Author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions.
With the dramatic improvement in the job market, now is the time for all job seekers to get serious about finding a job. Landing an interview is the first step. But then you'll need to get mentally prepared for the 45 most harrowing minutes of your life. That's the average length of a job interview.
Job interviews are nerve-wracking for the simple reason that interviewers like to ask questions that knock people off balance. Doing so gives them the opportunity to see if the candidate can think on her feet, come up with dazzlingly brilliant answers instantly, and keep her cool.
Here are 7 types of questions that can trip you up--and how to answer them so you'll leave the interview standing tall.
1. Questions that imply you're too inexperienced or rusty. "I see you've been out of the workforce. How can you compete with people who have lots of experience in our industry?" Don't get your toe caught in holes in your resume. Quick, talk about your social media smarts. You Tweet, you're on Facebook, and you can navigate LinkedIn with your eyes closed. Being fluent in social technology could trump your industry inexperience. Don't forget to show, not tell, what a quick study you are in any given field. Give examples.
2. Give-us-one-good-reason-not-to-hire-you questions. "What's your biggest weakness that's really a weakness, and not a secret strength?" Be honest by giving a real weakness, but demonstrate how you turned it into a successful strategy that led to a successful outcome. You might say that you're extremely impatient, and that you expect coworkers to be competent, well-prepared, and accountable. Explain how your impatience led you to ask management for team assignments so the work could be broken down into manageable pieces and assigned to individuals according to their strengths.
3. Ethical questions with a twist or secret agenda. "How would you handle working with someone who took credit for your great ideas?" Show the interviewer how well you would manage an awkward situation. Say that, first, you'd credit the idea thief publicly for ideas that were genuinely his, hoping he would return the favor. If that failed, you'd try to work out an arrangement where you'd present ideas that were your own to your bosses. And if that didn't work, you would try to openly discuss the issue with him, stressing that teamwork matters and positioning both of you as "strong-ideas people" to your superiors would benefit everyone. Show that you're a problem solver.
4. Pop quiz questions designed to fluster you. "What is the best-managed company in America?" There is no right answer. The best answer is the one you defend thoroughly. If you mention a company, say, Apple, then talk about all the products they've introduced and how these have revolutionized consumer behavior around the world. Talk about how they survived the death of an iconic founder and have bounced back. Mention some details about their company culture, and how that has been reflected in the company's public brand in a very positive way.
5. Questions that send you to the confessional. "What is the most courageous action you've ever taken at work?" These types of questions are designed to probe your values. You might say something along the following lines. You used to have a partner who'd cut out every night to be with his family, and a boss who preferred that everyone stay till 8. The boss would berate your partner behind his back. But you came to feel that this wasn't a good position to be put in, and told the boss you felt he should talk directly with your partner. You also told your partner to meet with the boss. Together, they worked it out, even though you took a chance by giving moral direction to your boss.
6. Questions that strip off your work mask. "What are some of your pet peeves?" Employers want to know more about your personality, so give them something that shines a light on you in a good way. You might say, "False deadlines." Explain that you feel it's unfair to ask someone to jump through hoops to finish a project only to have it languish on a higher-up's desk. Then say you'd rather earn others' respect and trust by delivering tasks on deadline--a real deadline.
7. Questions from another galaxy far, far away. "If you were to give a speech to a group of executives, what topic would you select, and why?" You might be thinking, "Whaaa? What does this have to do with the price of beans?" But smile and tell them something you want them to hear. You might want to deliver a motivational speech about overcoming obstacles. Then talk about a major obstacle that stood in your way and how it offered you a fantastic learning and growing opportunity.
* * * * * Vicky Oliver is a Manhattan-based job interview consultant, and the bestselling author of five career development books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. She's been featured and interviewed widely in the business media, including Fox News, Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Forbes, Fortune, CareerBuilder, and many others.