Even the most famous businesspeople in the world have been known to crack under pressure. Sure, it can happen to anyone, but it's not exactly a trait that employers are seeking out. An employer wants to know that when they hire you, they are hiring a level-headed, hardworking individual who will make sure that a project gets done. In your interview, talk about how you have seen projects through to completion in the past and how you will work to do so with this company.
Q: Give an example of how you saw a project through, despite various obstacles.
YES: My promotion from account representative to account manager required that I pass on many of my oldest accounts to the new account representative. After two years of dealing directly with me, some of these accounts did not take kindly to a new face. Some even threatened to move their accounts if I could not be part of their projects. While I had plenty of work to do adjusting to my new job, I assigned myself the role of account advisor to all of the accounts who were having problems adjusting. I took the time to visit each of these accounts personally with the new account rep and discuss the changes that were taking place within our company. I assured each of the accounts that I would be there for them if they needed answers but that they should refer to the new rep with any new business. After a few months of phone calls, they eventually began to stop. The accounts realized that my replacement had a lot of talent, and they began to trust in his abilities. To this day, each of those accounts is still with my company.
NO: After just a few months with my current company, we underwent a large restructuring program. Frustrated with the way the “new” company was being run, most of the employees in my own department began to look for and accept new jobs. With a huge project on our hands and less than half the anticipated work force, I was asked to make huge sacrifices in order to complete this project. I worked late almost every night for a month, came in one weekend, skipped lunch, you name it. In the end, the project turned out okay—but because I don't want to have to go through this again, I am looking for a new job.
The goal in your answer is to demonstrate your competence and willingness to do well, even when the pressure's on. Don't dwell on the obstacles themselves; the interviewer doesn't care about the problems of your current or former company. Focus your answer on how you approached these obstacles and the results that you got.
Q: Tell me about a time when you showed real determination.
YES: A few years back our work force was predominantly older baby boomers who were not web savvy. When my company went online, nobody seemed to appreciate what the technology could do for our business. Most of the employees weren't sure what to do. I was convinced that if all staff members took the time to learn how to work online, they would all find it a much easier way to do business. I began a promotion in which each morning I would send out a trivia contest via e-mail. The first person to get all answers right and send them back via e-mail would win a prize. As the employees became more comfortable using e-mail to enter the trivia contest, they began using the Internet to help them conduct business, as well.
NO: When I was in college, I wanted to join a particular sorority. They passed me by my freshman year, but the following year I haunted them—sent letters, funny gifts. I was always hanging around the house and became a kind of gofer. Anyway, it worked. I became a bona fide member. It took a lot of time and effort—I almost flunked out of school—but it was worth it.
Talk about a time when you persevered to accomplish a goal. You can use either a professional or a personal goal here, as long as it reflects an interest in developing new skills. Demonstrate your ability to gather resources, predict obstacles, and manage stress. Talk about the results you obtained.
Q: Tell me about a time when you showed real diligence or perseverance.
YES: I was working on an installation project when about halfway through to completion, the client decided that he wanted something different. While for many this would cause quite an obstacle, my partner and I agreed that we could still get the work done by the original completion date. We had to put in about seventy hours a week for the next few months, but we did it to make sure that the client was happy and the project went according to plan.
NO: I had been working for my company for a few months and thought that I had contributed a lot to the company and, therefore, deserved some sort of raise. I negotiated with the boss day and night until eventually she gave in. She gave me a raise and said that it was because I had been able to wear her down.
Talk about your professional character. Describe your focus, diligence, and accountability. Demonstrate how you gather resources, manage your time wisely, or are willing to go the extra mile. Use a specific example from your professional, educational, or personal history. Don't paint a somewhat problematic picture of yourself. There's a big difference between being determined and being just plain annoying and tiring.
Don't expect to give a perfect performance, especially in your first few interviews. If you have a terrible interview, don't let it shake your confidence. Remember that everyone has a bad interview experience sooner or later. Learn from it, work on your performance, and keep looking for other opportunities.
Q: What is the most difficult task you have ever been given?
YES: I was given the task of cutting costs by at least 5 percent within my sales division. Obviously, none of the managers thought that it was their department that needed to cut costs, and they didn't see any place where it could be done short of firing people. Remaining objective, I decided that it was up to each of the department heads to agree to an equal percentage of cost cuts. In the end, each department head agreed to a 25 percent reduction in travel expenses. Though all departments required heavy traveling, they made it a point to book flights at least two weeks in advance and to combine trips. In the end, the pinch was barely felt, and I was able to accomplish my goal.
