity to learn more and ask direct questions: What is the culture really like? What is an average work week?"

Despite the fact that KPMG and EMC have gone into the virtual world in search of employees, it's still an emerging trend, says Lynne A. Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston. "People are still struggling with how to do it most effectively and how to make it work for everybody involved," she says. "We've got a few more years of in-person interviews ahead of us."

To get ready for a virtual job fair, consider these tips:

- Think carefully about what you want to get out of the event because you can't visit every booth and talk to everyone. Know which companies you want to target based on their culture and business environment, Alos says.

- If there's a welcome video or a demo on the start page of the virtual job fair, listen to it to for tips on navigating the event and talking to people using instant messaging.

- Treat the fair like a buffet: See what's available before you fill your plate. Know who you want to talk to and what you want to get across about yourself.

- Treat the virtual event the same way you would an in-person job fair. Do your research before the event and remember it's a professional interview, not Second Life. No emoticons or using "U" instead of writing out "you," Alos says.

- Do share more then a resume. If you have samples of your work or other resources that can differentiate you from the crowd, you should add them to your profile.

- Ask for a follow-up interview. During the live portion of a virtual career fair hiring managers can be inundated with questions and may only be available for five or 10 minutes.

- Remember that everything you and the employer says is on the record. At the end of the fair, you'll probably have a "briefcase" that includes all your interactions and positions you're interested in and videos about the company.

Whether or not your next employer offers virtual hiring, know that eventually it's going to become more common, if for no other reason than it's a lot less expensive to hold a virtual job fair than a live one. "Ultimately, it is the workspace of the future," Pearson predicts. "So if all of us who are professionals want to be employed for the next 15 to 30 years, we have to start being aware of these tools."

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