Questions about interview questions

I always get the good phone calls the night before the interview.  Someone is drifting off to sleep, imagining the way he or she will smile, shake hands, eagerly answer questions. . . wait, there will be questions?

Yes.  And you should, in the best of worlds, have some answers.  Here are the three big questions I was questioned about this month:

1.  What are your weaknesses? (Also masquerades as “If we hire you, what will we say is not your best attribute or feature when we review your performance in six months?)

I think by now we all know that you can’t answer this like Michael Scott, “ I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”  So what are your weaknesses…and what are you doing about them?  That’s what’s important.  Don’t answer the question without adding the information that you are totally on to yourself and working on your lack of self confidence, conflict avoidance, feedback dependence, whatever it is.

Your role in the interview is to establish a rapport and participate in a conversation that will get you to the next level of the selection process.  So when you are asked this question, which usually comes up in the earlier rounds of the process, my suggestion is to answer truthfully, with a sense of humor, by admitting who you are.  Perhaps you can be too direct in dealing with others (and are working on broadening your range or softening your delivery for those who are left breathless by your skewering).  Maybe you have strong opinions, and are practicing better listening skills.  Perhaps you are soft spoken and are taking speech lessons.  Or you are less confident than you would like to be, hence the setting of goals that take you toward new experiences.

Do you see where I’m going?  Truthful, but self aware, and working on your performance is who you want to be and who you want to present.  Be prepared to be asked for an example of your deficiency in action, along with what you learned from the experience and what you did differently.

2.  Have you ever been fired from a job?

This is a yes or no answer; don’t volunteer more than you must.  If the answer is no, we can agree you can skip this section.

If the answer is yes, but you reached an agreement with the employer who will now represent your termination as a resignation, the answer is actually no.  Apparently you resigned.

If the answer is yes, but you have no such agreement and have no idea what the terminating employer will say about you, the answer is yes.

When the answer is yes, you have to explain this yourself, in a way that is a.) brief, b.) honest, but careful, and c.) acknowledges (calmly) that there are differing viewpoints on what happened and what should have happened.  Calm is the operative word here.  People get fired; life goes on.  It’s a bigger deal to you than it is to anyone else.

Memorize this:  “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably one of the best things that could have happened.  I learned so much.”  Of course, be prepared to list all the good things that you learned and all of the blessings that accrued from this unfortunate misunderstanding.  I hope that, if you didn’t already know it, when you practice saying it with conviction you realize it is true.

But: Do. Not. Lie.  It is never worth the risk.

3.  Where do you see yourself in five years?

“In the Bahamas, on a beach.  Ha!”   (wrong)

“In your job.  Ha ha!”      (also wrong)

“I don’t know; my spouse is a professional also and she/he has the better job and bigger income.”  (OMG, really?)

“In this job.”  (really?  okay, depends on the job, but maybe. . .)

“I have career goals that could take me in one direction or another, but I’d like to stay with the same company.”   (very good)

“Right now I’m focused on this opportunity and learning as much as I can about the (company, industry, profession).”  (also good)

“Eventually I’d like to move into (Finance, Operations, Management).  One reason I’m interested in this job and company is that I know you nurture and promote talent; that’s one of the reasons I’m interested.”  (very very good)

But here is an alternative strategy for you.  Do your homework extremely thoroughly and extraordinarily well, and answer in the context of the company and the job you want:

“Working right here for the market leader!  Here are my ideas.”

“I’d like to have built the world class HR department you want. Here’s what I think it will look like.”

“I think by then we should be outpacing the rest of the region by about 80%. Here’s how.”

“We’ll have trimmed expenses and maximized our systems.”

“I’d like to have set some serious performance records.”

“Launched three new products/services.”

“Solved the industry’s worst problems.”

All better than anything you might say for yourself about your personal goals.  But remember this–no matter what strategy you choose, it isn’t okay to deliver a one sentence answer and sit back and wait for the next question.  You’re in a conversation with a decision-maker who has asked you about you.  This is your chance to separate yourself from the rest of the pack.  If it were me, I’d talk about me in the job and career I want.

The point of the interview is to get you to the next step of the process; that’s a function of developing rapport, building a relationship, and avoiding self-inflicted damage.

Next blog: What questions should you ask the interviewer?

2 responses to “Questions about interview questions

  1. I never would have thought of using the “yourself in 5 years” question as one you could answer as if you already had the job. Great idea!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Tyler! Since the interviewer is looking for a sense of what you’ll be like in the job, the more you think of yourself in it, and express yourself as if you were in it, the better. Part of the process is placing yourself where the action is and participating; ideas, plans, excitement are all welcome in an interview.

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