NO: I was in charge of sending out letters to all the employees we had interviewed but had not hired. Sending out rejection after rejection became very difficult for me.
Make sure to talk about a task that from a business standpoint was difficult to accomplish. Describing a situation in which you had difficulty doing something because of personal or emotional reasons (such as firing someone) does not indicate that you are a strong leader. For recent graduates, it is okay to talk about an educational task or project that was difficult for you to do. Talk about how you went about performing this task, the steps you took, and the result.
Q: Do you think that your current boss would describe you as someone who goes the extra mile?
YES: Absolutely! I would say my boss appreciates the fact that I'm not a clock watcher. I do go the extra mile because whether I come in early or stay late, I'm not satisfied until my job is done and done well.
NO: I think he might. On the few occasions that we have been asked to put in a little bit of overtime, I have not complained.
Someone who goes the extra mile, by definition, puts in extra effort as a matter of course. Such people work later hours and take on extra work without being asked to or being told it is mandatory. Employees like this are loyal to their employer and, therefore, are a great asset to any company. Be prepared to offer proof that you are this type of employee. Talk about a time when you were willing to help tackle a tough problem and demonstrated your ability and willingness to work hard in doing so. If you do talk about your willingness to put in extra hours, make sure that the interviewer realizes this was done because of enthusiasm and hard work, and not the result of poor time management on the part of you or your supervisor.
Q: How many days were you absent from work in the past year, and why?
YES: I was absent from work three days last year. I caught the flu early in the year and was forced to miss two days, and I experienced a death in the family just last month and took a day off.
NO: I used up all of my sick time last year.
A history of absenteeism, tardiness, or any indication of a weak work ethic can be detrimental to your candidacy. Answering this question should be an easy way to score points. If you used up all of your sick and/or personal days, tell the interviewer the reason. Be honest; lying will be found out. If you think your poor attendance may be a source of bad references, be prepared to give a detailed and exonerating explanation of why you have missed so much work in the past. Most importantly, convince the interviewer of your dependability and assure her that punctuality and/or absenteeism is not something she should worry about.
Q: Are you punctual?
YES: Yes. In the past year, I have only been late to work on one or two occasions, and each time I called my supervisor ahead of time to let him know. On each occasion, it was a matter of traffic delays.
NO: Sometimes I get to the office about ten minutes late, but I make it up at the end of the day.
This is really just an alternate version of the previous question. The problem here is that whereas there is a definitive answer to the earlier question (“I was out three days.”), this question is much more open-ended. Again, to say yes to this question when you know that you are always tardy will certainly come back to haunt you.
Q: Tell me about a time when you didn't perform to your full potential.
YES: The first time I had to give a presentation to our board, I failed to anticipate some of their questions. I was unprepared for anything other than what I wanted to report. Now my director and I brainstorm all the what-ifs in advance.
NO: At my first presentation to the board, I was asked a lot of questions I couldn't answer. My director gave me some pointers afterward, but I didn't like them. I pitched the idea again, my way. It wasn't accepted, but I wasn't discouraged. I kept pitching new ideas up until this past month, when I decided my ideas might be appreciated more elsewhere.
This question actually forces the candidate to confront a negative experience in her past. How you answer this and the example and reasoning you give are of the utmost importance. The best way to field such a question is to talk about a mistake you made early in your career, making it easy to lay the blame on a lack of experience. Talking about current mistakes will depict you as incompetent. After briefly describing the situation, finish the story with the better judgment you have shown since then in facing similar experiences. Look to that mistake as a learning experience, and tell the interviewer what it has taught you.
Q: We have found that all of our employees fall into one of two categories: concept oriented or task oriented. Which of these categories do you fit into?
YES: When given a project, I like to be involved in every step. From initial development to final product, I like to be able to use my creativity and strong problem-solving abilities. I would definitely consider myself more concept oriented.
NO: Since I was a philosophy major, I think that I am definitely a more concept-oriented person. This would probably help to make me a unique member of your manufacturing team.
Don't slight the question by coming up with an all-encompassing answer (“I've got a little bit of both in me!”) Choose a side and stay there. Describe some of your personal characteristics that made you choose this orientation. Most importantly, be sure that the answer you choose coincides with the job description. If you are to be engaged in manual labor forty hours a week, it is not likely that your orientation toward concepts will help you in any way. Similarly, if your job entails a lot of creativity, being task oriented is not necessarily the best way to be. Whatever answer you come up with, relate it to the job in some way.
