One fear embedded in the mind of every interviewee—and rightfully so—is the thought of being asked a question you don't know the answer to. Even worse is stumbling over a zinger that caught you by surprise. These questions are meant to catch you off guard. The key to rising above them is to remain calm, cool, and confident in your answer. Be diplomatic and positive, no matter what you are asked.
Q: Tell me about a project in which you were a bit disappointed in your own performance.
A: In my last job with a manufacturing company, I had to analyze all the supplier bids and present recommendations to the vice president of logistics. Because the supplier bids weren't in a consistent format, my analysis often consisted of comparing dissimilar items. This caused some confusion in my final report, and by the time I'd reworked it and presented it to the vice president, we'd lost the critical time we'd needed to improve our approval process for these bids. In hindsight, I should have set the bid format so that we could assess similar items. Ever since, I've used a request for proposal process consistent with the results we are looking to achieve.
Describe the barriers you've come across in past experiences and how you've worked around them. How have your skills come into play? In hindsight, what could you have done differently? Most importantly, turn this roadblock into a lesson and tell the interviewer what you learned from having gone through the experience.
Q: Tell me about the most difficult work or personal experience you've ever had to face.
A: A coworker with whom I was very close was going through a very difficult time and had begun to abuse drugs and alcohol. With our firm's support, he decided that the best thing for him was to attend a rehabilitation center. For the next six months, I had to take on much of this person's work in addition to my own. While the long hours and added pressure were not the ideal situation, I know that he would have done the same for me, so I never once regretted my decision. It's very important to me to have that kind of trust among the members of my work group, and I am glad that I was able to help a friend in need. It is certainly something I will always be proud of.
The ultimate goal of this question is to find out how well you handle pressure. Ideally, you want to describe a situation—personal or professional—that involved a great deal of conflict and challenge and, as a result, placed you under an unusual amount of stress. Explain, specifically, what the problems were and what you did to resolve them. What was the result? Is it something you would do again?
Q: How have you handled criticism of your work in the past?
A: The first time I ever had a client complain to me, I was devastated. The client was upset about the downtime in ATM machines. Though her complaint had nothing to do with my professional service of the account, I did take it a bit personally. However, rather than dwell on my own disappointment, I began to work very closely with this client to see whether there wasn't something I could do about her suggestion. While I couldn't change our ATM system, I was able to learn a lot from the experience. I learned that showing empathy usually calms an unpleasant situation. I also learned that no client is going to be happy with everything, even if that client's overall experience is positive. I know that I should not take things personally and, instead, focus on initiatives that will yield customer satisfaction without distracting from my core duties.
The interviewer is trying to learn something about your accountability and professional character. Talk about a time when you were engaged in a specific project or work habit that caused you a problem. Then discuss how you finally faced up to the problem and overcame it. Alternatively, you might describe a time you responded objectively and professionally to particularly harsh or unreasonable criticism of your work. In either case, finish the comment by talking about what you learned from this experience. Remember: Always keep things positive, and refrain from complaining or slandering any past work associates.
Q: If your current boss could change anything about your work habits, what do you think he would do?
A: He would definitely try and turn me into more of a night owl. My current boss and I make a fantastic team. The only problem is that I like to arrive to work a bit early and get the day started by 7 a.m. and he prefers to start at 9 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. As a result, we tend to put in our extra time at opposite ends of the day. If there were one thing he could change about me, he'd probably make it so that we worked the same hours every day.
The interviewer wants to know how well you fit in with your current boss. She also wants to feel confident that she has uncovered any surprises about your corporate style. One good way to answer this question is to point out a minor difference or preference between you and your supervisor. Another way to answer this question would be to talk about a weakness of yours that you and your boss have worked on together to improve. The key to answering this question is to make sure the answer you give is not something that would be a major concern to the company. You also want to make sure the answer continues on a positive note. If you plan to describe a weakness, make sure it's a weakness that you recognized early on and have worked hard to fix.
