The GREAT JOB SOONER Blog

Impossible Interview Questions, Part 2: Handling Sensitive & Negative Issues

“Impossible” interview questions – like the ones that raise sensitive or negative issues – can blow up in your face if not handled skillfully.

In last week’s post I offered tips for handling various kinds of “impossible” questions, but now let’s take a closer look at answering questions about negatives.

For example, you might be asked to explain a past job that didn’t work out, a long period of unemployment, or your lack of an important qualification.

An unskillful answer to a question like this can destroy your chances of getting an offer.

But here’s the good news: these questions can also be opportunities to demonstrate strengths such as transparency, resilience, and the wisdom you’ve gained from experience.

How can you handle these questions effectively,  defuse the danger, and come through it looking good?

Use the “sandwich” technique: surround the negatives with positives.

“Why did I leave Presto Promotions? Actually, I loved my work there, and I played a key role in many major wins, such as (ultra-brief example or two), which I can tell you more about if you like. Then I was diagnosed with Ravel Syndrome and had to take a year off to recover my health. Last month my doctor said I’m fully recovered and should be fine from now on. I feel great and I’ve been attending conferences and reading a lot to refresh my skills while looking for the right opportunity. I’m very excited about this opening.”

Keep the negative part brief.

See the example above, where the reason for leaving the job takes up only one short sentence. This is important, although of course it can be hard to be brief about something you have strong feelings about.

Questions like “Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with” or “Why do you want to leave your job?” present a strong temptation to kvetch and be commiserated with, particularly when your interviewer has the natural empathy we often see among human resources folks. Resist that urge firmly. Accept any sympathy graciously, but then quickly move on to your skills and the job you’re interviewing for.

Set your feelings aside and speak in an emotionally neutral manner.

This may require that you work through feelings of disappointment, grief or anger ahead of time. Try journaling, talking to a trusted friend, reading self-help books or getting professional help. Your state of mind is crucial to your interview success.

Don’t create negative sound bites.

As author Jeff Haden has written, “Interviewers will only remember a few sound bites, especially negative ones. Avoid statements like “No, I’ve never been in charge of training.’ Instead say, ‘I didn’t fill that specific role, but I have trained dozens of new hires and created several training guides.'” Rather than saying “I haven’t” or “I can’t,” emphasize what you have done and can do.

Plan and practice your answers.

You can practice on your own, but also do mock interviews with someone – a peer or an interview coach – to get outside perspectives and advice.

These tips are from the chapter “How to Answer Any Interview Question” in my book Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, available as an eBook from iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo, and in paperback too from Amazon.

How to Answer Impossible Interview Questions, Part 1

What do you do when you’re asked an “impossible” interview question – one that stops you in your tracks?

That was the issue raised by a job seeker I was coaching today – let’s call him Peter. “I get asked a question and I just can’t answer it. I’m stuck.”

He had discussed the issue with his colleague, Paula, who had said “I’m never asked a question I can’t answer.” Did Paula mean that she knows everything – is that why she’s never at a loss? Nope. Paula just knows that there’s always a way to answer the question.

Here are several ways to deal with a moment when you feel stuck in an interview.

Look behind the question. Ask yourself “What is their concern behind this question?” For example, if they’re asking about your weaknesses, their concern is about whether you have an open and constructive attitude about your weaknesses, and whether you’re self-aware and able to take steps to improve your own performance.

Look for the positive. Almost any answer can sell you for the job. For example, if you have to tell about a mistake you made, you can talk about how you corrected it, how you minimized the damage, what you learned from it and how that learning improved your performance afterwards.

Get clear. If you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification.

Get centered. If you feel panicky or blank, take a breath before doing anything else.

If it’s a puzzle question, think out loud. Questions like “Are there two non-bald people in New York with the same number of hairs on their heads?” are about your thought processes, problem-solving skills and ability to handle a curve ball without getting flustered. How you address the question may be more important than your answer.

If you’ve forgotten the question, ask them to repeat it. This doesn’t look great but it’s better than guessing what the question was and therefore giving an answer that’s way off target. Next time, make a point of listening carefully and perhaps mentally repeating each question they ask, to get it firmly in mind before starting to answer.

Buy yourself time to think. If you just need a bit more time to think, restate the question or the last few words of it. “So you’d like me to talk about time when…”

As a last resort, table it. Ask if you can come back to the question later. With any luck, either you’ll think of an answer later in the interview, or they’ll forget to ask again. Maybe you’ll think of a great answer after you’ve left and you can include it in your thank you note.

