you are working your way up the career ladder internally or planning the leap
to that dream job, making your CV stand out from the crowd and creating the
right impression at interview will optimise your chances of success, by Nic
Valmai Hughes has spent the past month getting used to her new role as OH
manager at a major investment bank overseeing the health needs of 6,000 staff
in London and the South East.
Landing a new job is never as difficult as making a success of a high-powered
role once you are in it but, nevertheless, Hughes admits she found the
interview process for the bank intensive.
It took four interviews to get her the job, the first a two-hour assessment
of her competencies, the second and third one-hour interviews with senior
management and the fourth a more relaxed meeting of the team.
"I made sure that when I went into the interviews I was, as far as
possible, not going to be confronted by anything that was alien to me,"
she says. "But I have to admit I was not expecting a two-hour interview
Planning a career
Occupational health nurses are often notoriously bad at planning their
careers. Like many professionals, particularly those working in a vocational field
such as medicine, what is often, rightly, seen as more important is the
clinical, patient-related work and developing your competencies in your
specialist field. This can mean things like having a career path can easily get
But as companies demand more and more from their OH departments, being able
to plan your career is becoming increasingly important for OH nurses. Whether
it is simply a case of working your way up the ladder internally or making the
leap to that dream job or into academia, it is vital to know how to get the
best out of a job application and interview situation.
As Angela Arnold, occupational health and safety recruitment adviser at OH
recruitment specialist Cheviot Artus puts it: "Quite a lot of OH nurses
have never had an interview in five to 10 years. And if they’ve worked their
way up a company, they may never have had a formal interview at all."
The first thing Valmai Hughes did was to sign on with specialist agency,
Occupational Health Recruitment. They helped her prepare applications, worked
with her on her interviews and, for the latest job, helped with background
information on the organisation.
"They prepared me so well that I was far less nervous. I think there
was only one question that took me by surprise. In that situation it’s normally
just a question of telling the truth or being able to say where you might go to
find the answer," she explains.
When sitting down to think about your career, before getting distracted by
the nuts and bolts of CVs, application letters and interview rehearsals, it is
worth just taking a step back and thinking, "Where is it I want to be
going?" suggests Sue Lamb, recruitment and development director at OH
NHS or private sector, managerial or clinical front-line, academia or some
sort of specialist role? How important is juggling family commitments? Are you
committed to a particular part of the country? These are all questions that it
is vital to get clear in your mind at an early stage.
"It’s about not being blinkered, being flexible and open to suggestion.
But if you really want to progress, you have to put yourself out and make sure
you are not too comfortable," says Lamb.
After this, it is a question of identifying what your skills are and asking
the question "What can I offer?". For instance, you may decide you
need to take a sideways, or even a backwards, step to get to the position you
eventually want. Or it might be that you need a particular qualification or
"What can you bring to a job in terms of experience? Your CV may say
what your job description is, but what have you actually been doing?" asks
Lamb. It is important to talk about your place in the structure of the company,
do you have access to the board or the managing director, for instance? Do you
have regional, national or even international responsibilities?
When it comes to putting together a good CV, identify and focus on
achievements that have been above and beyond the basic job description. It
might have been introducing a sickness absence review or reducing sickness
absence by a certain percentage. If you can back up achievements with hard,
quantifiable evidence, all the better.
"The CV is designed to illustrate to a prospective employer what you
are capable of," explains Lamb. It also goes without saying it needs to be
accurate and truthful, while promoting your achievements and abilities to the
Writing your CV
Most employers will look askance at novella-length CVs crammed with text,
littered with different fonts and point sizes and all printed on supposedly
classy embossed grey or coloured paper. The best rule of thumb here is keep it
simple, clear (a size of 12 points is best) and consistent. Lamb, for one,
recommends no more than three sides of A4 paper and try to avoid large blocks
of text, using bullet points instead. It is also a good idea to put your name
and page number on each page in case they get lost or broken up.
