Bossy Questions

Nov. 1, 1999
Holly Hygienist decided her biorhythms must be on an upswing. She was in a terrific mood after leaving the job interview. "I think I aced it," she announced to Gretchen Graduate over lunch. "If I can get this job, that`ll give me another two days a week, and I can pay off the new car in no time."

The most important part of a job interview may well be the questions you ask.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Holly Hygienist decided her biorhythms must be on an upswing. She was in a terrific mood after leaving the job interview. "I think I aced it," she announced to Gretchen Graduate over lunch. "If I can get this job, that`ll give me another two days a week, and I can pay off the new car in no time."

"What kinds of questions did he ask?" Gretchen said nervously. Just the thought of job interviews made her tremble.

"Oh, the usual stuff," Holly said. "How many days are you looking for, what salary do you need, can you work evenings? More important were the questions I asked him. He answered all of them right, and I feel really good about the place."

"You asked questions?" Gretchen was shocked. "He`s the one who`s supposed to ask all the questions!"

Now Holly was shocked. "You must not have been on many interviews yet. You have to realize that you`re going to be investing part of your life in his business. It`s as important for you to be happy as it is for him."

Gretchen wasn`t convinced. "But he`s the boss!"

"And you`re the employee. You have responsibilities, sure, but you should also have expectations. If he can`t meet them, then he`s the wrong boss for you."

Holly had the right idea, according to job search experts, but she still didn`t get the position she wanted so badly. She asked a lot of questions, but they were all off the top of her head and were based on bad experiences at her previous jobs. Her first question to the dentist, was, "Do you come to work on time?"

It`s an important thing to know, particularly in states where a hygienist is prohibited from working without having a dentist physically present. Nothing is more frustrating than twiddling your thumbs and apologizing to patients because the boss is late again and you can`t get started with your day.

But Holly could have been a little less blunt. Finesse is the key word in handling a job interview.

Finesse? Handling? Those are not words Gretchen learned in college when the instructor talked (very briefly) about looking for work. Gretchen went into the job market with the definite impression that an interview was something to be endured, not controlled.

But experts agree that a job interview can be controlled, to a certain extent, by the person being interviewed. A job-seeker should approach an interview with a plan. The basic interview can be divided into two sections - answering questions and asking them. During both sections, a well-prepared hygienist will present herself as the best candidate for the job.

Sometimes, of course, the real world intrudes and you don`t get a chance. If a busy dentist is seeing you between patients or at lunch time, she might be pretty superficial. "We`re looking for someone for Mondays from eight to five and Thursdays from 11 to seven. I pay $20 an hour, and you`ll see adults in 45 minutes, kids in 30. There`s a good ultrasonic scaler and the chair`s almost new. Can you help us out?"

If you`re just as busy, you might say, "Sure, let`s give it a try."

But you both might be sorry later. You may find out she`s a perfectionist who centers the sticky notes in the exact center of the obsessively neat chart. She may discover you`re a scribbler who likes to write casual notes here, there, and everywhere. It may turn out that she`s always late with the paychecks, and she may not like it when you ask for extra time off. A little research, a little more time in the interview process, could have prevented the mismatch.

Let`s assume that the average dentist will not be that abrupt. He`ll want to get to know you. He might actively promote his practice as a wonderful place to work. He might have definite ideas about how his hygienists and employees should present themselves to the patients. What can you do to convince him you`re the best person for the job?

Marc Dorio, human resources manager of Dorio Associates Inc., has made a career of teaching people how to function at work. He is the author of The Complete Idiot`s Guide to the Perfect Interview, as well as other books. Dorio believes there is one thing all interviewers look for and welcome - "Someone who`ll solve their problems."

In other words, don`t present yourself to dentists as a job seeker. Don`t focus on what they can do for you, but on what you can do for them. Make them see you as a resource, Dorio suggests, as someone with skills, expertise, and accomplish-ments to offer.

During the first section of the interview, when the dentist is asking questions, your plan is simple. You should be listening carefully to his needs, then responding directly to them. Does the dentist complain about hygienists who can`t stay on schedule? Give him your ideas on running a smooth operation.

"Your 50-minute schedule sounds good to me. I prepare tray setups in advance, and I`m very quick with X-rays and cleanup. I like to spend the majority of the appointment time in direct patient care."

Maybe a dentist is concerned about how you`ll get along with his patients. Social skills, after all, are an important part of a hygienist`s job.

"That`s one of the things I love best about dentistry," you might say. "Meeting so many different kinds of people makes every day interesting. I especially enjoy seeing children, and I always learn a lot from senior citizens."

If the dentist has ideas for the future, share the vision. "I`ve been thinking," he might say, "about buying an intraoral camera. What`s your opinion?"

Even if you`ve only used a camera at the demo table of a dental show, you can show enthusiasm. "As a motivator, it has to be one of the best things in dentistry. I`ve seen the surprise on patients` faces when they get that first close-up look at their own mouth. Let me tell you how I`d want to use it."

When you respond directly to an employer`s concerns, Dorio says, you have begun the transformation from job-seeker to potential partner willing to pitch in and solve problems.

Besides listening and responding, your most important task for the first half of the interview is observing. The way a dentist presents himself and the office tells you a lot about the practice. Some things to observe could include:

- Did the receptionist know you were coming, or did she assume you were a walk-in patient? If your appointment is news to her, there might be an office communication problem.

- Is his desk neat, or is it buried in paperwork and charts? Does he even have a desk?

- Do the other employees seem friendly, or do they give you a disinterested glance and go on about their business?

