Answering the Tough Questions

It might sometimes feel this way, but usually there are only one or two persons interviewing a candidate at the same time.  Of course, if the questions are difficult it really does not matter how many people are in the room, you have to have the right answer and the right demeanor.  Here are some suggestions about how to handle tough situations:

Body language is important.  Look your interviewer straight in the eyes.  Sit up straight.  Be animated.  Don’t frown or smirk.  For that matter, if it is a serious issue, don’t smile.  Don’t be afraid to appear nervous.  It’s an interview.  You’re supposed to be nervous!

But here’s the secret: Tell the truth!  Eventually your lies will catch up with you.  And it’s too difficult to remember all the lies, so just tell the truth.

The second and final thing to remember: Don’t badmouth former employers and colleagues.  That always sends the wrong message.  The interviewer will know that if today you are badmouthing your previous employer, if he hires you then tomorrow you’ll be badmouthing him.

So how do you handle actual difficult questions?

Why did you leave your last position? I’ve had to deal with this one myself.  This is how I answer.

I appreciate the question because I do not want to be in a similar situation.   The first job I left after many years because I was concerned about ethical issues.  Suffice it to say that my former exec is now selling real estate.  The next job only lasted six months.  It was a new position and was never filled.  I stayed for a total of over 4 years at my next position, although I left for six months because I wanted new challenges.  While I could not put my finger on it, I suspected that something was not right at the new place.  Suffice it to say that a few years after I left the execs pleaded guilty to grand larceny and the organization no longer exists.  I then got my old job back and, as I became more involved with leadership, had questions about personnel issues which were never dealt with to my satisfaction.  Finally, I left my last position because I did not feel that the company was viable.  It has subsequently been sold.  So now let me ask you a question:  What this all comes down to is ethics and values.  Give me an example of a decision that your company made that was based on values and not necessarily on the bottom line.

This reply serves two purposes: It prepares the interviewer for the fact that I will not have a supervisor as a reference.  More importantly it allows me to frame the discussion.  It is no longer about why I left my previous jobs but rather why I won’t be tempted to leave my next job if the interviewer offers it.   This is truthfully what I said at each job interview and I have never been unemployed for more than a few weeks.

How much are you looking for? This one is actually simple.  If you are interviewing for a job that does not necessitate your moving, ask for a 10% raise plus the cost of any new commute.  If you have to move, ask for 20%.  It’s justifiable because you are leaving your support system and uprooting your family.  That said, do the math.  Benefits are a part of compensation.  I once had a candidate who took a $20,000 cut in salary because the new employer’s health insurance prescription plan was going to save him more than $20,000 on his children’s medication.

When can you start? If the answer is, “Tomorrow,” you won’t get the job.  No one is going to hire someone who would leave his present employer without proper notice.  “Proper notice” is the time equal to your vacation days.  For junior positions it’s usually two weeks; for senior positions it’s usually four.  You should also tell your new employer that you will remain in contact with your colleagues for a transition period.  You do not want projects that you are working on to fall between the cracks.  This shows that you are responsible.  If the new employer has a problem with any of this, you probably don’t want to work for him.

What are your weaknesses? Everyone has a weakness or two.  Be prepared, but turn it around.  Say something like, “My weaknesses are that I sometimes don’t manage my time well resulting in my working late hours.”  The interviewer now knows that you don’t mind working late.  “Also, there are times when I am working on a project that isn’t going anywhere and I feel like if I pull the plug I’ll be letting the team down.”  Now you have shown that you are a team player.  “So when I actually pull the plug, it bothers me.”  In other words, you can make the tough decisions.

(For the record, the answer I always give is that I am terrible at following travel directions – I have literally gotten lost going around the corner – and I don’t tolerate fools well!)

Surprisingly, this appears to be the most difficult question of all:

Why do you want to work here? If you remember nothing else (except for telling the truth!) remember this: DO YOUR HOMEWORK!  Know everything that is possible to know about the company and the persons interviewing you.  Don’t just go to the company’s website.  Google them.  Find press releases and newspaper articles.  This is your one chance to really make an impression.  Tell them what has impressed you and ask pointed questions about their long-term plans.  Show them through your answer and questions that you can investigate, learn and engage.