Comebacks for Tricky Job Interview Questions
There was a time when the toughest question you might encounter during a job interview was "What's your biggest flaw?"
These days, companies such as Google, Amazon and Trader Joe's include questions in job interviews that are tricky, challenging or just plain off the wall.
Google, for example, last year asked at least one job seeker, "How many people are using Facebook in San Francisco at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday?" according to Glassdoor.com's list of the top 25 oddest interview questions of 2011.
At Amazon, one applicant for a software developer job was asked, "How would you cure world hunger?"
At Trader Joe's, one interviewer wanted to know, "What do you think of garden gnomes?" according to the Glassdoor.com list.
The ostensible goal of far-out questions is to simulate a stressful situation and see how the person on the receiving end reacts. If the applicant stays calm in a job interview, the thinking goes, the person will be more likely to react in a similar fashion when anxiety-inducing problems crop up on the job.
Whether there's merit to that logic is debatable, and the subject of gotcha questions is widely discussed and dissected on many career blogs.
Bottom line: If you're looking for work, you'll likely encounter at least a few challenging questions. Whatever they are, don't get flustered. Take time to think and don't worry about giving the perfect answer, says Phyllis Mufson, a longtime career coach and consultant based in Philadelphia. "People get stuck looking for the right answer when the solution is to give a reasonable answer," she says. "The main thing they're looking for is how you act under pressure."
Here's how Mufson and other job-hunting experts suggest handling potentially opportunity-busting interview questions:
1. Be prepared.
You won't ever be 100 percent ready for curveball questions -- that's the point. But you should have answers to garden-variety interview subjects down cold, all the better to appear polished and poised. Before an interview, jot down responses to questions about your past work history, accomplishments and goals. Practice your answers in front of a mirror or with a friend or career counselor.
2. Pause before you speak.
When you get a zinger, give yourself a beat or two to absorb the question. Buy extra time by asking the interviewer to repeat what they said, or start your answer by summarizing the question, i.e., "So what you're asking is, What are my biggest career accomplishments?" Use the time to collect your thoughts and come up with a coherent reply.
3. Think out loud.
Some interviewers toss in unusual questions so they can hear you reason through your thought process. When you get one of these, verbalize how you got from point A to point B. Watch this Bloomberg video to see how Glassdoor.com board member Russell Rueff suggests reacting to the question, "Would Gandhi make a good software programmer?"
4. Know how you'd help the company's bottom line.
In the post-recession job market, one of the toughest question making the rounds is, "Your job exists to help your employer achieve and maintain profitability. How do your efforts support these goals?" says Martin Yates, author of the Knock 'em Dead career book series and blog. The question is hard because you can't fudge the answer, Yates says in a recent blog post. First, you have to know whether the job you're after generates revenue, protects assets, improves productivity or is a combination of those things, he says. Then, explain how you would contribute toward one of those goals. For example, "You anticipate the ways problems can arise in your areas of responsibility and explain how you execute your work with conscious concern for preventing many of the problems. You have an example or two ready," Yates says.
5. Consider your weaknesses.
Companies may be asking new types of trick questions, but they haven't gotten rid of the old standbys, and "What's your biggest flaw?" is still a favorite. Answer honestly about something you might be working on improving, but avoid getting too personal, Mufson says. Other career counselors suggest not trying to turn a weakness into a strength: It can backfire by making you sound too self-serving. And it's such a common tactic, interviewers will be onto you from the get-go.
6. Keep your cool.
Don't blow whatever goodwill you've established with an interviewer by badmouthing a former company, boss or co-workers. "High numbers of job seekers blab negative information without realizing they're making a farewell address to a job opportunity," says Joyce Lain Kennedy, author of Job Interviews for Dummies.
7. Be honest.
If asked why you left a previous job, tell the truth, but be brief and positive, recommends Hannah Morgan, a job search, career and social media strategist who writes the Career Sherpa blog. "If you had problems with co-workers, be certain not to blame others," Morgan writes in a handout (PDF). "Take responsibility for your part in the problem; state what you learned and why it would be different today."
8. Don't bring up money.
It's premature to ask about compensation or benefits in an initial job interview. But if the interviewer inquires what your salary requirements are, use it to ask what they have in mind for someone with your qualifications, Morgan says. However, if you're job hunting after a layoff and it's obvious from your resume that the job you're interviewing for is a step down from what you used to make, be explicit about it, Mufson says. Tell them you understand the remuneration might be less than what you're used to but that you're interested anyway. "The opportunity is strong, you're interested in the company, you used to be a manager but want to work with customers again. Whether or not they bring it, up they'll be wondering about it," so you might as well address the issue, she says.
Keep reading: Your 2012 Job Hunt Checklist
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