More and more companies are trying to establish no-dating policies for their employees. The reason they do this is to ensure that you draw a line between your personal life and professional life. One way to tarnish your image in your employer's eyes is to mention an office romance.
Q: What would your supervisor tell me about your attention to detail?
YES: As my supervisor relies heavily on me to think projects through with him, I am confident that he would praise my attention to detail. I know how easy it can be for someone to overlook the smallest details of a project, and I pride myself on catching any glitches before they find their way into the final results.
NO: Occasionally, I have missed a deadline or some small details that have affected the overall result of the project. Not one of these oversights has ever resulted in a major problem. I look at it this way: What I lack in attention to detail, I tend to make up for in the speed of my work.
Regardless of the job you hold or the industry you belong to, a strong attention to detail is a great asset. Throughout the day, there are so many small details that often get overlooked that it is comforting for employers to know they have employees they can count on. If your attention to detail track record is not the best, don't try and push off the importance of this trait by discussing another one of your strengths. Instead, admit that you have let mistakes get past you before, but talk about how you are working to stop this. If you do, in fact, have a strong attention to detail, talk about an experience when this really helped you in some way.
Q: How do you manage stress in your daily work?
YES: Unless I have a ton of work to do that I just can't get away from, I make sure that when I take my lunch hour, I actually leave the office. Just that simple change of scenery, even for a few minutes, is enough to keep me energized for the rest of the day.
NO: I'm a big believer in the twenty-minute power nap. Sometimes during lunch, I take a twenty-minute snooze in my office. I wake up feeling like I can take on the world!
This is a simple enough question to answer. The interviewer is interested in whether you have a tendency to crack under pressure. She wants to know how you manage high-pressure situations. If you have a simple daily ritual that helps you maintain your composure, even in stressful situations, tell her about it. But beware of how that stress buster might be perceived. A power nap ritual—even on your lunch hour—could mistakenly be construed as sleeping on the job. It may also be helpful to describe a stressful project you've worked on and the specific actions you took to get it done without losing your head. If you think that your ways of relieving stress—yelling at those who hold lower positions, watching a movie in the middle of the work day—would be frowned upon by your current boss or a future one, do yourself a favor and keep it to yourself. The key is to talk about how you stay professional when under a lot of pressure.
Q: In your current job, how do you prioritize?
YES: My normal plan of action is to work with my two largest accounts in the first part of the day. That way, if there are any major interruptions, I know that my key accounts are well taken care of.
NO: I'm very much of the first-come, first-served philosophy. I don't spend much time prioritizing my work; whoever can get ahold of me first will have my attention.
This question relates to key aspects of your professional style: your organization and your ability to manage your time. It also touches upon your ability to know which tasks are the most important and which projects can wait until later. Talk about how you attack each new day. If there is no pressing project, how do you know what to do first? Demonstrate your ability to gather resources, predict obstacles, and manage the typical stress that occurs. Talk about how you have become a better time manager over the past few months or years. Above all, point out that you come to work with an organized plan every day and don't just rely on jobs to come your way.
Q: Describe a professional skill you've been able to acquire in your current position or at your current company.
YES: While I had used computers quite extensively in my previous positions, I had never been required to use database technology. As my current company relies heavily upon several different databases to store all of our work, I have become an expert in programs such as Access. What used to take me hours of research and data compiling can now be completed with just a few clicks of the mouse.
NO: I've worked at developing customer service skills so that my phone contacts don't think I'm impolite. I have always found it much easier to deal with people face-to-face.
The best way to answer this question is to talk about a new skill that you have learned—and worked toward mastering—while at your current job. You don't want to raise any unnecessary red flags, however. You certainly don't want to draw attention to negative aspects of your professional abilities, even if they're in the past and it's something you've worked toward overcoming. You want to make sure that the interviewer sees you as a desirable candidate who is able and ready to take on new tasks with enthusiasm.
If asked to describe a new skill, you could tell your interviewer about any new software applications you've learned, professional seminars you've attended, or adult-education classes you've taken. The point of this question is to disprove the theory that you can't teach an old dog new tricks (no matter how old or young you are).
Q: Why is service such an important issue?
YES: Asking why service is important would be the same as asking why customers are important; it is the heart and soul of any business. You can't have a business without customers, and you can't maintain customers without a strong dedication to service. If a customer isn't receiving a level of service that meets or exceeds his expectations, you can be sure he will take his business elsewhere. And it's likely that he will relay that information to other would-be customers. On the other hand, if you are dedicated to providing the best service you can, customers will keep coming back for more, and they'll still tell others about you. In many instances, service may be the one thing that distinguishes a company from the competition. A bad reputation for service may compromise a company's position in the marketplace.
