Gettin’ Tricky with Interview Questions

No, it’s not an 80’s hit, it’s the reality of many interview questions – they are tricky by design. Why? It’s simple. Employers ask some questions with the underlying objective of exploring a candidate’s attitudes and motivations. We’ve developed a list of questions that can prove tricky if you if you don’t consider them ahead of time.  Rehearsing your answer to these questions is a good interview skill to employ:

Why are you looking, or why did you leave your last job?  Answer this question in both a positive and a forthright way. The most common mistakes made when answering this question are either a vague response, which implies you are hiding something, or a negative, defensive reply.

What do you know about our company?  Be prepared to tell the interviewer three things you learned from your research about the company, such as what the company does, what the sales volume is and a brief observation about a recent, positive news story about the company. Don’t stall on this one – show them you’ve done your homework!

Tell me about yourself.  Sometimes phrased as “Tell me about your background,” or “Tell me about your accomplishments.” Regardless of how the question is asked, we suggest that you create a one minute career overview that describes your professional background, accomplishments, strengths and career aspirations. Relate how these make you a good fit for this position and be succinct – this is a brief synopsis of you, not your entire work history or life experience.

What do you want to be doing in five years?  Communicate what your goals are without being overly specific. If you don’t answer clearly, you could appear to lack a sense of direction.  Be too specific and you may signal a red flag if your answer doesn’t match what the company has to offer long-term. If you’re looking for rapid advancement, be sure to point out that you understand the commitment necessary to achieve your objectives.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Be prepared to talk about two or three functional strengths and one or two intangible characteristics that you regard as strengths. It helps to frame your comments by saying: “My supervisor said…” or “I feel that.…” It is best to address the weakness by saying: “I’m working on…” or “I would like to learn more about…” or “In my last performance review my supervisor suggested.…” The “I can’t think of any weaknesses” response may give the interviewer the impression that you are afraid to admit weaknesses or you are not coachable.  Similarly, saying your biggest weakness is that you are a perfectionist or you work too hard isn’t as powerful as sharing how something impacted your work and detailing how you overcame it.

What salary are you looking for?  Of all tricky interview questions, salary can be the trickiest. The further along you are in the interview process, the more specific you should be. If this is asked during the first interview, you may not  know the nature of the long-term opportunity and the overall benefits yet, so you’re not in the position to give a specific number. However, it’s best to answer the question rather than avoid it. One way to answer might be – “my current base is in the low $60s, and I am eligible for up to 10 percent in incentive compensation. Of course I would like to move forward, but my primary motivations are the experience I will get and the opportunity to keep learning and growing.” This answer gives the interviewer an idea about the salary range you would entertain, but you have left your options open to accepting a higher or lower offer, depending on your interest. In addition, you minimized the chance of shutting yourself out of the job, because you didn’t give a specific number that was outside of their hiring range.

Why are you interested in our company?  Provide a specific reason why the position fits your career plan, and point out something about the company that appeals to you.

Tell me what you like to do outside of work.  Often, employers ask this question to be friendly and break the ice. In addition, they may use it to see what kind of work/life balance you are looking for and to determine whether your outside interests will conflict with your job. It is important to describe a couple of activities to show that you are well rounded. Philanthropic interests are great to mention here, and this is the time to highlight any involvement or leadership activities in the community as well.

When it comes to answering the tricky interview questions, keep the following general advice in mind:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.  If you don’t understand a question, it’s better to ask the interviewer to explain than to risk stumbling.
  • Don’t “over answer.”  Be careful not to get off track or talk a long time without making sure you are providing the information the interviewer is seeking. If interviewers want more detail, they will ask for it. At the same time, there are very few if any questions where a simple “yes” or “no” answer is sufficient, so give examples or explain briefly whenever possible.
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