Prepare ahead of time for any “danger zones.” There’s one category of “impossible interview questions” that deserves a whole article: questions that probe  significant negatives, such as your lack of a certain important qualification, whether/why you were fired, a job that didn’t work out or a long period of unemployment. Read next week’s post to learn how to handle problem questions like these so your interview stays on track toward getting the offer.

4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You aren’t making dumb interview mistakes. You’re never late to a job interview, and you don’t complain about your past boss to the person you’re hoping will be your next boss. So why haven’t you landed an offer yet?

In last week’s post I pointed out three common pitfalls you may not have been aware of. Here are four more you can correct for greater success.

Being too modest.

Think this isn’t you? Think again. As an interview coach I find that about 90% of my clients are failing to say enough, or to be specific enough, about the good results they’ve achieved in their work.

Don’t just tell them what you’ve done in your current and past jobs – tell them how well you did it and the impact it had. If the impact was large, quantify it, whether in terms of money, increased market share, greater efficiency, time saved, or whatever metric is relevant.

Look for extra bragging points: Is the process you created still in use five years later? Say so. Were you given a bonus or a recognition? Don’t be shy. Did you receive a memorable kudo from a customer or your manager? Quote from it.

Thinking it’s all about competence.

An interview isn’t only about proving you can do the job well. It’s also about chemistry and rapport. We all want to work with people we like and trust. So be authentic. Don’t recite memorized answers. And let your enthusiasm show. Reveal what you truly love about your work.

Think about the interviewer as a person. Wonder what you’ll like about him or her when you’re working together. Realize he or she may be just as nervous and hopeful as you are.

Not preparing a great answer to that killer question.

Is there a question that scares you a little? Or a lot? Like, why do you want to leave your current job, or have you ever been fired? If you don’t have an answer you’re comfortable with, work on it. Research it online, discuss it with a trusted friend or a coach. There’s always a best way to answer, and it’s usually better than you think.

Not preparing plenty of good questions to ask the interviewer.

Good questions show that you’ve researched the company, are curious and motivated, and are already thinking about how you can do a great job. I recommend preparing 10 good questions, because if you only have five, you may find that they’ve all been answered by the end of the interview and you’re stuck with nothing.

Holding your questions ’til the end.

Look for opportunities to ask questions early in the interview and throughout. This can make the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a conversation, which is much more enjoyable for both parties. Your questions may also lead to information that helps you give better answers.

You’re human. Chances are you’ve made at least one of these interview mistakes; we all live and learn. But with diligent effort these missteps can be eliminated – giving you a much better chance in each interview and a shorter job search!

3 Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You’re too smart to make those silly mistakes like reeking of cologne at a job interview or forgetting to turn off your phone. But maybe you’re still not getting offers. How can you change that?

This post and next week’s will identify some less-obvious pitfalls to eliminate.

Not being proactive about marketing yourself.

There may be 500 reasons why the company should hire you, but they won’t remember 500. They may remember three, or five. So go into your interviews knowing what your key selling points are and make sure they come across clearly and memorably. This is also known as your unique selling proposition.

Wasting the “first impression answer.”

Your answer to the first question interviewers ask – usually something like “Would you tell me a bit about yourself?” – can set the tone for the whole interview. People tend to remember what they hear first. So make sure your first answer focuses the interviewer’s attention where you want it – on those crucial key selling points. Here are some tips on answering this crucial question.

Being vague rather than concrete.

Too-general answers sound generic and unconvincing. Be specific. Tell stories that demonstrate your outstanding skills.

I won’t lie to you – it may take hours to prepare your key selling points, craft a great “Tell me about yourself” answer and plan the right interview stories. For step-by-step guidance, you may want to read my book, Get That Job, The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview.

Key selling points, an effective first answer and compelling stories will help you get that job offer a lot sooner!

See next week’s post for “4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make.” Better yet, subscribe and get free tips on interview preparation, resumes and other job search topics in your mailbox once a week.

How to Answer an Interview Question about Salary Expectations (Infographic)

“What kind of salary are you looking for?” An unskillful answer to an interview question about salary expectations – your salary requirements, desired salary, etc. – can cost you a lot of money – or cost you a job offer.

Naming a figure is risky. It your number is too high, the employer can’t afford you. Too low, you hurt your credibility. Even if your number is right on, you limit your freedom to negotiate.