The point of your job search isn't salary negotiation; it's finding a job that you'll be happy with and that will allow you to be yourself. If your starting salary isn't the one you've dreamed of, but the job presents the right opportunity, think about commanding that higher salary once you've had a chance to make yourself invaluable to the organization.
Q: Tell me about one of your projects that failed.
A: I've always been somewhat of a workaholic and have the attitude that I can tackle anything and achieve good results. After a rather destructive hurricane, my insurance company was inundated with claims. I really believed that I was completely capable of handling all the claims in my area and dove right into a series of eighteen-hour work days. Even when others in the office would offer to help, I reassured them that I had it all under control. After about a week and a half, I realized that there was no way I could complete all of the claims on time and on my own. I had to begin delegating some of the responsibility to my investigators. What I learned was that no matter how efficient and competent you are, there are always situations in which you need to ask for help from others.
Make sure that you demonstrate the ability to be humble when answering this type of question. One of the worst answers you can come up with in a situation such as this one is, “I can't think of anything I've ever failed at” or “I've never had a project that failed.” Everyone has failed at one time or another, and it's okay to admit it. Show the employer how much you can learn from your mistakes. In hindsight, what do you think you could have and should have done differently? How have you altered your leadership or professional style as a result of this experience?
If you encounter a question about stress, your best bet is to remain positive in your response. Don't get defensive or allow your confidence to be shaken, and try to answer the question to the best of your ability.
Q: Give me an example of a time when you were asked to complete a task but weren't given enough information to get it done.
A: At my first job as a publicity assistant, I was given the task of assembling 500 press kits for immediate mailing. The work had already been done, but I was unsure of whether or not there was a specific order in which each of the pages needed to be arranged. My supervisor had already left for a meeting, but I was able to track her down in her car. She explained to me the order in which the kits needed to be assembled, and the work was completed fairly quickly. In the end, I managed to prevent a problem that would have cost several hours of time to rectify, not to mention a bunch of headaches.
In answering this question, you want to reassure the interviewer that you are mature and responsible enough to handle problems that are likely to occur. Think of a situation in which you were able to think quickly enough to prevent a problem. Talk about your own resourcefulness and initiative in getting the job done in a timely and professional manner.
Q: Tell me about a time when you failed to resolve a conflict that had arisen.
A: I wasn't able to keep a good employee who had been working in one of my company's manufacturing facilities for more than twenty years. As part of the company's modernization policy, all job descriptions were rewritten to require some sort of computer skills. Though I offered to pay the cost of classes so that he could gain these skills, he refused. Unfortunately, I had no other option than to replace him, as the new technology we were using required these skills. When I look back on the experience, I really wish I had been more vocal to him and the other employees about acquiring new training periodically. That way, when new techniques were introduced, he might not have been so overwhelmed. Now I am vigilant about encouraging those in my work group to attend seminars and training classes to enhance their job skills. I have even had various professionals come into the office and teach some classes on site.
The best way to answer this question is to discuss a difficult situation—but one that was not really yours to solve in the first place. Briefly introduce the problem, but focus more on the steps you took to solve it. What was the result of your work? What did you learn from the experience? How has that experience changed your professional behavior today?
Q: When was the last time you really put your foot in your mouth?
A: As part of my college yearbook staff, I tended to have creative differences with the yearbook editor. Though I respected her opinion on many topics, her desktop publishing skills were not great. When I told the committee that I was considering leaving, they all wanted to know why. I told them that it was because I thought the editor didn't have an eye for layout. Little did I know that one of the people on my committee was the editor's brother. I apologized for being so vocal and we eventually became good friends.
Everyone makes mistakes; you and the interviewer are no exceptions. If and when the interviewer asks you about a time when you have made a fool of yourself, don't be afraid to talk about it. Don't go into a full-length story here; set up the situation and let the interviewer know what the foolish comment was. The interviewer is interested in whether you have a sense of right and wrong, and how far you will go to fix those mistakes that you have made. Show the interviewer that you are well aware of the way in which a bad impression of you can extend to your company and that you would never do anything to intentionally damage the company's reputation.
