Tuesday, 21 August 2012

"What's Your Problem" Series #6 - Tricky Interview Questions

Most interviews you attend will throw up at least one tricky question, that one question that you hope they won’t ask, or one where you just can’t think of a good example to give as evidence of a competency.

Your first priority in a situation like this is to make sure you don’t panic.  Panicking is a sure way to make your mind go blank!  To avoid this there are things you can do as part of your preparation before the interview, as well as coping mechanisms during the meeting itself.

Before you go to your interview make sure you’ve thought honestly about your CV/application form in comparison to their job description & person specification.  Consider if there are any gaps in your work history, whether there is more than one job where you only worked there a short time, or if there are any areas called for on the job description where you have only weak evidence. 

These sorts of situations are predictable areas for the interviewer to probe, with questions that could be tricky to answer if you haven’t through it through beforehand.  Ignoring them in the hope that the interviewer won’t spot them, or won’t bother querying them, is a sure route to disaster.

Honesty is the best policy in answering questions about any anomalies in your past work history.  Having said that, blurting out “I had to move jobs because I hated my last three managers, they were awful and had no idea how to manage people” isn’t a great idea.  So, how do you explain difficult situations from past employment?

There are a range of situations from past jobs that need careful handling in interviews –some of these are listed below, with suggestions of ways to talk about them in interviews.  These ideas are not meant to be proscriptive, as each person’s situation will be different from these generic scenarios, but hopefully offer some ideas that can be adapted to suit

Situation Suggestion
Gap between jobs Depends upon the reason for the gap and its length. Short gaps while job hunting (less than 6 months) should be explained simply as time spent searching for the right job. For longer gaps it is good to show how you kept active, involved in the profession and up to date with current issues and skills during your time out of work (eg activities as a member of information associations & groups, involvement in Twitter or LinkedIn discussions, professional reading, writing a blog, etc.

For gaps due to other life events (moving house, caring for a relative, studying) it is fine to give the honest reason for the career break, and again to demonstrate how you have kept up to date.
Many short-duration jobs If these jobs were a series of fixed term contracts and temporary roles, the interviewer will be seeking reassurance that you are now committed to a permanent post and will stay for longer than a year or two (ie, that you will repay their investment in you in terms of induction and training).

One idea is to describe them as something you did in order to gain a range of new experiences and learn new skills, which you now want to put to good use in a long term position. If these jobs were permanent posts, but you moved between jobs once a year or more often, then the interviewer will be concerned about possible clashes of personality with peers or managers, or whether you may have been sacked from one or more of those jobs.

If you genuinely left jobs because you disagreed with the company culture, attitude of colleagues or management style, then it is fine to say so as long as it’s done in a positive way. You also need to acknowledge that any disagreement was a two-way thing, and show you recognise that your own actions or attitude may have contributed to the situation(s). Showing self awareness, reflection and learning from past situations is a key skill interviewers are looking for.
A job where you were sacked for misconduct or poor performance Answers to questions about leaving past jobs, where this was the case, will depend upon the exact reason(s) and how relevant that situation was to those likely to arise in the job being applied for.

For example, if the reason was poor performance in customer service, while the current job application is for a back room library services role, then simply stating the reason plus saying that you have now shifted your career goals to less customer facing roles, could be the best approach. Alternatively you could explain how you’ve worked to improve on the skill at issue in the time since (perhaps you’ve had a retail job in the meantime, or volunteered to help at a conference or membership group seminar?).
A criteria in the job description or person specification where you have weak or no evidence The first thing to remember is that they have called you to interview despite there being little or no evidence that you meet this criteria on your CV/application form or cover letter. This means it isn’t an immediate deal breaker, and they are open to hearing how you are addressing (or planning to address) any deficiency. The interview is your opportunity to discuss this with them.

When they ask a question ‘give an example of a time when you xxx (the situation you haven’t faced at work’, first of all give an example a similar or comparable situation, and then use this as your chance to show what you’re doing to get more of this skill, experience or knowledge.

For example, if they want budgeting experience and you haven’t been in charge of a budget, you could give as your example a time when you contributed figures or results to your manager and discussed with them how they’d impact the budget, and go on to say that you’ve signed up for (or completed) a budget management course to extend your knowledge, and you’re now keen to put that into practice.


  1. I would just erase everything you mentioned in the first two boxes and put Economic Recession in big capital letters why ask when you know the answer as to why so many young professionals are out of work for such lengthy periods and have short stints here and there.

  2. Hi there
    Thank you for your comment. Although you may say 'why ask', about why job seekers may have long gaps in employment and / or a series of short contracts or temporary work, I was addressing questions that employers do actually ask at interview.

    We may think the answer is 'obvious' and can be put down 100% to the economic situation, but employers (and HR staff in particular) see long gaps and period of temp work on CVs even in timees of economic boom, and so they tend to probe the reasons for it at interview.

    It remains true that, whether a gap in employment was due to redundancy resulting from the recession, or for other reasons, what an employer is looking for is evidence that you used the time productively, rather than sitting at home watching day time TV for months.