Tough Interview Questions

Of late, career counseling clients have wanted to focus on interviewing.  Here are some of the main issues/questions that have come up:

How do I look for a job when I have a job?

Quietly.  Never use company equipment for a job search.  Employers have every right to check what you are doing.  Some scan computers.  They’re their computers!  There is no privacy issue.  Never give out your office phone number.  Use your cell.  If you get a call for an interview just say, “I’m in the office right now.  When would be a good time to call you back?”  They’ll understand.

Try to schedule an initial phone interview (there probably will be one) during lunch.  In any case, you will have to take off from work for an interview.  Most employers looking to hire will be flexible, but sometimes you’ll just have to come in during regular business hours.  You may need to ask for a longer lunch hour, to come in or leave early.  In any case, give yourself more than enough time for the interview.  You never want to be rushed when interviewing for a job.

What do I do if they ask me about a gap in my resume?

What do you mean “if?”  They will ask you.  Here’s the secret: TELL THE TRUTH!

If the gap was because of criminality, explain it in a cover letter.  No excuses.  Admit to having made a mistake and explain what you learned and why that makes you a better employee.  If they still ask you during the interview, repeat what you wrote.

If the gap was because of compassion – you were taking care of a relative, raising children – explain what you learned and why that makes you a better employee.  What do “stay-at-home-moms” do all day?  They schedule multiple appointments.  They multitask.  They oversee a budget.  They negotiate with vendors.  All good skills that employers want.  But be certain to include in the explanation a statement that whatever situation kept you at home no longer exists.

What if I lack the proper training?

If it’s affordable, get it!  If you can’t afford it, and it’s a requirement for the position, don’t waste everyone’s time.  You are not going to get the job.

What do I say if they ask me why I am unemployed?

See above: TELL THE TRUTH!  One of my clients had an experience similar to my own.  We both had had positions which were new to the companies that hired us.  She lasted a year; I lasted six months.  Someone told her to say something like, “It just wasn’t for me.  I found it…”  Well, whatever the “it” was, by definition, highlighted a negative.  The correct answer is the truth:  “It was a new position.  I did not think it would work out and the fact is they never replaced me.”  Simple.

And if you were fired, I repeat, explain what happened (in brief), what you learned and why it makes you a better employee.

What do I say if they ask me what my weaknesses are?

Again, what do you mean “if?”  They will.  And the answer is not, as someone advised one of my clients, “Say something technical.  That way they will know it is easy to fix.”  Well, if it’s easy to fix why haven’t you fixed it?  Again, TELL THE TRUTH.  But make it a positive.  “Some people may think this is a positive, but I think that sometimes I get too involved with customers.”  “I don’t like to fail, so sometimes I may stick with a project too long.  Of course, I’ve learned when to pull the plug and move on.”

What do I say if they ask me what I have been doing while unemployed?

Candidate A says:  I’ve sent out 100 resumes a day – on average.  My full time job has been getting a job.  I’ve succeeded in getting an average of an interview every 10 days-2 weeks.  I’ve been learning how to market myself!

Candidate B says:  I’ve used the time to learn new skills.  I’ve taken some courses.  I’ve also done some part-time assignments to keep my skills fresh.  I don’t like to be idle.  I did my job search in the evenings.  I’ve probably sent out a few hundred resumes a week and secured an interview at least every other week.

Who would you hire?


Tony Blair’s Guide to Career Development

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life, should be required reading for everyone. It is a treasure trove of great advice on life.

You have to speak the language in order to change the terms of the debate conducted in that language, otherwise you may be a fine example of a person who is right, but irrelevant.

I am remembering countless staff meetings when someone wants to say something just to hear the sound of their own voice.  They really have nothing to add to the conversation.  Still, they believe that if they don’t speak out their silence will be interpreted as disinterest.  Wrong!  Silence is golden.  It is better to be quiet rather than to sound like a fool.  After all, you can be wrong and irrelevant just as easy as being right and irrelevant.

Of course, if you are right, and want to contribute, you have to know your audience.  Some people talk down to colleagues.  They sound “preachy.”  Never a good idea.  Others just don’t know how to verbalize their thoughts.  They are better writers than speakers.  Go with your strengths.  Sending a short e-mail to a colleague supporting them after a meeting can sometimes be more effective than adding your “two cents” to an already too long meeting!

The issue is not the fornication but the complication.

That may be the quote from the book.  For the record, he was talking about a sex scandal.  No matter, it’s just a clever way of saying, “It’s not the crime that kills you, it’s the cover-up.”  If Nixon had come clean immediately following Watergate, he probably would not have had to resign.  It was the cover-up that cost him his presidency.