Q: How do you feel when things go wrong on a project? How do you handle it?
A: Though I would obviously prefer that all of the projects I work on run smoothly, I am realistic enough to know that this cannot happen. This is especially true in the case of the biotechnology industry, in which changes can and will happen to any plan at any time. I try to realize from the outset of any project that the plan we come up with is only the best-case-scenario plan and that it may need to be changed at any given moment. When plans begin to unravel, my approach is just to cross each bridge when I come to it and not obsess about it beforehand. One of the ways in which I try to prepare for complications is to come up with some alternative plans. Though this does work in some cases, it doesn't help in all; sometimes, you can't prepare for a problem until it's right there in front of you. My basic attitude is to take it all in stride.
This is a very tricky question. As the interviewee, you should understand that from the outset. What the interviewer is really trying to get at here is whether you have the ability to work under pressure. Without going into too much detail about all the projects that have somehow gone wrong in your professional history, reassure the interviewer that you can and do handle pressure with ease and professionalism.
Q: Have you ever been passed up for a promotion you thought you deserved?
A: A couple times in my early career, I thought I was unfairly passed up for a promotion. However, in retrospect, I now realize that I probably wasn't ready to perform those jobs. In fact, the additional training I received remaining where I was proved invaluable in the last few years, as I've made significant progress moving up the corporate ladder. I've also learned to appreciate that being ready for a promotion doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. There are many external factors, aside from a person's performance and capabilities, that need to be taken into consideration.
The interviewer wants to gauge the candidate's self-confidence and objectivity about personal or professional limitations. Be sure to give evidence here that you have enough patience to learn what is important before you get bored in one position or frustrated because you have not been promoted. After you've mastered your own job, would you stay motivated long enough to be productive? If you've never been passed up for a promotion—or if you've never been up for a promotion at all—it's okay to say so. Perhaps you've only been in the work force for a short period of time and don't think you've acquired strong enough skills to be promoted. Whatever the case, be honest.
Q: Have you ever been fired?
A: When I was in college, I was fired from a summer internship. I was working for a software consulting company, and midway through the summer a new president was appointed because of some financial difficulties. As one of his first orders of business, he requested the resignation of my entire work group. I was unexpectedly swept out with everyone else, though my work performance had never been criticized.
If you've never been fired, this should be an easy question to answer. If you have been fired, you'll need to be prepared to discuss the situation in detail and possibly answer a series of specific follow-up questions. If the termination was the result of a situation beyond your control, like corporate downsizing, most interviewers will be understanding. If you were fired due to poor performance or some other personal problem, you'll need to admit your fault and convince the interviewer that you've corrected the problem. Although this may be a difficult question to answer (and one that makes you—ultimately—nervous about the overall impression you will leave behind), you should be completely honest. If you aren't honest and the recruiter finds out as much from your references, you will definitely not be offered the job; if you have been made an offer or have already accepted one, it may be revoked or you may be subject to an immediate dismissal.
Q: Why have you changed jobs so frequently?
A: My frequent job changes over the last five years have been due to the rapid changes in my profession. My jobs have been based on government contracts, and over the last several years, congressional appropriations have been up and down, causing some companies’ contracts to be canceled while other companies land huge, unexpected contracts. The unpredictability creates some good opportunities but also causes a lot of uncertainty. Because your business is based mostly on consumer products and not on government products, I welcome the opportunity to work in an environment where the business cycle is more stable and predictable.
If you've been with the same company for an extended time, it is not likely that this question will be asked—even just to trip you up. If you have had a fairly high number of job changes, be prepared to talk about them. Be candid when answering this question. Personal growth, a larger budget, or other career-enhancing experiences are all valid reasons for moving on. The last thing a recruiter wants to do is hire a fickle employee, only to have her quit just a few months after being hired. Convince the interviewer that you are interested in her company for the long haul.