Follow the arrows in the diagram to see how to reply to the interviewer’s questions (in purple) with your smart answers (in green).

Practice your answers out loud – several times, preferably with a friend or an interview coach – before your next job interview. Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Informational Interview: It’s Not a Thing!

You’ve heard people say informational interviews are a great thing. Problem is, they aren’t a thing.

Well, not a single thing, anyway. There are at least three different types of informationals. Each is a different animal, with different strategies to get the most benefit from them.

And benefits they have. For example, it has been estimated that one in 12 informational interviews results in a job, making it the most powerful form of job search networking. It has a much higher success rate than applying to job openings online, where the odds are more like one in 200.

What are these three different types of informational interviews? I’ll call them the Career Exploration Informational, the Company Insider Conversation and the Hiring Manager Meeting.

In this and the next two posts I’ll explore each type individually, and then in the fourth post I’ll share some crucial tips for success that are common to three types.

The Career Exploration Informational Interview

This type of interview focuses on the interviewee’s occupation.

If you’re not sure what kind of job you want to do, it’s time for some research. Read up on various occupations online, then talk to people who are working in an occupation you’re considering. This isn’t just for students any more. With the average person changing careers five to seven times, this kind of informational can help a person of any age get a better sense of whether that new career idea is really a good fit.

The discussion is likely to focus on questions like these:

  • Why did you decide to enter this field?
  • What is your typical day like?
  • On which activities do you spend the largest amount of time?
  • Is your job typical of this occupation, or unusual?
  • What do you like best about what you do?
  • What do you like least?
  • What advice do you have for me if I decide to enter this career?
  • What other resources should I look into?

That last question is especially important! If your contact recommends a website, publication, training program, organization or – better yet – someone else to talk to, you now have next steps to pursue in your career exploration. Promise to follow up: “Thank you so much! I’ll follow up on your suggestions and let you know how it went.” That way you can continue the relationship with an occasional emailed update, and because you said you would follow up, your contact won’t be surprised. They’ll see you as keeping your promise.

Connecting on LinkedIn can help keep the two of you on each other’s radar screens and provide additional opportunities to interact. (Remember to check Notifications on the menu bar, preferably daily.)

In the best case scenario, an ongoing mentor-mentee relationship may develop.

This type of informational interview may be the easiest to get, especially if you’re a student but even if you aren’t. Having an introduction from a mutual acquaintance always helps – and LinkedIn can be very helpful here – or having something in common, such as being fellow alumni. If there’s no special connection, just ask anyway. You’d be surprised how many people will say yes. It’s flattering to be seen as an expert, and the interview is a chance to “give back” and make a difference for someone.

In the next post we’ll explore a very different animal, the Company Insider Conversation: how to land such meetings, and how to navigate them in a way that’s comfortable for both parties, builds  relationships, and paves the way for opportunities.

Got the Job Offer? Don’t Blow It Now!

In the interview process, accepting the job offer may seem like the easy part. But mishandling this crucial moment can cost you thousands in lost salary – or even the job.

It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.
– Tony Robbins

This post is part one of a three-part series based on chapter 17 of my new book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview.

The Big Moment at the End of the Interviews

The moment when you’re offered a job can be a mini-whirlwind of excitement joy, relief, nervousness, you name it. You may be tempted to scream “YES!” – quickly, before they can change their mind!

Many a job seeker has done exactly that, only to think later, “I sure wish I had thought about … (negotiating the starting date, the salary, leaving early on Tuesdays? the potential offer from that other company?) … before I said yes.”

Do yourself a favor. Have a plan for handling this important turning point in your career.

Buy Time to Think

When you receive the offer, chances are that one of the following will be true for you:

  • Certain aspects of the offer – maybe salary, the start date or the work schedule – could be better, and you have no reason to think the employer won’t negotiate.
  • You have been interviewing elsewhere and may be close to an offer from another company.
  • You’re not entirely sure this job is the right one. You have questions in your mind, such as:

Is this company financially stable? Any chance of layoffs in the next year or two?
Is this the right company culture for me?
Is there anything about the work schedule, the commute or the working conditions that’s going to get old fast?
What effect would this job have on my long-term career path?
Can I live on this salary?
Will I need to relocate? Will my family and I be happy in the new place?
Can I afford to wait for a better opportunity?

If so, I suggest you give an answer like this:

“This is a very exciting offer! I so appreciate it! Of course, it’s a very important decision, so I’d like to give it some careful thought. How soon do you need my answer?”

