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Responding to Tough Interview Questions


It’s the most dreaded part of the interview—and for good reason: Dealing with questions you don’t expect from potential managers and their HR colleagues. Even if you don’t know what those questions will be, there are steps you can take to anticipate and deal with tough questions, says Vicki Oliver, a job interview consultant based in Manhattan and the author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks, 2005).

She points to some common interviewing themes with suggestions on how to best anticipate and prepare.

The resume gap. Whether a gap was voluntary or not, job seekers must be prepared to deal with any gaps in their employment history because the issue is guaranteed to be raised, Oliver says. A good approach to take here, she says, is to be prepared to talk about what you’ve been doing to fill your time—learning new skills, volunteering, etc.

The unfortunate parting. It’s preferable to be asked to respond to a situation where you have been part of a layoff than one where you have been personally terminated, Oliver admits. There is strength in numbers. But even discussing a personal termination can be handled effectively by:

  • Not bad-mouthing, criticizing or demeaning the company or supervisor.
  • Identifying key lessons learned from the experience.

“Don’t sugar coat too much,” warns Oliver, who points out that personal networks can be quite effective at helping to determine the reasons behind a termination. “You just want to put the best face on things. Don’t go into a long, detailed explanation. Focus on what you learned from the experience and the skills you can carry forward with you.” That sends a positive message, she says.

Provocative questions. “If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be and why?” “How high is the Empire State Building?”

While Google recently stated that its use of “tricky interview questions” was “a complete waste of time,” other companies may still be using these questions and job seekers need to be prepared.

It’s not so much that interviewers are looking for the “right” answer when they ask these types of questions, Oliver says. It’s that they’re interested in evaluating how the interviewee considers and responds. In her book, she says, she talks about questions such as “What’s the best-managed company in America?” The issue isn’t whether you can respond to that question, but how you respond. So, for instance, an appropriate response might be: “Well, I don’t know that I could identify the best-managed company, but I personally recently bought stock in XYZ company because…” or “I’ve personally always admired XYZ company because...” Bring the question around to a topic you can talk about with authority, she advises.

The closer. “Do you have any questions for us?” You can guarantee that you will be asked this question. Despite that certainty, though, too many applicants fail to prepare. Two key points:

  • Be prepared to ask some questions.
  • They should not be questions you could have found the answers to on your own.

Oliver suggests doing some background research related to the person who will be interviewing you and using that information to generate potential questions. For instance, you might find that the interviewer recently wrote an article on a particular topic. You could say: “I saw your article on XYZ. It made me wonder what you think about...” That approach, Oliver says, “is flattering and deep at the same time.”

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