Q: Why did you stay in your last job for such a long time?
A: I was in my last job for more than seven years. During that time, I completed an advanced technical degree at an evening university and also had two six-month assignments in which I was loaned out to different departments. As a result, I acquired some additional skills that normally aren't associated with that job. Therefore, I think I've made good progress and am ready to accept the next challenge.
An interviewer may also be curious as to why you would stay in one particular position for too long. If you've been with the same company for an extended time, the interviewer may be curious about your interest in personal improvement, tackling new assignments, and so on. He may also be concerned about whether you have a tendency to get too comfortable with the status quo. Demonstrate how you've developed job responsibilities in meaningful new ways in your many years on the job and that you are expecting to do the same with this company.
Q: Tell me about your least favorite manager or professor.
A: Well, I've been pretty fortunate as far as managers go, and I didn't have any problems with my professors. In my first job out of college, I worked with a manager who was pretty inaccessible. If you walked into her office to ask a question, you got the sense that you were bothering her, so my coworkers and I just learned to get help from each other instead. She was good in a lot of ways, but I would have preferred that she'd been more available to us and given us more direction.
Answering this question will be a little bit like walking across a minefield, so be careful! Keep in mind that the interviewer doesn't really want to learn about your former supervisors but about the way you speak of them. Though the interviewer may bait you to make a negative statement about your former employer, doing so can create a host of problems. Even if your claim is completely true and entirely justified, the recruiter may conclude either that you don't get along well with people in general (or specifically with those in authority positions) or that you often shift blame to others. The best way around this dilemma is to choose an example that's not too negative, touch upon it briefly, then focus the rest of your answer on what you learned from the experience.
Q: Tell me about a time when you had a real problem getting along with one of your work associates.
A: I have always thought of myself as an easygoing person; I tend to get along with most people. However, I do remember one time when we brought in a new associate who was very bossy—bossy to the point where his attitude really offended one of our interns. As this was not the type of management style that our employees were used to, I took it upon myself to pull the new associate aside and explain that I found it more productive to ask people for help than to give orders. Unfortunately, he seemed more offended by my concern for our employees and about the sour relationship he was beginning to form with them than pleased with or grateful for my attempt to help him. The advice didn't change anything with his attitude, but we were much more careful with our hiring process after that experience.
The best way to answer this question is to discuss a difference in work ethic between you and an associate, not an all-out hatred for each other. Avoid discussing a personality clash between you and a coworker. Instead, speak about a situation with which the interviewer is likely to empathize. For example, you might describe someone whose standards of excellence were perhaps less stringent than yours. Be sure to talk about the steps you took to mend this problem and what the end result was.
Q: Have you ever had to work with a manager who you thought was unfair to you or who was just plain difficult to get along with?
A: Fortunately, I've never really run into that problem. Of course, my current boss has to work under time constraints—just like everyone else—and she sometimes has a tendency to phrase things rather bluntly to push our department to meet its goals. But I've never considered that unfair or hard to handle; it's just part of the job. My supervisors and I have always gotten along quite well.
Again, no matter how many times an interviewer gives you the opportunity to do so, never criticize a current or former employer! The interviewer is not really interested in finding out whether or not you have worked for difficult people in the past—we all have. What he is trying to discover is whether or not (and how easily) you are willing to badmouth these people.
Q: Would you be able to work extended hours as the job needed you to?
A: I'm accustomed to working long hours during the week. I usually work until at least 6:30 p.m. because I get a lot done after the office closes at 5 p.m. I can make arrangements to be available on weekends if necessary, though I do prefer to have at least twenty-four hours’ notice.
Your response should match closely the position you are applying for and should reflect a realistic understanding of the work and time required. Ask about seasonality of your work if you're unsure, and show a willingness to work occasional extended hours. If you are completely unwilling to work any overtime, it's not likely that many companies will consider you a very valuable asset. Recent studies have shown that a large majority of Americans are working, on average, closer to fifty hours per week than forty.