"It is the content, not the size that matters. They do not want to know
that when you left school in 1963 you worked for a week in Woolworths,"
Stick too to your professional qualifications. The fact that you got a CSE
in maths in 1971 is, in 2002, neither here nor there. Include a personal
summary of your abilities, skills and competences, but avoiding jargon and
abbreviations where possible.
"Make sure the people who are reading that CV understand clearly your
role and how you have developed it. Show you have the essentials to do the job
you are applying for, and how you intend to develop your career further,"
Keep your CV updated and view it as your ‘shop window’, advises Arnold.
"Some people even do them in the third person," she adds.
The application letter should generally be a relatively short and simple
affair, she advises, but never a standard letter. It should cover who you are,
where you saw the advertisement, why you are interested in applying and point
out that your CV is enclosed.
For both the CV and the letter, it is critical that you read the job
advertisement carefully. There is nothing more likely to get your application
thrown in the bin than getting the name of the person you are applying to wrong
(or assuming their sex) or missing a key competence or qualification that is
Assuming your CV is now so professional and polished that your favoured
organisation leaps at the chance of offering you an interview, the secret, as
Hughes showed, is preparation.
Preparing for interview
Check out the organisation as best you can, look it up on its website, read
up on it, if possible find out about its culture, essentially glean as much
about it as you can. Again, an agency may be able to do much of the legwork on
this for you.
It is the same thing when it comes to the interview panel. If you can find out
who is on it and why, it will give you a much better idea of the sorts of
questions that are going to be fired at you. A quick search on the Internet
will often throw up useful tips and advice too, suggests Arnold. Enlist friends
or family to do practice runs and get them to ask all those awkward questions
you hope the real interviewers won’t.
Check out, too, where you are going and how to get there. Even do a dummy
run. And give yourself lots of time. There’s nothing worse than arriving
harassed, flustered and out of breath after dashing in late from the car park
or railway station. Also, arriving early will give you an opportunity to sit in
the lobby and get a feel for the atmosphere of the company and the sort of
people who are coming and going.
"The first three minutes are the most important when it comes to making
an impression. So walk in with your chin up, smiling, wearing a nice new suit
and with a new haircut," advises Lamb, with the proviso that it is not a
good idea to go for an outfit that is too new and uncomfortable, as it will
"Be positive and confident, but not over-confident. Show you are
well-informed about the company, their record and why you want the job,"
adds Arnold. If there are particular things you want to say or get across, or
achievements you are particularly proud of, have them memorised and find a
place to turn the conversation around to get them in.
It is also wise to have a set of questions committed to memory (and jotted
down on an easily reachable piece of paper in case you suddenly go blank) to
avoid an awkward silence when the panel asks "any questions?".
If a question completely throws you, be honest, stresses Lamb. "If you
start to dig a hole, you’ll end up burying yourself. If you don’t know
something, admit it. If you start to waffle, they will know," she says. It
is the same, just more so, for telling lies.
When it comes to money, if the advertisement has not stated a salary and the
panel has not already brought it up, it is generally worth enquiring what salary
band the position is in. If the question is then thrown back at you –
"What salary band did you have in mind?" – it is vital not to sell
yourself short, so keep a salary figure in mind.
At the end, thank the panel for calling you to be interviewed and ask
politely when you may expect to hear.
It is also worth remembering that the interview is not over until you are
back out on the street. A flippant or derogatory comment to the receptionist,
or saying something stupid in the lift on the way down will often make its way
back to the panel.
If you have not heard anything within five working days – unless the panel
has stated otherwise – it may be worth chasing up; if nothing else it shows you
are still keen to be considered.
If you are unsuccessful, do not be afraid to ask for feedback. If you remain
interested in that particular company, ask if you can be kept on file for
future reference. And don’t worry. As with most things, success comes with
Tips for getting a new job
– Focus on achievements above and beyond the basic job
description; provide evidence
– Keep it simple, clear and consistent; use bullet points
– Keep it updated
– Research the organisation
– Do practice runs
– Check your route, get there early
– Be positive and confident
– Prepare the points you want to make
– Have some questions in reserve
– If you don’t know the answer, say so
– Remember the interview’s not over until you’re out on the
– Ask for feedback if you’re unsuccessful