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Don’t Fall for ’Em: Ten Tricky Job Interview Questions To Watch Out For


by Joyce Lain Kennedy, author of Job Interviews For Dummies®

With an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, there are a lot of job seekers out there, and they all come from very different walks of life. There are experienced workers who’ve just been laid off from the job they’ve had for 25 years. There are college grads seeking their first “real” job. There are still-employed workers seeking greener pastures. There are white collar workers and blue collar workers. There are folks seeking professional and managerial positions and those seeking less traditional opportunities.

But despite all these differences and despite the drastic changes the job market has undergone over the past few years, the way these potential employees will get hired hasn’t changed much at all. It still starts with the dreaded job interview.

Job interviews are still those crucial meetings that seal the deal on who gets hired and who gets left on the outside looking in. And with any good job interview come questions that always seem to trip us up.

So, you ask, what’s the best job interview response to all questions?

It’s the one that adds up to ‘Hire me!’. But recruiters report that high numbers of job seekers blab negative information without realizing they’re making a farewell address to a job opportunity. Hang in there! With the proper preparation, you can begin to give slam-dunk answers to any interview question.

Following are ten primetime tricky probes and advice on how you should answer them to land your dream job:

Why have you been out of work so long? How many others were laid off? Why you?

This quizzing could cause you to reveal that there’s something wrong with you that other employers have already discovered. The interviewer is fishing to determine whether there was a layoff of one and you were it. Or whether your former manager used the theme of recession and budget cuts to dump groups of second-string employees.

Any direct answer to why you were included in a reduction in force is risky because anger toward your former managers could pop up, raising doubt about your self-control.

A better idea: Punt. Shake your head and say you don’t know the reason, because you were an excellent employee who gave more than a day’s work for a day’s pay.

If employed, how do you manage time for interviews?

The real question is whether you are lying to and short-changing your current employer while looking for other work. Clearly state that you’re taking personal time, and that’s why you interview only for job openings for which you’re a terrific match. If further interviews are suggested, mention that your search is confidential and ask if it would be possible to meet again on a Saturday morning.

How did you prepare for this interview?

Translation: Is this job important enough for you to research it, or are you going through the motions without preparation, making it up as you go?

The best answer? You very much want this job, and of course you researched it starting with the company website.

Do you know anyone who works for us?

The friend question is a two-way street. Nothing beats having a friend deliver your résumé to a hiring manager, but that transaction presumes the friend is well thought of in the company. If not — ouch!

Remember the birds-of-a-feather rule: Mention a friend inside the company only if you’re certain of your friend’s positive standing.

Where would you really like to work? Doing what?

The real agenda for this question is assurance that you aren’t applying to every job opening in sight.

Caveat: Never, ever mention another company’s name or another job. A short ‘Hire me!’ answer is a version of: ‘This is the place where I want to work, and this job is what I want to do. I have what you need, and you have what I want. I can’t wait to get to work here.’

What bugs you about coworkers or bosses?

Develop a poor memory for past irritations. Reflect for a few moments, shake your head, and say you can’t come up with anything that irritates you. Continue for a couple of sentences elaborating on how you seem to get along with virtually everyone.

Mention that you’ve been lucky to have good bosses who are knowledgeable and fair, with a sense of humor and high standards. Past coworkers were able, supportive, and friendly. Smile your most sincere smile. Don’t be lured into elaborating further.

Can you describe how you solved a work/school problem?

This forthright question is tricky only in the sense that most job seekers can’t come up with an example on the spot that favorably reflects on their ability to think critically and develop solutions.

The answer is obvious. Anticipate a question about how your mind works and have a canned answer ready. A new graduate might speak of time management to budget more time for study; an experienced worker might speak of time management to clear an opportunity for special task force assignments.

Can you describe a work/school instance in which you messed up?

The question within a question is whether you learn from your mistakes or keep repeating the same errors. A kindred concern is whether you are too self-important to consider any action of yours to be a mistake.

Speaking of mistakes, here’s a chance to avoid making one during your job interview. Never deliver a litany of your personal bad points. Instead, briefly mention a single small, well-intentioned goof and follow up with an important lesson learned from the experience.

How does this position compare with others you’re applying for? Are you under consideration by other employers now?

The intent of these questions is to gather intel on the competitive job market or get a handle on what it will take to bring you on board.

You can choose a generic strategy and say you don’t interview and tell, that you respect the privacy of any organization where you interview, including this one. Emphasize that this company is where you hope to find a future and ask, ‘Have I found my destination here?’

If you won the lottery, would you still work?

This question goes to your motivation, work ethic, and enthusiasm for work. The ‘Hire me!’ answer is this – while you’d be thrilled to win the lottery, you’d still seek out fulfilling work because working, meeting challenges, and scoring accomplishments are what make most people happy, including you. Say it with a straight face.

A Little Extra Help: What to Say When You’re Uncertain.

If a hardball question comes at you out of left field, try not to panic. Take a deep breath, look the interviewer in the eyes, and comment that it’s a good question you’d like to mull over and come back to. The interviewer may forget to ask again.

But if the question does resurface and your brain goes on holiday, say that you don’t know the answer and that, being a careful worker, you prefer not to guess. If you’ve otherwise done a good job of answering questions and confidently explained why you’re a great match for the position, the interviewer probably won’t consider your lack of specifics on a single topic to be a deal breaker.

As with most things, in the world of job interviews, practice makes perfect. Familiarize yourself with these tough questions. Ask a friend to conduct a mock interview where you answer only tricky questions. Once you’ve had enough practice, the real deal will be a breeze.


Joyce Lain Kennedy is a nationally syndicated careers columnist. CAREERS NOW appears twice weekly in newspapers and on websites across the United States. She is the author of seven career books including Resumes For Dummies® and Cover Letters For Dummies®.