Smart HR managers have a whole arsenal of simple, but smart questions that they can use to estimate what kind of meat they have up their sleeve.
Some questions seem childishly simple, but are meant to reveal information that you wish you had kept hidden. And that is exactly what your potential new employer is all about. In other words, they are trick questions.
“Many questions are designed to reveal weaknesses,” said Tina Nicolai, career coach and founder of Resume Writers’ Ink.
It’s not just about exposing your weaknesses, though, according to Lynn Taylor, occupational health expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. This type of question cuts through the usual mush of the traditional job interview and gets straight to “the real you”.
Here are 21 examples of such questions and advice on how to answer them.
Can you tell us something about yourself?
Why this question? This gives the questioner a picture of how the candidate sees himself in a certain position. “The employer wants to hear that the candidate has done his or her homework and at the same time listens to how confident the candidate comes across,” says Nicolai. “Employers also look for strong behavioral competencies that match the position. If the opening answer is weak, it can have consequences for the rest of the interview.”
Why is it tricky? It’s tempting now to start talking about your private life. DO NOT! Even experienced candidates do not recognize the question as a trick question and are inclined to tell something about their children and marriage.
What answer do they want to hear? A focused, razor-sharp answer why you are valuable to the organization or department. Nicolai: “The employer wants to know something about your performance. In bite-sized chunks of three to four points. Make sure what they hear matters and stay alert.”
For example, try the following: “I’m known for my ability to resuscitate dysfunctional teams, thanks to my analytical and problem-solving skills.” This response tells the employer three things: the candidate is analytical, problem-solving, and has leadership. It sets the tone for the rest of the conversation and invites the employer to ask more detailed questions.
Can you describe yourself in one word?
Why this question? This question relates to different aspects of you as a candidate: your personality, self-confidence and whether your work style suits the position.
Why is it tricky? This question can be a challenge. You don’t know what personality your employer is looking for.People have multiple faces, so describing yourself briefly seems almost impossible.
What answer would they like to hear? Proceed with caution, Taylor warns. “If you know you’re reliable and committed, but also that your friends love your humor, go for the conservative option.”
Are you applying in accounting? Do not describe yourself as ‘creative’. Just like you don’t say “punctual” when you’re looking for a job as an art director.
“Most employers are looking for team players who can take a beating, be honest and reliable. But it’s not smart to spoon up qualities that you think the employer wants to hear,” Taylor says. “This is the opportunity to show why your qualities are a good fit for the job.”
How do you feel about this position compared to the other positions you’re applying for now?
Why this question? They actually want to know if you have any other applications pending. The employer wants to know how actively you are looking for another job, how you speak about other companies or positions and how honest you are.
Why is it tricky? If you say this is the only job you’re applying for, all the signals go red. No one applies for just one vacancy. So you lie. If you speak openly about other positions or companies, don’t get too enthusiastic. The employer sees you as hard to hold on to and won’t even hire you. Talking too negatively about other jobs or companies, on the other hand, is also not good.
What answer do they want to hear? It is more appropriate to say that you are in contact with several companies, but that you have not yet decided on the best step for your career. “This is more positive and protects the other companies. There’s no need to put others down,” Taylor said.
Can you name three strengths and weaknesses of yourself?
Why this question? The employer looks for alarm bells, red flags, and other deal breakers, such as the inability to collaborate or meet deadlines.
“Each job has its own unique characteristics, so your answers should fit this particular position. In addition, your weaknesses must have a silver lining,” Taylor said. “You will at least have to be able to demonstrate that you have done something about your weaknesses.”
Why is it tricky? You can cut yourself really badly. Exposing your weaknesses is harmful if you haven’t turned them into something positive. And your strengths may have nothing to do with the position you’re applying for. It is best to prepare well for this question, otherwise you will walk into the minefield.”
What answer would they like to hear? Don’t say your weakness is “working too hard”.But also that your weaknesses do not negatively affect your performance.