NO: Service is important because a company's reputation is built on it. Still, while service is important, it is the product that can make or break a company. I know plenty of companies that have a great product but poor service, and I keep going back for more.
A question like this gauges your business sense. The interviewer is trying to determine whether you understand the importance of good customer service in establishing a positive image in the marketplace. If possible, talk about how you or your company have taken steps to ensure good customer service and how that has proven beneficial. Show that you understand the impact of repeat business, and convince the interviewer that you will work hard to uphold a standard of good service.
Q: Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer. How did you handle the situation?
YES: As you can imagine, in the retail world, you are forced to deal with irate customers from time to time, regardless of how strong your product or customer service is. I specifically remember one occasion in which a customer was angry because the item she had purchased was not working properly once she got it home. The best way to handle these situations, in my opinion, is to remember that there is a simple solution. Products can be fixed, exchanged, or refunded. I try to think of myself in terms of the consumer. When discussing the problem with the customer, I speak in a calm, even voice, thus prompting the customer to do the same. The main issue to be concerned with is solving the problem at hand, and you need to be professional enough to get that done.
NO: In my current position as a retail manager, I would say that we get an irate customer in the store at least once or twice a week. While at first I was taken aback by the sometimes abusive behavior of these people, I have come to accept it as part of my job. Now when angry customers call or come in, I am quick to stop them from going on and on about the problem they are having. I lay out their options—refund or exchange'and let them make the choice. You just have to become immune to the anger.
How you react to an unsatisfied customer is very important in most positions, and it's especially important if you work in a service industry. The interviewer will be looking for evidence of your aptitude for work that involves a great deal of contact with the public, even in situations in which the public isn't being too nice. Give an example of a time when you were faced with a difficult person and how you handled it. Explain the result of that situation, if in fact something positive came out of it (for example, if the customer reordered a week later). Your answer should illustrate your maturity, diplomacy, and awareness of the needs and feelings of others. Though you shouldn't take such things personally, you should be able to show compassion to the customers who are in need of pacification.
Q: Are there any issues in your personal life that might in some way affect your professional career?
YES: I really pride myself on my keen ability to separate my personal life from my work life. When I'm in the office, I am an employee of the company. I recognize this is not the place for me to deal with or worry about issues in my personal life. I do my best to keep a strong work-life balance that keeps both components satisfied.
NO: Because I have two growing children, there is always the possibility that I could be called out of work at a moment's notice. My kids are also very active; they each play sports throughout the year, and I do need to leave early on occasion to go cheer them on.
The interviewer wants to make sure that you're not going to be bringing your home life to work with you. If you are dealing with stressful personal issues, the company wants to be sure that your time spent at work will be concentrated on work only. Though certain questions about your beliefs or your family are illegal, the interviewer wants to know whether you will be able to perform the duties this job calls for. In the health services industry, for example, personal issues that have not been worked through properly could easily affect your judgment in assessing patients, planning treatments, and making recommendations. Make sure the interviewer knows that you are a fully integrated individual and that your professional life and personal life always remain separate. Today, most employers respect childcare and eldercare issues, but calling attention to them in the interview is an unnecessary red flag.
Q: Tell me about a time when your diplomacy skills were really put to the test.
YES: I recall one time when a customer came into the store and demanded his money back on a suit that had apparently been worn. Because this kind of situation happens often—people want a fancy outfit to wear for one night only—we have a strict policy that says there are no refunds once the tags have been removed. The man claimed that the suit had become very worn-looking after being sent to the dry cleaner and that the cleaner had claimed it was a faulty fabric. Rather than argue with the man about the policy and about the fact that the tags had been removed, I refunded his money, though I didn't believe that he was being honest. He was a consistent customer, and I decided it was more important to maintain his regular business and to keep the other customers from hearing him complain rather than have them doubt the quality of our merchandise.
NO: When my boss asked that I become a sort of “office spy” for her, I was very hesitant. I had built strong relationships with many of my coworkers and did not want to be the one to report to the boss about who was not doing their work. Still, feeling that my own job might be in jeopardy, I agreed. I was able to get the information my boss needed very easily from my coworkers and report back to her within a week.