Q: What are your salary requirements?
A: If hired, I would expect to earn a salary that is comparable to the going rate for someone in my field, with my same skills, amount of experience, and expertise. However, the salary of the job is not my only consideration. The opportunity, as you have presented it, is much more important to me. I really believe that this job is exactly in line with what I hope to accomplish, and that is the most important thing to me. What kind of range do you have in mind?
Recruiters weed out people whose financial goals are unrealistic or not in line with what the position at hand is offering. This question is a direct hit, and both the interviewer and the candidate know that. It forces you to respond—directly—to a question relating to a very touchy subject. On the one hand, you may cite a salary that is too low. As a result, you will seem uninformed or (even worse) desperate. On the other hand, if you throw out a salary amount that is too high, you may immediately eliminate yourself from any further consideration. The best way to handle the salary question is to turn the question back on the recruiter. Mention that the salary isn't your primary consideration, and ask what the salary range for the position is. Next, ask the recruiter to consider how your qualifications compare to the average requirements for the position and go from there.
Q: What is your current salary?
A: I currently earn an annual salary of $45,000 per year with comprehensive company-paid benefits.
If you're asked a question this direct, consider yourself lucky. Telling the recruiter how much money you make now is a heck of a lot easier than trying to negotiate a salary with absolutely no information to go on (as in the previous question). Be sure not to embellish your salary, as this information can be very easy for an employer to find out. More and more companies are starting to verify applicants’ pay history, some even demanding to see W-2 forms from job seekers. If you get the job, a falsehood discovered even years later may be grounds for immediate dismissal. Don't leave yourself open to this kind of trouble.
Q: Would you be willing to relocate to another city?
A: Though I would prefer to remain here, it's certainly a possibility I'd be willing to consider based on the scope of the opportunity.
Just because you're asked this question does not mean that the interviewer wants to fly you off to the other side of the country for a job. You may, even in some first interviews, be asked questions that seem to elicit a tremendous commitment on your behalf, such as this one. Although such questions may be unfair during an initial job interview, you may well conclude that you have nothing to gain and everything to lose with a negative response. If you are asked such a question unexpectedly during an initial job interview, simply say something like, “That's certainly a possibility” or “I'm willing to consider that.” If and when the interviewer says something along the lines of, “Well, we have nothing for you in our Anchorage office, but our outfit in Mobile would certainly benefit from someone with your experience!” then you can begin to panic.
If you do receive an offer, you can find out the specific work conditions as far as relocation goes and then decide whether you wish to accept the position. Remember, at the job-offer stage, you have the most negotiating power, and the employer may be willing to accommodate your needs. If that isn't the case, explain that, upon reflection, you've decided you can't relocate, but you'd like to be considered for other positions that might open up in the future.
Here is one story of a company checking up on a candidate's pay history: “I had been interviewing with a company for several weeks, and everything looked great. I had passed the screening interview and even had lunch with the man who would be my boss. During lunch, he said he would like to offer me the position but wanted to know my current pay rate so he could pay me accordingly. I was truthful, which was lucky for me, for the next thing he asked for was a copy of my pay stub.”
Q: Does the frequent travel that is required for this job fit in with your lifestyle?
A: The frequent travel in this consulting position is no problem for either me or my family. I was recently married, but my wife is an airline flight attendant, so neither of us follows the typical routine.
If you feel comfortable enough to divulge information about your family situation, now is the time to do so. The interviewer's main concern here is that the candidate may not be able to travel as much as the job requires. In order to alleviate this concern, emphasize your flexibility or explain why travel wouldn't be a problem. Remember to be honest. If you were unaware that the job required any sort of travel—and if it would most likely be a problem—say so.
As you answer the questions, watch for signals from the employer whether your answers are too short or too long. For example, if the employer is nodding or looking away, wrap up your answer as quickly as possible.