Why do you want to work here at all?
Why this question? To find out what drives you, how well you’ve researched the company and how much you want the job.
Why is it tricky? “Obviously you want to work for the company for a variety of reasons,” Taylor said. “However, it is the weighing of those reasons that should show what is important to you. And above all, stay positive: reasons such as ‘I earn too little’, ‘My current boss is a dictator’ or ‘I don’t have to travel as long for this job’ you don’t make friends.”
What answer do they want to hear? Employers want to see that you’ve made the effort to learn about the company and the industry.
They also want to make sure you want this job – and not apply for everything available. That you are a go-getter, that you have a lot of energy, that you can make a valuable contribution, that you understand their mission and goals and that you want to be part of them.
What’s wrong with your current job?
Why this question? The employer looks for negative patterns, especially if you have had many short-term jobs. Can you work together? Or do you get bored easily?
Why is it tricky? If you don’t answer this diplomatically enough, it will give rise to follow-up questions that could destroy your chances of getting the job.
What answer do they want to hear? They hope you look for a more challenging position that better suits your ambitions and skills. Also say that you are triggered by the ‘growth opportunities’ in the company. Employers love that.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Why this question? Interviewers want to know what you are passionate about, what you think you excel at and if you are proud of your work.
“How you describe your favorite project is just as important as the project itself,” says Taylor. “If you can talk about your previous work with pride and conviction, you can also give good presentations to your new employer.”
Why is it tricky? Employers might think you’re mostly focused on this kind of work, they might get a rather one-sided view of you. Place the project in a broader context that makes clear what your interests and skills are.
What answer do they want to hear? They want to see that you are articulate and that you can enthuse people. And that you have positive energy. Pitfall: over-enthusiasm leads to long stories. Keep it short and to the point.
Have you ever considered becoming an entrepreneur?
Why this question? The employer tests you.This question is tricky, because you’ll be tempted to talk about a one-time flare of becoming your own boss with just a little too much enthusiasm. The employer may get the idea that you still long for entrepreneurship and that you will soon run away.
What answer do they want to hear? It’s okay to tell your potential future manager that you’ve ever thought about entrepreneurship or that you’ve ever been an entrepreneur. Also tell them that on closer inspection it is not for you. That’s better than saying, “No, I never considered that.”
This question is also a great opportunity to explain why working for a company and in a team is satisfying for you. For example, you can fully focus on your work, without having to deal with the administrative hassle that comes with entrepreneurship. Reassure your conversation partner(s) by explaining why their company appeals to you so much.
Have you ever brought a ballpoint pen from work?
Why this question? James Reed, author of Why You?: 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again and president of British job site Reed, writes in his book that employers aren’t afraid of you stealing the warehouse, they want a picture shapes your degree of integrity.
Why is it tricky? Everyone has brought a pen with them at some point. By saying you don’t, you’re portraying yourself as a liar. Saying that you take office supplies on the assembly line and don’t mind that is not an advertisement either.
Saying you took a pen and put it back the next day isn’t smart either, according to Reed. The employer knows that you are probably lying and will ask further questions.
What answer do they want to hear? Reed suggests a more realistic answer: “I’d be lying if I said I’d never lost my mind with a pen, which I usually find on my desk the next day—unless I leave it at home. But I don’t have a separate room full of staplers and paperclips if that’s what you mean.”
What type of boss or colleague did you have the least and the most success with?
Why this question? Interviewers want to know if you are prone to conflict with others. And when you are at your best.
Why is it tricky? You run the risk that the employer thinks you are dealing with a difficult person because of all your stories about unsuccessful interactions with others. Another risk: You inadvertently say you can’t work with your new employer.“It’s always good to start with the positives and downplay the negatives. You don’t want to hide anything, but this is not the time to put all your bad qualities on the table. See this as a good opportunity to speak in general about other people’s traits that you admire, as well as to show that you are flexible enough to work with a wide variety of personalities.”
