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10 Sticky Job Interview Situations and How to Handle Them
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., and Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Job interviewing can be an unnerving experience, but if you know how to handle some of the stickiest situations encountered in interviewing, you can be that much more confident. Here are 10 of the stickiest.
- The Bad Interviewer. Not every professional who
conducts job interviews with candidates knows how to conduct an
interview effectively. In fact some are downright lousy at it. A bad
interviewer might be unfocused, disinterested, unprepared. He or
she might dominate the interview by doing all the talking or might
ask inappropriate and illegal questions.
- The "Tell Me about Yourself" Question. Of course, this
question is not a question at all but a request for a command performance.
It's the most commonly asked interview question, yet it frequently still rattles
interviewees. The trick is to make your response a succinct summary of
information that is specifically targeted to the job you're interviewing for.
(Sell yourself!) For example:
"My background to date has been centered around preparing myself to become the very best financial consultant I can become. Let me tell you specifically how I've prepared myself. I am an undergraduate student in finance and accounting at ___________ University. My past experience has been in retail and higher education. Both aspects have prepared me well for this career."
- The "Weakness" Question. The conventional wisdom about
responding to "What are your weaknesses?" used to be that the candidate
should spin a weakness into a strength. For example: "I'm a perfectionist and
don't believe anyone can do the job as well as I can, so I sometimes have a
hard time delegating." That type of response has, however, worn out its
welcome with interviewers. Other approaches include offering a weakness that
is inconsequential to the job (such as being a poor speller and relying on
spellcheck) or denying that you have any weaknesses that would stand in the
way of your performing the job effectively. The former approach may work
but be seen as shallow, while the latter sometimes lacks credibility. After
all, everyone has a weakness.
- The "Why should we hire you?" Question. The unspoken part of this
question is: "Why should we hire you [above all the other candidates]?" This is your
chance to shine, to really make a sales pitch for yourself. Use your
Unique Selling Proposition to describe
what sets you apart from other candidates. The employer will make a significant
investment in hiring and training you, so tell the interviewer that this investment will
be justified. For example, you could say: "I sincerely believe that I'm the best
person for the job. Like other candidates, I have the ability to do this job. But beyond
that ability, I offer an additional quality that makes me the very best person for the job --
my drive for excellence. Not just giving lip service to excellence, but putting every part
of myself into achieving it. Throughout my career, I have consistently strived to
become the very best I can become. The success I've attained in my management
positions is the result of possessing the qualities you're looking for in an employee."
- "Off-the-wall" Questions, also known as "Wild Card" or "No-Right-Answer"
Questions. Occasionally you'll be asked an interview question that's just
downright weird and certainly doesn't seem to have anything to do with the job --
for example, a question like this: "If you were an ice-cream cone, what flavor would you be?"
Interviewers often ask these oddball questions to see how quickly you can think on your
feet and whether you can avoid becoming flustered. Others, unfortunately, ask them
because they enjoy seeing interviewees squirm. Still others are amused by the range
of creative -- and not-so-creative -- responses they receive.
- Illegal Questions: It's illegal to ask about age, marital status, children,
childcare arrangements, and the like, but employers still do -- or come up with subtle
ways to ask, such as by inquiring about when you graduated from high school/college.
It's best to address the concern behind the question rather than the question itself
by saying something like: "There is nothing about my personal status that would
get in the way of my doing a great job for your company." While it may also be
tempting to point out the illegality of the question, doing so likely won't endear
you to the interviewer.
- Salary Questions: As a screening device, interviewers often
ask early in the interview what salary you are looking for. If you ask for more
than the employer is willing to pay (or occasionally, on the flip side, undervalue
yourself), the interviewer can eliminate you before spending a lot of time with you.
That's why the best tactic for salary questions is to delay responding to them as
long as possible -- ideally until after the employer makes an offer. Try to deflect
salary questions with a response like this: "I applied for this position because I
am very interested in the job and your company, and I know I can make an immediate
impact once on the job, but I'd like to table salary discussions until we are both
sure I'm right for the job." Read more in our
Negotiation and Job Offer Tutorial.
- Questions about Being Terminated from a Previous Job.
It's always uncomfortable to be asked your reasons for leaving a job from which
you were terminated. Don't lie about it, but don't dwell on it either. You could
explain that you and the company were not a good fit, hence your performance
suffered. Or that you and your supervisor had differing viewpoints. Emphasize
what you learned from the experience that will prevent you from repeating it and
ensure that you will perform well in the future.
Read more about handling termination.
- Questions about Reasons for Leaving a Current Job. This
question is similar to the previous question, even if you haven't been fired.
Responses about fit with the company and differing views from your supervisor
can also work here, but remember never to trash a current employer. Always
speak positively about past and present employers even if your experience
has not been positive with them. Another good response in this situation is to
say that you determined you had grown as much as you could in that job and
you are ready for new challenges.
- Questions about the Future. Interviewees are often asked,
"Where do you see yourself in five (or 10) years?" Strike a delicate balance
when responding to this kind of question, with just the right mix of honesty,
ambition, and your desire to be working at this company long-term.
Final Thoughts on Succeeding in Job InterviewsJob-seekers need to think of each interview question as an opportunity to showcase an accomplishment or strength. Every response should build momentum toward convincing the interviewer that you deserve to advance to the next level, whether that level is another round of interviews or a job offer.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well CEO of EmpoweringSites.com. He is also founder of MyCollegeSuccessStory.com and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press, including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter, QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He's often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally, Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at)quintcareers.com.
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