Entering the Danger Zone: Handling Tough Job Interview Questions
There are literally hundreds of questions you may be asked in an interview, from straightforward (“do you know xyz software?”) to eclectic (“how many things could you make with three paper clips and a rubber band?”). A quick online search will give you many lists of different types of questions, along with advice on how to answer them. However, there are a few key questions to always prepare for before getting in the hot seat. These important questions can give your potential employer a lot of insight, so it’s vital to think about your answers ahead of time in order to convey the message you want, not just the first thing that pops into your head.
Tell me about yourself (or your background). This is a very open-ended question, and usually one of the first you’ll be asked. Give a quick overview of your work experience, education and relevant industry work, essentially a highlights summary of your resume. Keep it strictly work-oriented, no personal details, childhood experiences or hobbies please. And it should concise, maybe a minute or two in length, no more. Candidates often make the mistake of starting with the day they were born and rambling on for what seems like hours, when the interviewer just wanted a quick overview before they start asking you more detailed questions.
Why did you leave your previous position? Honesty really is the best policy, so don’t lie or twist the truth but also don’t get into the ugly details. You never know what knowledge or relationships your interviewer has with that prior company.
If you quit, state that you chose to leave and give the high-level reason, keeping it brief and positive. For example, “I chose to leave xyz company because I was seeking opportunity and experience that I did not think I could gain there,” not “my supervisor was a micro-managing jerk that wouldn’t let me do anything… I had to get out of there!”
If you were laid off, state it factually and unemotionally. This is not something you should be ashamed of, it has happened to a lot of people. In fact, it’s very likely your interviewer has been in the same position. But… no matter how hurt, angry or scared you are, don’t let it show. Say something like “unfortunately the company had to down-size and my position was eliminated,” not “I got laid off after twenty years, those people have no loyalty, I bet they regret that decision now!” The biggest mistake candidates make is dwelling on the details. Just state the facts and move on. Often this is still a very sensitive and painful topic so the natural tendency is to go on and on about it, giving many more details than necessary or desired. This is not the place or time to seek empathy or reassurance–get that from your friends and family. To an interviewer this looks like you’re holding a grudge or lack confidence in your ability to move forward.
If you were fired, again state the facts and keep the emotion out of it. People get fired, it happens. It doesn’t mean you or the employer are bad people, something just wasn’t right for one side or the other. Don’t lie because the potential employer will find out the truth, and your lie will reflect more poorly on you than the firing. Do share something that you learned from the experience that will help you in your career going forward. You could say something like “I was let go from that position because my supervisor and I had a disagreement about how projects should be managed. But I did learn about how to read people better and present my case when I thought something should be done differently; I also learned how to pick my battles, and that it’s important to follow company protocol.” Again, don’t dwell on or get mired in the details. Even if you’re angry and think the person who fired you was totally wrong, don’t let it show. This is not the time to make your case or try to gain sympathy. If it’s still really painful to talk about, state the facts then change the subject with something like “that was a very unhappy situation for me, I’d rather move on to something more exciting and positive like this great opportunity with you!”
Just a note, these same principles apply to questions like “what did you like or dislike about your previous company,” how did you get along with your previous supervisor,” etc. Those questions are all potential land mines if you haven’t thought about your answers ahead of time, especially if it was a negative or uncomfortable situation. As much as they want to know the answer, the interviewer is also looking for how tactful and professional you are. They want to know how you will act if there is a difficult situation in the future at their own company.
Where do you see yourself five years from now? There is no one right answer to this question, but there are a lot of wrong ones. In general, paint a picture of yourself being successful in some way that ties to the position and company you are interviewing for. Don’t talk about how this position would be a great stepping stone into what you really want to do, describe yourself in a much higher or totally unrelated role, or say you see yourself changing to a completely different career. This is your chance to show the interviewer how nicely you will fit into their company, and how excited you are about this job. They want to know that you can grow with them, and that you’re in it for the long haul. No one wants to hire somebody that they think will leave soon or be unhappy in the job they were hired for.
Do you have any questions for me? The answer is always yes! Have a few questions about the company, position, department, supervisor, or growth of the business. Write them down so you don’t draw a blank when they ask. If they were already answered, then you can say “I did have some questions but you’ve already covered them, thank you.” And, if they don’t ask, when wrapping up the interview it’s perfectly fine to say “if you don’t mind, I have a couple of questions for you.” Frankly, I’m concerned when a candidate doesn’t have any questions–I wonder if they’re really interested in the job. If you’re thinking about coming to work in our office every day for the next several years, I would expect there to be something you want to know!
When interviewing, remember that everything you say–every question you ask, and every answer you give–is being viewed through the interviewer’s filter. They want to know not only if you’ll be a good employee, but good for their company in the role they need to fill. No question is simply information-gathering, your answers give them insight into how you think, act and view yourself. How you handle the
tough questions and difficult situations tells them a lot about who you are and how you act, so be prepared to give thoughtful answers that show your best side.