If you could choose, which company would you like to work for?
Why this question? Employers want to know how much you want to work with them – and not with the competition. They also gauge how loyal you are, says Taylor. “That’s how they pick out the job hopper for whom the grass is always greener on the other side. Stay focused on this job and not on the theoretical dream job your employer is asking about.”
Why is it tricky? It’s easy to be tempted into meaningless blah blah blah about some well-known top companies, while sowing doubts about your real intentions.
What answer do they want to hear? “Your conversation partner wants to know that his company is your first choice. A good answer would be: “I’ve taken a close look at a number of companies, and yours seems to best fit my aspirations and resume. I’m excited that your company is doing XYZ in the industry and I’d love to contribute to that.”
What is your definition of success?
Why this question? Employers want to know what drives you. Are you going for the pay slip? The challenge? Learning new skills? Or do you approach success in a more individualistic and personal way?
Why is it tricky? Welcome to the minefield. Success is a highly subjective concept and even a perfectly substantiated answer can be interpreted differently than intended. The line is thin between being ambitious and wanting to take over because you really want to take steps and make a difference.
What answer do they want to hear? If questions are vaguely formulated and leave a lot of room for interpretation, it is important to keep your answers as unambiguous as possible. “Try to define success in terms that are relevant to the employer and the position, based on the vacancy and what you learned from the interview. A good answer? Applying my branding experience to the strategic marketing goals your company has formulated and building on your existing success.”
Keep it specific, keep it focused on the track.
What do you regret?
Why this question? An innocent question at first glance. At second glance, a lot less.Don’t get infected with it, Reed writes.
What answer do they want to hear? According to Reed, you should throw the questioner a small snippet, but never use the word ‘regret’. Instead, focus on something positive and say you wish you could have gotten more out of it. Then you shut up.
Why were you fired?
Why this question? “Employers want to know how you perform under pressure and how you deal with less pleasant things such as losing your job,” says Nicolai. “They want to hear that you are positive and that you are willing to get things done quickly and with the right attitude. They also want to hear confidence, not anger or defeat.”
Why is it tricky? You may be bitter about your dismissal, but never, ever speak ill of your previous employer. Because that’s what you’re going to do about your current one.
What answer do they want to hear? “Give a sober response that focuses on your previous employer’s business decision that prompted your resignation,” Nicolai said. “Don’t blame anyone, stick to the facts as you know them.”
And what if you win 5 million euros tomorrow?
Why this question? Employers want to know if you would still work if you didn’t need the money. Your answer says a lot about your motivation and your work ethic. The employer also wants to know whether you would invest the money or chase it through. Read: whether you are mature and responsible or not.
Why is it tricky? “Of course, such questions have nothing to do with the position,” Taylor says. “You may even wonder what its relevance is. It doesn’t matter whether it is there or not. Before answering the question, take a moment to rest and organize your thoughts.”
What answer do they want to hear? They want to hear that you keep working because you are enthusiastic about your work. And that you are able to make wise financial decisions. Do you treat your own money lightly? Be sure to do the same with theirs.
Have you ever been asked by your boss or co-workers to do unethical things?
Why this question? Your future employer wants to know how your ethical compass is set. Have you ever been morally challenged? “They also look at how discreet you are,” explains Taylor. “What they want to know is: were you diplomatic? Did you become a whistleblower? Did it come back like a boomerang? What thought processes did you follow?”
Why is it tricky? Managers want to know how to handle sensitive matters. At the same time, they want to filter out the bad-speakers. After all, blackmailing your former employer isn’t chic, no matter what he did.You have nothing to gain from salient revelations.”
This might work: “A colleague once tried to get me involved in a project that I considered unethical. Fortunately, the problem resolved itself. I try to be as open and honest as possible when I have questions about a project that could potentially harm the company.”
Why wouldn’t someone want to work with you?
Why this question? “Employers want to know to what extent personal traits form an obstacle to functioning adequately in the new position. The negative tone of the question is meant to upset even the most adept professionals,” Taylor said.
