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Going for a placement at Unilever: telephone interview questions

You may revel in talking of your innovation in explosive chemicals while at university, but if it was tested irresponsibly in a local park, you would lose marks on the Unilever values of integrity and positive impact.

Assuming your application form made its mark with the Unilever recruiters (and, for those applying to the finance management programme, that your online assessment was successful) the next step in the hiring process could be a case of the good, the bad or the ugly. It all depends on how well you deal with telephone interviews.

The good:

  • You’re not under scrutiny
  • No travel time
  • Relaxed environment

The bad:

  • Your conversational ability is paramount
  • Line interference can damage a first impression
  • You can’t read the recruiter’s body language

The ugly:

  • It’s easy to get too relaxed and do the interview in your underwear (Don’t! Keep a working mindset)
  • Pets, children or anything else that sounds like the outbreak of WW3 in the background can affect how the interview goes.

If you need help getting in to the zone before you get stuck in to the questions, check out the TARGETjobs guide to handling telephone interviews.

Below are some questions that have reportedly been asked in past Unilever telephone interviews. However, don’t take everything stated at face value; interview questions may well change according to the company's needs.

Describe a time when you showed innovation

The golden rule with any question that starts with ‘describe a time/situation’ is to use your own experience to answer. Here Unilever wants to see that you can come up an innovative idea, but also act to make it a reality. The most recommended method for dealing with these sorts of questions is normally the ‘Situation, Task, Action, Results’ (STAR) model. To find out more about planning your answers in this fashion, check out the TARGETjobs guide to competency questions in the links further down this page.

When you list out your own examples, try to find the one that most closely matches the role you are applying for. This is a company that is trying to expand its spray-can deodorant empire while reducing its carbon footprint. If you’re going for R&D, for instance, look for an example of a practical experiment or a project that you worked on and implemented something new that made it better or reduced the cost and resources used.

Situations in which you solved a problem can be good fodder for this sort of question. Think about a time when you had a setback or something that slowed you down and had to develop a method for dealing with it. For example, perhaps you’ve been working on a group university project and noticed that everyone was losing time on coversheets and looking up information so you developed a new filing system to overcome the problem. Away from a desk example, if you’re an amateur gardener in your free time, maybe you’ve needed to come up with a method of getting sunlight or water to plants that is outside of the ordinary.

If you’re going for more of a sales role, look into past work experience such as supermarkets or restaurants for examples. Perhaps you came up with a new method for handling customers on the telephone or dealing with a particular type of customer.

Unilever lists all of its core values on its website, so bear those in mind. You may revel in talking of your innovation in explosive chemicals while at university, but if it was tested irresponsibly in a local park, you would lose marks on the Unilever values of integrity and positive impact.

Describe a situation where a project didn't go well and how you dealt with it

The terminology here is deliberately vague; a project could be the work of a day, a year or even longer. Stick to Unilever's integrity and positive impact principles. The company doesn't want to know how you’ve subverted established legal or safety systems to get out of a problem; rather it wants to see an open and honest approach.

If you’re going to use a university project or a long-term goal, try not to give them examples that occurred at the last minute. They want to see that you can plan ahead and manage campaigns and products. For instance, if you’re talking about an end of year project and looking for problems, talk about how the plan you had made at the beginning made the problem easier to deal with, and follow the chronology through until you reach a resolution based on your own hard work.

For more help dealing with these types of interview questions, check out these guides:

Why Unilever, and why this particular programme?

Does this question suggest that Unilever wants to know what you want from the job? Well, not entirely; you’re going to need to go a little more in-depth.

Break down your answer. ‘Why Unilever?’ is testing to see what you know about the company as well as what it means to you. Are you impressed with its promises of sustainability? The ad campaigns for certain products? Or professed advances in nutrition? Pick a subject area that appeals to you and try to demonstrate how it ties in with your own relevant work experience or interests. For example, if you’ve been working part time for an NGO dealing with the environment, think about what you enjoyed from this posting and use it to back up your love of Unilever’s sustainability projects.

‘Why this particular programme?’ can be answered in a similar style. What do you already know about sales, R&D or the supply chain? And how would you fit that particular niche?

Who are our competitors, and what separates them from Unilever?

There are several major companies out there that compete with Unilever across a lot of different types of products. Look into Mars, Procter and Gamble, Nestlé or SC Johnson as examples but remember that almost anyone that deals in some area of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) is potential competition. You should know who they are before the interview and be able to name-drop them and their basic core values. Get up to speed with information on these companies in the media and some of the business sections of the newspapers and when you compare them use the values and principles that Unilever puts on its website as a benchmark.

Paul Polman (and if you don’t know who that is by now then you need to find out) has spoken at major world events about world hunger, poverty, sustainability and the future direction for businesses. Maybe it’s worth looking at some of these speeches and interviews? – hint hint.

What difficulties is Unilever facing at the moment?

You could take a generic ongoing problem that has been around for decades, but you’ll stand out much more if you keep an eye on all the company’s developments and indeed those within the FMCG sector in general. Set up RSS feeds for a few related websites to see what comes up every day and note down the ones relevant to Unilever. Remember this could come from any sector or discipline. You’re just as likely to read about challenges facing Unilever or the industry in Farmers Guardian or New Food magazine as you are in Businessweek or Advertising Age. Try to avoid big one-off stories that won’t necessarily last the three months or so of the hiring process. Instead look for issues that seem to have lasting potential – legal cases can be good for this, as are expansion and site disputes or major changes to workforce or infrastructure.

Find solutions to difficulties and think analytically. For example, in August 2013, Unilever came under fire for its ‘save the abandoned Marmite jar’ ads’ potential to offend animal rights campaigners. This could have been a setback for the company, but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) deemed it unlikely to cause serious offence. It dropped the idea of a ban and the extra publicity could arguably have boosted Unilever’s profile. Would you have been able to see that through and, if you were one of Unilever’s advertising team, would you have had the guts to make the call not to pull the ad?

When answering this question, remember to find a current example (this one is already too old) and make sure it has the shelf-life to run through more than one interview if needed.

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