5 job interview tips you really need to know

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Is it me, or has the brutal job market turned interview advice into a competitive sport? Every question seems to get bloggers slamming into each other like 300-pound NFL linemen.

First there were accusations of age discrimination from older workers when, in reality, their kids have far higher rates of unemployment. Then there was the question of whether it's illegal or not to ask discriminatory questions in a job interview. Now there's the whole Facebook password controversy.

With all the over-the-top political correctness, everybody and the ACLU ready to sue employers for asking a simple question, and all the flat-out bad advice from people who have no idea what they're talking about, I've never been more thrilled to be out of the line of fire.

What hiring managers really look forThe 10 stages of a nightmare job search

Still, I feel the need to set the record straight on some of this crazy controversy, if only so 30-year-old kids don't have to sleep in their childhood beds with pop star posters hanging on the walls and their parents demanding they "turn it down."

I may not be an HR person or a Gen Y personal branding guru, but let's just say I know a little bit more than I'd like about employment law, interviewing and being interviewed. Here's some no-nonsense advice you can use.

Can employers ask for your Facebook password?

Yes, they can, and a congressional amendment to block the practice was shot down recently. That said, Facebook doesn't think companies should ask for your username and password, and I agree. It's creepy and I don't think you're going to find reputable companies like Microsoft (MSFT) or Apple (AAPL) doing it. Still, it's a free country. Interviewers can ask, but you don't have to give it to them. If it bugs you, politely decline and find a job elsewhere. Save your outrage for later that night and a beer. If you're desperate for a job, clean up your account and give it to them. It's your choice how to answer, just as it is their choice to ask.

What is and isn't discrimination?

Interviewers can ask just about any question they want, including your age, race and gender. It's dumb, but it is legal to ask. As Evil HR Lady Suzanne Lucas recently wrote, the interviewer can pretty much tell all that just by looking at you and your resume. And while it is illegal for them to use that information in making a hiring decision, it's very hard to prove that they've done so. For example, older workers are usually more expensive than their younger counterparts. Unfortunately, there's no law against basing a hiring decision on compensation.

Should you interview the interviewer?

A lot of people suggest you should prepare a boatload of questions to find out more about the company and the hiring manager so you know what you're getting yourself into. A question or two is great, but I think overdoing it is very risky, especially in this job market. You're single goal in the interview process is to get an offer. Once you get an offer, you can always follow up with more questions. Also, I don't care how good your questions are, you won't know what you're getting yourself into until you've been there a while. That's just the way it is, whether you're a worker or a CEO. Really.

What exactly do interviewers look for?

More than anything, they're looking for a fit, someone with the knowledge and experience to do the job and fit in with the company culture. The job specification will detail what they're looking for. If there's no spec or they won't give you one, then read up on the company and its business online.

Based on what you do know, think about a particular experience to show them you can successfully do what they need done. That's the main thing. Then just look and act the part and try to relax. Since you can't predict the future and you don't know what they're going to ask, just be as open and present as possible. Anything else will only detract from the main thing: you. So be you. That's who they're hiring, right?

Does personal branding help?

As I explained in 7 career advice myths, the short answer is no, personal branding does not help. Sure, you should look and behave professionally in person and online. Clean up your social media presence by keeping your public profile professional and your personal stuff password protected between family and friends, for example. The company is interviewing you to see if you can do the job and fit in. The best way to stand out is to show you can do that with minimal drama. 

For more on the subject, check out What hiring managers really look for.

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