We all make mistakes.  Make certain that you boss hears about your mistakes from you.  And when you “confess,” make certain you have a plan to repair the damage.

The absence of credibility actually increases the likelihood of confrontation.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t give advice on subjects on which you know nothing.  If you don’t have the experience, ask questions.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  “Why wouldn’t it be a good idea to do…?” sounds a lot better than “I think we should try…” when everyone knows that you have never done it or that you failed in the past to do exactly what you are now suggesting.  Credibility is king when trying to establish your credentials.  Which brings me to the next quote:

Knowing when to shut up is one of the most vital rules in life, never mind politics.

‘Nuf said!

Tony Blair is a liberal or, if you prefer, a progressive.  This is my favorite quote (after “fornication!”) because I happen to be a conservative:

…the first instinct of conservatives it to resist it [a great public lather about something]—and they are often right to do so.  They don’t come to a viewpoint because everyone tells them they should.  This attitude is the reason that while people may say they don’t like conservative politicians, they still vote for them.  People tend to go with the crowd; but in an odd sort of way, they respect a leader who is prepared to defy the crowd.  Indeed, if he or she is not prepared to do so, the public suspect he or she is not a proper leader.  It’s weird the way it works, but there it is.  Progressive politicians often don’t get this.  They prefer to be with the tide of thinking, and get confused when the public say in an opinion poll they believe in X, only to vote Y at the ballot box.

“Defy the crowd,” does not mean to reject for the sake of rejecting.  It has to be based on something.  “I don’t understand, explain it to me.”  “I’m not convinced.  Prove it!”  Leaders lead; they don’t follow polls.  Followers follow.  The only correct definition of a leader is Drucker’s  “a person with followers.”  If you want a position of leadership based on respect and not an organizational chart, help people to reach the right conclusion by forcing them to convince you that they are correct.  If they are, in fact, wrong, you’ll be helping them to see the error of their ways.

Time for a New Career?

Ajay Joseph’s book, Successful Career Change Tactics – Choosing the Right Career for Your Future, should be required reading for anyone thinking of pursuing a new career.

Joseph makes the assumption that if someone wants to change their career, they must, by definition, be unhappy about something.  It could be coworkers, supervisors, their responsibilities, or even company policies and procedures.  But the truth is, you could very well be thrilled with all of them, but still be miserable.  The problem may be family.  Or, there may be no problem at work or at home.  It could be that you simply have grown and want something new.  That is why one of the first questions I ask a career counseling client is, When was the last time you were proud of yourself?

By definition, an individual should be most satisfied when they are proud of what they are doing.  If the answer is, A few days ago at work, you probably don’t need a new career, just a vacation.  If the answer is something completely different, it may be time for a change.

In a future post I will discuss testing – aptitude tests.   I think they are all nonsense.  You know you.  You don’t need to take some silly test so that a computer can generate a report telling you what you’re good at!  So sit down and make an honest assessment of yourself.  What are your strengths?  What are your weaknesses?  What are your interests?  What are your values?  What do you enjoy doing?  What do you hate doing?  This should help you to decide your destination.  It will not, however, provide a road map to get you there.  That’s another reason why the tests are a waste of time.  They may guess correctly what you are good at, but so what?  Can you make a living doing it?  If so, how?

Either alone or with the help of friends or a counselor, once you have decided which new career you want, start creating a new network.  Introduce yourself to people in that industry.  Ask for meetings.  Invite them for coffee.  Explain that you are not looking for a job, that all you want to do is “pick their brains” to learn about what they do.  Mean it!  End all meetings with a sincere “Thank you,” and not with “Do you have any openings?”  If they are interested in you, they’ll let you know.  And after the meeting, send a hand written note.

As part of your new networking activities you should join relevant professional associations.  They can be sources of both contacts and leads.  Check out their websites.  They almost always have job boards.

Then comes the hard part: creating a plan for marketing you.  That’s when a career counselor can help.  One free piece of advice:  NEVER use the words “transferrable skills.”  If you tell an employer that you have “transferrable skills” you are saying, “I don’t meet your minimum requirements but these are the reasons why you should consider me anyways!”  Bad strategy.  You have the skills.  You have the experience.  You have the record.  Just prove it to the employer that if they hire you they will not only be getting what they are looking for, but quite a lot more.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

In real estate it’s “location, location, location.”  With a job search it’s “preparation, preparation, preparation.”  The analogy is a good one.

Let’s say you are the owner of a house right next to a highway exit.  How do you market the property?  “Look how great this location is, you’re right by the exit!  You’ll be home in no time!”  But if you are the seller, all of a sudden it becomes, “Look how bad this is.  The house is right by the exit.  All that traffic and you want how much for the pollution and noise?”