Diplomacy involves using tact, finesse, and good judgment to reach an end that is ultimately beneficial to the entire company. Being diplomatic for selfish reasons is closer to backhandedness. In answering this question, make sure you demonstrate a pragmatic sensibility. Talk about a problem situation with a client or a work associate that you resolved by remaining objective. How did you show empathy and build rapport? What was the end result? How did this help all those involved, including yourself?
Q: How do you manage your work week while making realistic deadlines?
YES: Unless there is an extremely pressing issue, I reserve a block of time every day to take care of any unanticipated problems that may occur. I used to have each minute of my day allotted to certain projects, but I found that that didn't allow for unexpected phone calls, troubleshooting problems, or unpredictable situations. By allowing some extra time, I am able to manage my own projects and sometimes get a jumpstart on new items. This system also allows me to respond quickly to the needs of my boss and staff.
NO: My strategy is to work until I finish what needs to get done. If I am approaching a deadline and I need to work throughout the weekend or stay late a few nights, fine.
Your ability to manage your time is at the heart of this question. While a willingness to put in overtime and come into work on your days off is highly desirable, the ability to manage your time wisely is what this interviewer is after. The best way to answer this question is to describe--in detail--how you establish priorities, set deadlines, and determine schedules.
Q: Tell me about a time you had to extend a deadline.
YES: Two weeks into a project, it became clear that the client expected much more than we had originally decided on. Rather than refuse his requests, we showed him a price structure similar to a menu, from which he could choose more features at a higher cost and in a longer time frame. He opted for something in the middle that he understood would cause a three-week adjustment to the schedule. We then renegotiated the original contract, and both parties were more than satisfied with the results.
NO: I had figured that the project I was given would take me about two months to complete. As I got closer to the end of the second month, I realized that I was going to need at least another two to three weeks to get the project done. I informed the client of my decision, and though he wasn't really happy about it, I think he was genuinely impressed with the end result.
The last thing an employer wants to hear about in this answer is your poor work ethic, your lack of proper time management skills, or your inability to set realistic deadlines. Talk about your accountability and your willingness to adjust a deadline if you think it will add to the overall quality of a project. Think about what could have happened had you not adjusted this deadline. Would the overall goal have been compromised? After deciding to adjust the deadline, how were you able to improve upon the project?
Q: What personal skill or work habit have you struggled to improve?
YES: I think that one habit I have worked very hard to overcome is my inability to say no. I used to be helpful to the point of overextension. It didn't matter that I already had a full plate or whether or not I thought I could do a good job on a project; I would simply always say yes when colleagues asked me for help. Now, when someone asks me to do something for her, I counter with something I'd like help on in return. Since then, cooperation in my office has improved considerably.
NO: I haven't always responded well to authority. I don't like people telling me what to do. However, I realize that there is a definite chain of command in the workplace. In order to get to the place where I am the manager, I need to listen to my current supervisors. I think my current boss would agree that I have improved as far as my respect toward him.
Here's another one of those questions that forces you to confront a negative aspect of your professional character. The interviewer wants to hear about a particular skill that you have had trouble acquiring, or something about yourself that you have had to change for the betterment of the workplace. The smartest way to answer this question is to find an example from your earliest days in the workplace so that any sort of negative quality can be attributed to your lack of experience. Talking about a problem that you have been trying to overcome in your current job will only show the interviewer that that trait could follow you to your new place of business. In the end, make sure you leave no question in the interviewer's mind as to whether that particular work habit is still an obstacle.
Q: What books do you keep on your desk?
YES: The two most important books on my desk are my dictionary and thesaurus. Though I would consider myself a very strong writer, I am always looking for new words to use so that my writing does not become stale. I also keep a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which is a good reference for looking up all the grammar rules that you learned in high school and college but forgot.
NO: I'm a big fan of Jay McInerney, and you can always find one of his books on my desk. When I get a chance during the day, I like to try to cram in a few chapters. Brightness Falls is by far my favorite of his novels.
In asking this question, the interviewer is not interested in whether you have any interest in joining her book club. She is trying to determine whether you take your profession seriously. If you've ever worked in an office, you know that there are two kinds of workers: those with an amazingly cluttered desk and those with an amazingly neat desk. What are the tools you use most frequently during the work day? For an editor, or someone who does a lot of writing, a dictionary or a similar reference book is a good thing to have handy. For someone who does a lot of cold calling, perhaps a phone book would be of some use. In any case, answering this question by telling the recruiter your top ten favorite authors of all time is certainly not the way to go. However, if an interviewer wants to know what you read in your spare time, it's okay to cite a mix of contemporary fiction and nonfiction.