Q: What would you say are the broad responsibilities of an editorial assistant?
A: Though the job description differs from company to company, I see the role of the editorial assistant as being pivotal in bringing an entire publication together. If I were hired, I would expect to do a lot of typing, filing, and general administrative work. In addition, I imagine that I would also be asked to read and evaluate various book proposals, write and send manuscript rejection letters, speak with some of the authors about various subjects, and generally assist the editor in whatever it was that needed to be done.
Though the job title itself will change from job interview to job interview, this question is likely to be asked. The interviewer wants to get an idea of how you see your future with this company. He is also checking to make sure that you have a clear understanding of the job duties and that you are willing and able to do these things. If you are applying for an entry-level position, you might get this question more often; especially within an industry that is often glamorized, you can almost count on this question. Many new recruits are often surprised by the lack of fun that an entry-level position offers them. They are unhappily surprised to find themselves engaged in a lot of clerical minutiae and don't last too long in the industry as a whole. In asking this question, the employer wants to make sure that you know exactly what you are being hired to do and that it's a position you are likely to be happy in for years to come.
The company controller at one large company makes everyone wait for at least an hour before she interviews them. She feels her time is more valuable than anyone else's. This is where you have to ask yourself, “How much do I really want this job—especially if I have to report to this person?”
Q: What would you do or say if I told you that I thought you were giving a very poor interview today?
A: Well, the first thing I would do is ask you whether there had been any specific parts of the interview that you thought I mishandled. After that, I'd try to remember if there had been any faulty communication on my part. Then I'd try to review possible problems I had understanding your questions, and I'd ask for clarification if I needed it. Finally, if we had time, I'd try to respond more fully and appropriately to the problem areas you identified for me.
This is a stress question; candidates hate them, but interviewers love them and they'll slip them into the interview whenever they can. Take them in stride, don't get defensive, and keep that smile on your face.
Q: Prove to me that your interest in this job and company is sincere.
A: I know that many people would like to work in television because of large income potential or the opportunity to be on camera, but my reasons go far beyond that. To me, communication is an art form, and the television industry is the ultimate test of how well one communicates. Working in television isn't like working for a newspaper, where, if a reader misses a fact, he can just go back and reread it. A television news story can go by in a flash, and the challenge is to make sure the audience understands it, learns from it, and, in a broader sense, can use the information to better their lives or their situations. It's the way television can evoke action that's always made me want to be a part of the industry. I'm particularly interested in this station because I like your focus on the community. Though the on-air products have a great look, the station seems to remain focused on the tradition of local news and what matters to its audience. The special reports that emphasize town politics and explain the big issues facing a community make the viewer feel that the station is a part of the community. In my opinion, this is a great way to maintain a loyal audience.
Being unprepared to answer this question can eliminate you from further consideration. On the other hand, if you are able to demonstrate a strong interest in the company and the position, you'll have an advantage over the competition. Be sure to talk about the specific position and give the details of the company that make you want to become an employee.
What is the best way to answer those questions that just seem to have no answer? Being asked an impossible question is actually a good sign. The recruiter is not really looking for an answer but trying to discover how you will hold up under pressure. If you're asked a tough question that you can't answer, think for a few seconds. Then, with a confident smile, say, “I don't know, but if you hire me, I'll be happy to find out for you.”
Let's say you are faced with this statement: “You have seven minutes to convince me you're the best candidate for the job. Go.” How would you react?
This is essentially the question that can determine whether you're paying attention to the material in this book. This is the question that only the most-prepared of all job interviewees will survive, and that's exactly what the recruiter is looking for. In answering this question, you should refer back to everything this book has taught you. Review your personal themes and touch upon each and every one of them. Assure the interviewer that you know all there is to know about the job, the company, and the industry. Essentially, you are trying to be every recruiter's dream candidate. It's not an easy thing to pull off, but have faith, you can do it—you can win that job!