Spot Purpose Behind Each Question
What’s the best job interview response to all questions? It’s the one that adds up to “Hire me!”
As Sherlock Holmes would say, “Elementary, Dr. Watson.” But recruiters report that high numbers of job seekers blab negative information without realizing they’re making a farewell address to a job opportunity.
Following are ten prime-time tricky probes with hidden agendas that experienced interviewers use to separate the possible hires from the rejects.
Why’ve you been out of work so long? How many others were laid off? Why you?
Why is the interviewer asking you about your recent employment history when you’ve already said you were laid off (not fired)? This quizzing could cause you to reveal there’s something wrong with you that other employers have already discovered.
The interviewer is fishing to determine whether there was a layoff of one and you were it. Or whether your former manager used the theme of recession and budget cuts to dump groups of second-string employees.
“Hire me!” answer: Explain that, after your layoff, you stopped to reevaluate where your life is headed. You began your search in earnest only a few weeks ago, when you realized your true aims. The interviewer’s company and this position are of special interest to you.
An alternative explanation for not jumping into the job chase centers on a timeout event that has since resolved itself — an ill family member, for instance.
Any direct answer to why you were included in a reduction in force is risky because anger toward your former managers could pop up, raising doubt about your self-control. A better idea: Punt. Shake your head and say you don’t know the reason, because you were an excellent employee who gave more than a day’s work for a day’s pay.
If employed, how do you manage time for interviews?
The real question is whether you are lying to and short-changing your current employer while looking for other work.
Clearly state that you’re taking personal time, and that’s why you interview only for job openings for which you’re a terrific match. If further interviews are suggested, mention that your search is confidential and ask if it would be possible to meet again on a Saturday morning. You are not a time cheater. You are not a slacker. You are not a liar.
How did you prepare for this interview?
Translation: Is this job important enough for you to research it, or are you going through the motions without preparation, making it up as you go?
Do you know anyone who works for us?
(If a company has a nepotism policy prohibiting the hiring of relatives, you’d be aware of it and not wasting everyone’s time by interviewing.)
But the friend question is a two-way street. Nothing beats having a friend deliver your resume to a hiring manager, but that transaction presumes the friend is well thought of in the company. If not — ouch!
Remember the birds-of-a-feather rule: Mention a friend inside the company only if you’re certain of your friend’s positive standing.
Where would you really like to work? Doing what?
The real agenda for this question is assurance that you aren’t applying to every job opening in sight, that you actually know what you want, and that you won’t be bored stiff by the job being discussed.
Caveat: Never, ever mention another company’s name or another job.
A short “Hire me!” answer is a version of: “This is the place where I want to work, and this job is what I want to do. I have what you need, and you have what I want. I can’t wait to get to work here.”
What bugs you about coworkers or bosses?
This not-so-subtle inquiry is a clever trap to see if you’re a troublemaker or have a prickly personality.
Steer clear of this third-rail territory. Develop a poor memory for past irritations. Reflect for a few moments, shake your head, and say you can’t come up with anything that irritates you. Continue for a couple of sentences elaborating on how you seem to get along with virtually everyone.
Mention that you’ve been lucky to have good bosses who are knowledgeable and fair, with a sense of humor and high standards. Past coworkers are able, supportive, and friendly. Smile your most sincere smile. Don’t be lured into elaborating further.
Can you describe how you solved a work/school problem?
This forthright question is tricky only in the sense that most job seekers can’t come up with an example on the spot that favorably reflects on their ability to think critically and develop solutions.
The answer is obvious: Anticipate a question about how your mind works and have a canned answer ready. A new graduate might speak of time management to budget more time for study; an experienced worker might speak of time management to clear an opportunity for special task force assignments.
Can you describe a work/school instance in which you messed up?
The question within a question is whether you learn from your mistakes or keep repeating the same errors. A kindred concern is whether you are too self-important to consider any action of yours to be a mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, here’s a chance to avoid making one during your job interview: Never deliver a litany of your personal bad points. Instead, briefly mention a single small, well-intentioned goof and follow up with an important lesson learned from the experience.
How does this position compare with others you’re applying for? Are you under consideration by other employers now?
The intent of these questions is to gather intel on the competitive job market or get a handle on what it will take to bring you onboard. Maybe the job market for your talents is flat and you can be had on the cheap. Or if your resume is parked at several companies, why haven’t you been snatched up?
You can choose a generic strategy and say you don’t interview and tell, that you respect the privacy of any organization where you interview, including this one. Emphasize that this company is where you hope to find a future, and ask, “Have I found my destination here?”
If you won the lottery, would you still work?
This question goes to your motivation, work ethic, and enthusiasm for work. Are you merely occupying a space until you can hang it up?
A possible answer: If you mean it, say yes, you’d retire right now. But since you need to work, this is the sort of work you prefer.
The “Hire me!” answer: While you’d be thrilled to win the lottery, you’ll still seek out fulfilling work because working, meeting challenges, and scoring accomplishments are what make most people happy, including you. Say it with a straight face.
When You’re Uncertain
If a hardball question comes at you out of left field, try not to panic. Take a deep breath, look the interviewer in the eyes, and comment that it’s a good question you’d like to mull over and come back to. The interviewer may forget to ask again.
But if the question does resurface and your brain goes on holiday, say that you don’t know the answer and that, being a careful worker, you prefer not to guess.
If you’ve otherwise done a good job of answering questions and confidently explained why you’re a great match for the position, the interviewer probably won’t consider your lack of specifics on a single topic to be a deal breaker.