Why is it tricky? You are simply shooting yourself in the foot with this question. If you say you can’t think of a reason someone wouldn’t want to work with you, you’re insulting the interviewer by trivializing the question. You also have to be able to broach the issue without immediately getting defensive. HR managers don’t look for self-pity people.
What answer do they want to hear? What you don’t want to say is: “I’m not always the easiest, especially with deadlines I often get out of hand.” You should always approach it positively. Take this one: “Luckily, in all my previous positions, I’ve had fantastic relationships with co-workers, subordinates, and supervisors. The only times the relationships were a bit less – and luckily it was short-lived – were the times when I had to push my team to perform better. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions that are in the best interest of the company.”
Why were you out of work for so long?
Why this question? “Managers are by definition skeptical about this,” says Taylor. “Often you are guilty until proven otherwise and all possible bodies have been removed. This question may seem intimidating due to its insinuating nature.”
After all, it implies that you are not motivated enough to get a job; that you have no focus; that your skills are not up to date; that there are still issues with previous employers and so on.
Why is it tricky? The way of formulating calls on your resilience.This is about how active and willing you are to contribute to the company of your new employer.
It is of course very nice if your CV has no gaps.
Tell about the time you disagreed with company policy.
Why this question? To get a sense of your decision-making skills, the ease with which you work with others, and more importantly, whether the candidate will open his mouth when he or she sees an opportunity for the company that is not yet taken.
Why is it tricky? “Saying that you never disagree with the company is of course implausible,” says Nicolai. “It also means that you basically do everything without thinking about the possible consequences.” While companies want employees and leaders who abide by the rules, they also want people who think for themselves, challenge potentially outdated protocols, and have the courage to push back when necessary.
What answer do they want to hear? Describe a situation where this was the case and where you went against company policy. “Focus on why your idea was good for the company. Tell about the research you did before that, the facts you presented, and the results of your efforts to review policy,” Taylor said.
How did you make time for this conversation? What did you say to your boss?
Why this question? Employers want you to have your priorities in order: current job first, then applications. “They know that the habits you’ve developed say a lot about your integrity and how you’ll behave at their company if you ever look for another job,” Taylor says. “They also want to know how to handle complicated situations where you can’t be completely honest with your boss. Ideally, the interview will take place during a break, making it on your own time. In that case, it is important to emphasize that too.”
Why is it tricky? The underlying question is: “What is it like looking for a job behind your boss’s back?” For most people who are looking for a job while they have other work, it doesn’t feel good to lie about what they are doing. So they stay vague and treat it like any other personal matter.
What answer do they want to hear? Emphasize that your job always comes first and that you schedule interviews before or after work, during your lunch break, on the weekend (if possible), or during a morning or afternoon off.
If you are asked very directly: “Where does your boss think you are now?”, leave it somewhat in the middle.He doesn’t ask for details. He is especially interested in my results.”
Can you describe a difficult situation that you managed to turn around in a positive way?
Why this question? This gives employers a lot of information in one fell swoop, Taylor explains. “They want to know not only how you deal with stressful situations, but also how you approach problems, what your definition of ‘difficult’ is and what actions you take when faced with adversity.”
Why is it tricky? The question invites you to brag about a successful performance at a difficult time. Avoid that pitfall. “It’s about how you generally solve problems when you’re under pressure,” Taylor says. “Do you show stress when describing the event? Were you creative, resourceful and determined in solving the problem? Have you taken logical steps?” Choose your examples carefully, because for employers this is a gauge of what you consider ‘difficult’.
What answer do they want to hear? The questioner wants to see that you’re a good problem solver, Taylor says. “Someone who can think clearly with a knife at their throat and who remains professional has a clear advantage.” To answer the question correctly, it is important to be well prepared for the job interview. Beforehand, think of some examples of times when you’ve successfully tackled professional challenges.
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