If you plan to negotiate, ask for a meeting:

“Is there a time tomorrow when we could meet to discuss the details of the offer?”

Whether you agree on giving an answer by Thursday, or meeting tomorrow at 1 pm to discuss details, immediately send an email confirming what has been agreed.

Confirm, Confirm, Confirm

We’ve all heard that it’s important to get a written offer letter (and to make sure all the details are as agreed). But that’s not the only point that needs to be confirmed in writing.

Opportunities have been lost because both parties were not clear about the next steps. “We didn’t hear back from you (within the timeframe we assumed you understood), so we had to move on.” Whether you’re asking for time to think, for an answer to a question, or for an opportunity to discuss (negotiate) details of the offer, make sure the next step is confirmed in writing.

Keep a pleasant tone about it. You’re simply being thorough and professional for the benefit of all concerned.

Next Up: Will You Negotiate?

Did you know that most employers expect some negotiation when they make an offer? If you’ve never negotiated your salary, benefits or other aspects of a job offer, stay tuned for the next two posts in this series. Or get my book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, on sale now from Emerald Career Publishing.

Turn a “No, thanks” Interview into a “Yes!” Later

You had a job interview but you didn’t get the job. Just forget about it, right?

Not completely. I found a surprising fact in a CareerBuilder study from last year: 54% of employers re-engage with past candidates who were not offered the job. I take that to mean they consider them later for another opening – or even for the same one.

I’ve seen this happen. One job seeker I coached, let’s call him Steve, was disappointed by an interview rejection involving an instructional designer position. Three weeks later he received a call from the company. The candidate they had selected had accepted the job but backed out at the last minute to accept another offer elsewhere. Was Steve still interested? He was! He started two weeks later in this job, and it was a major leap forward in his career.

This isn’t the only scenario. In other cases there may be additional positions that open up in the coming weeks or months. So when you hear “no,” think of it as “not right now.”

Here’s how to keep yourself open to opportunities post-interview:

  • Be gracious after being turned down. Send a nice letter to the recruiter and hiring manager thanking them for having considered you and stating that you hope there’s an opportunity to work together in the future. Maybe mention that you hope to see them at a certain industry event coming up. Very few people send such a letter, so you will stand out and be remembered.
  • If there was a good rapport, you might invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn and/or Twitter.
  • Keep your eyes open for future opportunities with this company, whether full-time or consulting.

For more tips about interviewing, read my book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview or contact me to see if one-on-one interview coaching could help you get your new job faster.

What are your job interview selling points? (Podcast)

To really stand out in a job interview, you need to know your the top 5 (or top 3 or whatever) “selling points” – the qualities or facts that will make the interviewer’s eyes light up – and to proactively emphasize them right from the start.

In a new podcast on CareerCloud, I discussed how to identify your unique selling points and make them work for you, powerfully. Listen now.

 

“Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with.” Most Common Interview Questions, #6

Interview questions about “a difficult person” are job search land mines. Watch your step!

This post is an excerpt from Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Job Interview, available from Amazon as a softcover or eBook.

How should you answer this tricky interview question?

Sometimes the question is phrased a little differently: “Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you didn’t like, or who didn’t like you.”

However the question is asked, don’t project an image of yourself as someone who dislikes or is disliked by others. Reframe it as a situation where it was a challenge to work effectively with someone.

This question requires you to say something negative about a co-worker, which is generally a no-no in interviews. So be tactful by not giving any information that could identify who this person is.

Take an emotionally neutral tone. Resist the urge to kvetch, even if the interviewer encourages it by offering you sympathy.

Avoid characterizing the co-worker in judgmental terms like “Nothing was ever right as far as he was concerned” or “She wasn’t a team player.” Instead, describe the specific behavior objectively: “He would often make negative comments about team members” or “We needed her to provide a report every Monday, but it usually wasn’t done until mid-week.”

Be very brief about the difficult behavior, focusing primarily on what you did to make the best of the situation and how well it turned out. Treat this as a success story, emphasizing the positive results.

If you weren’t able to get any positive results, tell a different story! Remember, this question is not about the other person, it’s about you and your ability to collaborate with or manage others, to manage your own emotions and behavior, to resolve conflicts, and to use discretion and fairness in discussing a difficult situation.

Looking for more tips on handling tricky interview questions?

For a more complete interview guide, read Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Job Interview.

Interested in more tips about answering the most common interview questions? You can start with the first post in the series: “What are your weaknesses?”