On your tour of the office, note the obvious things like cleanliness of the lab and convenience of the equipment, but try to dig a little deeper. Open a few drawers in the hygiene operatory. Poke your head into the supply closet. Ask about handpiece maintenance. Are the patients` charts stuffed with five-year-old insurance paperwork? All these things will help you decide whether you could be happy at this office.

The trickiest question in the first half of a job interview can be about money. Neither of you will want to be the first to mention a figure. Sometimes the dentist comes right out with it: "What salary are you looking for?" All you can do is answer the question, but you can leave the door open by offering a range. "I`m looking for something more than $20 an hour. With my experience, and the ideas we`ve talked about so far, I feel that`s reasonable." It`ll be your job, during the second part of the interview, to make the potential employer believe you`re worth more.

In the second half of the interview, it will be your turn to ask questions.

Richard Fein, director of placement at the University of Massachusetts School of Management, believes asking good questions is critical. "That can be just as important to your interview success, but it is often overlooked." Your questions are important, he says, because they reveal a lot about you.

Questions a hygienist asks tell the dentist how committed you are to important things like office teamwork. If your first question is about whether you will have to do "any cleaning," the boss might deduce that you`re not a very enthusiastic team player. But you still need to know, right? If part of your duties will be to take a turn scouring the bathroom, you might not want the job very badly after all.

You could give the question a slightly different slant. "Can you tell me how the team approach works here? How do you and the staff divide daily duties?" That still answers your question without letting a potential employer know you wouldn`t scrub his toilet on a bet.

It`s especially important to know which questions to ask. Fein suggests organizing your interview questions around four topics: the job, the company, the industry, and outside influences.

To apply that to dentistry, you might ask first about the job. What hasn`t the dentist covered yet? He`ll want to know he`s hiring the best hygienist available, and you have to convince him that you`re the one.

If he hasn`t mentioned soft-tissue management yet, for example, you could bring that up in a nonthreatening way. Don`t put him on the spot by asking if there is such a program. There might not be, and then he could be embarrassed. Instead, consider asking: "As part of your soft tissue management program, do your hygienists record periodic pocket measurements?"

Next, ask about the company. Maybe you could start out with a compliment. "I was really impressed when I walked in. Your waiting room has a friendly atmosphere, and the stuffed animal contests are a great idea for families. I`d be interested in hearing your thoughts on public relations."

If the office has a public relations plan, that shows you the doctor thinks about being a good business manager. If she flaps a hand and says, "No, I never worry about that stuff," that tells you something, too.

If the dentist is enthusiastic about public relations, it`s best to be ready with ideas of your own. Let her know you`re enthusiastic, too. "At my last office, I helped develop a plan for Patient Appreciation Days that we held twice a year. I can tell you how it worked. It would fit in well with your `Patients in the News` bulletin board."

The industry of dentistry might be a touchy subject for a hygienist to ask a dentist about, but you can do it in a general way that relates to your job. "You know, our state has some new duty definitions for hygienists. Can you tell me how you`ll take advantage of that?"

Asking about outside influences might seem unnecessary in a small dental practice, but, if you`ve been observant, you can at least impress the a future boss by being aware of the community around the office. "I can tell by the exterior remodeling that you`re participating in the downtown revitalization effort. Do you expect the office will do well in this location in the coming years?"

Questions about benefits, experts agree, should be left until last, perhaps after you`ve received a job offer and the dentist has more reason to want to please you. You may even be able to negotiate extra benefits, like personal days, in lieu of a higher salary. Working in a prospective office for a day can give you an excellent idea of office dynamics. If the dentist is agreeable and you`re available, try it.

Closing the interview can be touchy. If you`ve given all the right answers and asked all the right questions, though, you`ll already know if you`re still interested in the job. If you can`t wait to get out of there, it`s best to stand up, shake her hand and be honest about it. "Thank you, Dr. Smith, for your time, but I`m afraid this job just isn`t right for me." At least, she might appreciate knowing she can forget about you and move on to the next candidate.

If you are interested, it`s important to say that. Ask for the job in a very broad way. "Thank you, Dr. Smith, for seeing me. I`m interested in your hygiene opening; it sounds very attractive. What comes next?" The value of the question, Fein says, is in the asking, even if you don`t get a straight answer. The dentist now knows you want the job, and she might not have been sure of that until you said so.

Interviewing with a dentist doesn`t have to be a trial, as long as you`re prepared. Gretchen doesn`t have to be frightened of the interview process, and Holly doesn`t need to go in with a chip on her shoulder. Listening, responding, observing, and asking intelligent questions are the most important skills needed for good interview technique, and isn`t that what we do every day with our patients?

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Calcutta, Ohio.

A brave response to: `Any questions?`

Dana Curtis, who is with the Office of Career Services at Harvard University, wrote an article titled, "Your Questions for the Interviewer." She observed, "For many, the question, `Do you have any questions for me?` is one of the most feared. Preparation is the key to reducing that fear."

She raised the following points in her article:

- She recommends developing multiple questions in order to just ask two of them. "An interviewer may answer some of your questions during the course of the conversation." She suggests bringing a list of at least five questions to the interview.

"It is not an entirely innocent question from an interviewer," she writes. "Usually, it is another way for him or her to measure your interest in the organization, knowledge of the field, maturity, professionalism, and communication skills."

- Don`t waste time with questions where the answers are unimportant to you. She notes, "Otherwise, your questions may sound canned, or someone may feel that you are simply going through the motions."

- Although questions about income and benefits are likely the ones most important to you, Curtis advises saving them for later, possibly until after the job is offered. "There will be time for detailed questions and negotiation later in the process if you receive an offer. Concentrate on asking questions that will help you to learn more about the responsibilities of the position and the culture of the organization."