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Mastering Tricky Job Interviews

How to answer those tricky interview questions

There are a few types of trick questions you should know how to handle. Some are asked quite innocently, and others are asked with a definite agenda in mind. One not-so-innocent question concerns proprietary information you may have learned in your most recent job.

If asked something along these lines, you can always say something such as, “Though I have a solid working knowledge of all areas I was involved with, I certainly wouldn’t want to put you, this company, or me in hot water over a proprietary issue.” This displays your sense of business ethics and alerts the interviewer that pursuing this line of questioning puts everyone at risk.

Yin or Yang

Another trick question is the forced choice question: one that is asked in such a way that you can choose between only two answers. A couple of examples are: “Are you more of a small-company or large-company person?” and, “Are you more comfortable as a leader or as a follower?”

The best way to handle this type of question is to be aware of the requirements of the job for which you are interviewing and tilt your answer in that direction. It never hurts to expand your answer a little and mention that you also see value in the option you didn’t choose. You might say something such as, “Actually, I see myself as more of a leader because I like to take responsibility for making things happen. But the reality is that every boss has a boss all the way up to the president, who answers to the shareholders, so I know it pays to be a good team player as well as a team leader.”

Or the reverse, “Frankly, at this stage of my career the reality is that I’m more of an individual contributor, and I realize that. But I’ve learned a lot from working for a couple of strong leaders and that’s where I’m hoping my career will go.”

What If?

Hypothetical questions are easy to ask and hard to answer. These are the “What would you do if…?” questions. You hear reporters ask political candidates a lot of them.

They make the interviewer seem insightful and give candidates plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. They’re entertaining to watch on TV, but not especially good news for the job hunter.

The only easy hypothetical questions are ones about ethics. (It goes without saying that you always take the high road on questions about ethics.) The big problem with hypotheticals is that there are usually not enough facts or background given to help you put a really cogent answer together. Thus, you’re sort of taking a shot in the dark.

The savvy job interviewee can put this to work in her favor by spinning out a couple of brief, but (and this is important) different answers to a hypothetical question, and then add, “Of course, these are only a couple of ideas—there are multiple ways to go.

Given all the variables in this situation that I don’t know about, there are probably some other, perhaps better, options. I guess that’s where I’d really start—getting all the data first, before deciding on a course of action.” Another reason to hedge your response to a hypothetical question is that it might concern an internal issue that your prospective employer is facing at that very moment.

If you come down on the wrong side of it, you could be doing yourself some damage.

From Way Out in Left Field

We’ve all heard stories about interviewers who ask inane questions. Although the category is endless, the following are a few actual interview questions job hunters have shared with me. Enjoy.

“If you could be a tree (or animal), what type would you be?”

“Do you believe in UFOs?”

“What weighs more—a ton of iron or a ton of feathers?”

“Do you read your horoscope?”

No matter how stupid a question seems, I heartily suggest that you stifle your urge to break out laughing at your interviewer. (Save that for happy hour with your pals.)

Your interviewer may have asked the question as an icebreaker. He may have asked the question because somebody asked it of him years ago and he thought it was cool. He may have asked it out of nervousness. He may have asked it because he couldn’t think of anything else to ask. Or he may have asked it to see how you deal with inane situations. Who knows?

My suggestion is to tread carefully, say nothing provocative, and play it safe with a generic answer. Even if you genuinely believe in little green men or have always secretly wanted to be a badger, I’d keep these thoughts to yourself. If you get hired, they’ll find out soon enough just how weird you really are. No sense rushing things.

Adapted from Don’t Wear Flip-Flops to Your Interview: And Other Obvious Tips That You Should Be Following to Get the Job You Want (Career Press, 2015) by Dr. Paul Powers.

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