Same property, different perspective.  And that’s something to keep in mind when you are working – and that’s the correct word because it is work – on your job search.  Your perspective may be diametrically opposed to that of the employer.  Keep that in mind.

An excellent book on the subject is J.G. Woodward’s Cut the Fluff for Job Seekers – Just Tell Me What I Don’t Already Know. Hopefully, as a reader of this blog you already know a lot, but let’s review some of the basics:

Obviously, you are going to be researching any employer who invites you in for an interview.  So will all the other candidates, so you have to go one more step.  Find out who the actual people will be with whom you will be meeting and research them.  But here’s the point some people forget, they’ll also be researching you.  They’ll look on LinkedIn, so make certain there are no discrepancies between your LinkedIn profile and your resume.  As for Facebook and Twitter, remove anything foolish.  Take down the photos of you acting like an idiot with your college friends.  Get rid of the Tweets announcing to the local burglars that you are out of the house at your favorite restaurant across town so now would be a good time to drop by and steal the plasma screen.  Sending a Tweet about such personal activities means that you think that people actually care which, in turn, makes it look like you are pompous.  But most importantly, get ready for the background check.  If you have a criminal record, or driving record, have explanations ready.  No excuses.  Just the truth and what you learned from the experience.  You can’t change your past, but you can change your future.  This is especially true when it comes to your credit score.  Go to, pay the $19.95 and fix what’s wrong.  Worse case scenario, tell the employer – WHEN IT COMES UP – that you are aware of the situation, how it happened, and what you are doing to correct it.  In fact, this is the key:  When the employer tells you that there will be a background check, tell them what they are going to find.  Employers like honesty!  And, as Woodward mentions, “People believe what we tell them about ourselves.”

Some people feel that resumes are a place for modesty.  WRONG!  Make certain to list, in addition to your formal education, any continuing education classes/courses you have taken, and all licenses, certifications and credentials that you have obtained.  I have actually had candidates tell me that they chose not to list everything because they did not want their resume to be more than two pages long!

It is amazing how many people come to my office to interview for a job and act like they are going shopping.  No enthusiasm!  It’s just another thing they have to do.  Bad idea.  Psych yourself for the interview.  Be enthusiastic.  As Woodward says, “Act like you want the job.”  You are marketing yourself.  You’re your product.  What’s not to love?  You are offering an employer the best investment he or she will ever make.  YOU!

During the interview, follow God’s lead.  He gave you two ears and one mouth.  Listen twice as much as you speak.  And when you speak, be concise.  Tell the truth but don’t give history lessons.  If you are asked, and you will be, why you want to leave your job, don’t say, “ABC was founded in 1968.  We produce 450 products and have revenue of $25 million.  I love our 200 employees but…”  Who cares?  That wasn’t the question.  Just get to the “but” without the “but”.  “There’s no room for growth.  I’ve been there 5 years.  It’s time for a change.”  Sweet and simple also wins.  And don’t worry that one of your references may “out you” for some crime against humanity that you think you committed.  For the most part, references – people who have already agreed to speak on your behalf – are going to be kind.  And if an HR director is contacted, they usually don’t say anything negative because they don’t want to be sued.  Usually, they just confirm titles, dates of employment and salary range.

Additionally, always be positive.  Even when the question is a negative – What are your weaknesses?  Why did you leave XYZ after only a few months? – end the answer on a positive.  The safest positive is what you learned from the experience and how it makes you a better employee.

One easy question is, “Do you have any questions?”  The answer is always, “Yes.”  That is why you do the research.  Be certain not to simply ask about things you read on the company’s website.  Everyone does that.  Dig deeper and ask questions about things you discovered on your own.  Show the employer that you know what due diligence means!

My favorite interview question is, “Why should I hire you?”  This is your time to shine.  Don’t be modest.  Have five or six accomplishments that you can brag about.  It’s also a great way to frame a discussion around what the employer may be concerned about but can’t ask you about.  He wants to know if you have small children.  So you can now say, “I am a great organizer.  I have never missed a day’s work because of a personal issue.  I separate my personal life from my professional.”  Just what an employer loves to hear!

Finally, I do not recommend providing references until an initial face-to-face meeting with an employer.  If there is no mutual interest, there is no reason to give a stranger the names and contact information of your contacts – or to have them contacted.  After a while, you will not look so good.  A reference will start to think, Why is he getting so many interviews but no offers?  Moreover, it is imperative that you speak with a reference before they are contacted.  Prepare them.  Tell them a bit about the employer and the position for which you are being considered.  When asked, simply hand a list of three professional references (preferably former supervisors) and ask the employer not to call them until the following day so that you will have time to speak with them.  It’s a reasonable request.

Good luck with you job search!