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The Trick to Answering "Trick" Interview Questions


3/27/2012 3:46:49 PM

The Trick to Answering By Skip Freeman, "Headhunter" Hiring Secrets

It is hard enough to get interviews in today’s extremely challenging job market, so when you do get on the field of play, it is absolutely critical that you make it count! Notice I said, “field of play.” If you have been following my articles and/or have read "Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed... Forever!, you know that the best way to win new career opportunities is to view the hiring process as a “game,” because that’s what it is! And you must further realize that this game, like all games, has rules, many of which are new and all of which you must learn to effectively play by if you want to land a new job in today’s job market.

The Rules of the Game

In this article I am going to address one of those rules: If a candidate selection comes down to just two finalists, both of whom have essentially equal talents and skills, the hiring company will almost always select the candidate who comes across as the most positive when answering interview questions and/or otherwise interacting with the hiring manager and others at the hiring company. How is that determination oftentimes made? Usually, it’s during the final “questions and answers” phase of the candidate interviews.

One of the key points I make in "Headhunter” Hiring Secrets is that, today, companies don’t play “fair” when it comes to the “hiring game,” and certainly they don’t! This fact is clearly illustrated during the final interview stages, when the questions—“trick” questions— asked are designed to accomplish one primary goal: To “trip up,” if possible, the unwary candidate, thereby providing ample reason(s) to eliminate one candidate and choose another for the position under consideration.

The Tricky Questions

The hiring company’s job search has winnowed down to two final candidates, both of whom could easily be selected for the available position. The hiring manager poses this question to each candidate:

“Why would you consider leaving your current company?”

Candidate one:

“My current company just doesn’t seem to ‘get it.’ There are so many opportunities in the marketplace today for the company to make a real difference, especially in the service department, but the company just keeps messing up. So that’s why I’m now looking.”

Candidate two:

“I have really enjoyed working for my current company and have learned a great deal. That is why I am impressed with your company. I view your company as one that is making a real difference in the marketplace and, at the same time, providing great service to your customers. I am excited about the possibility of bringing my skills and experience to a culture like yours.”

Who Fell Into the Trap?

Can you detect the differences between these two responses? Candidate one clearly brands himself as negative, while candidate two clearly brands herself as quite positive, even though it could easily be inferred that she probably has as many “issues” with her current company as candidate number one has with his—otherwise he wouldn’t be looking for a new job in the first place! She simply chose to take “the high ground” and emphasize the positive over the negative. Smart move.

Unfortunately, even the best-coached candidates—and we thoroughly coach all of our firm’s candidates on the best, most effective ways to answer such “trick” questions—can easily fall into the same “trap” that candidate one fell into. Why? They “want to be honest,” they “want to be themselves.” Certainly a laudable philosophy, but just as certainly, a negative answer such as the one given by candidate one will quickly get you eliminated from further consideration by the hiring manager because he/she will quickly move to eliminate “negative Nelly” candidates! (Just coincidentally, it’s significant to note that nothing in candidate two’s answer was “untruthful,” “dishonest,” or not “being herself.” She simply emphasized the positive and didn’t even mention the negative.)

When a hiring manager hears an answer such as the one given by candidate one, this is what he/she usually thinks:

“Then, if this candidate doesn’t like what we do here at our company, he will end up leaving us, too?”

On the other hand, when the hiring manager hears an answers such as the one given by candidate two, here is what he/she is likely to think:

“Oh, wow! she obviously believes in a culture like ours and clearly seems to appreciate what we do. She could be a good addition to our team.”


Another Example of a Game Eliminating Question

Let me give you just one more example of how easily a candidate can be “tripped up” by a final interview question and be quickly eliminated from further consideration. This example involved an actual candidate of ours whom we presented to a client company. The position would have required our candidate to move from Minnesota to Missouri, so the hiring manager asked the candidate this quite obviously pertinent question during one of the final interviews:

“So, how does your spouse feel about the move?”

Despite the fact that our candidate had been thoroughly coached on how to answer questions involving a job change move, once he was “on his own,” here is how he in fact answered the question:

“Oh, I will be able to talk her into it.”

About a thousand alarm bells suddenly went off in the hiring manager’s head, and the candidate’s chances of being selected for the position quickly and irrevocably evaporated into thin air!

Following our candidate’s interview, the hiring manager called me up and asked me to keep looking for candidates to fill the position. Why? Here is what the hiring manager told me,

“Skip, while he is an otherwise excellent candidate, if we hire him, and six months down the road his spouse becomes unhappy with the move, he will simply quit and go back ‘home.’ Then, we will have to start our job search all over again. I’m not going to risk that.”

So, what answer should our candidate have given when asked this question by the hiring manager, in order to stay in the running for the position? While there are no “magic words,” a far better answer, one that would have significantly improved his chances of “staying in the game,” would have been one like this:

“I understand your concern, but please be assured that my family enthusiastically supports my career and they are as happy and excited about this opportunity as I am. There will be no problems whatsoever in making this move, if I am your candidate of choice.”

Obviously, I’ve only addressed two examples of “trick” questions you should anticipate during final job interviews. Let me assure you, there are many, many more just like them, and you should be prepared to answer them correctly during job interviews. Otherwise, you risk being quickly eliminated from further consideration. (The full range of these types of questions, what I refer to as “Gotcha!” questions, as well as the best ways to answer them, is covered in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets, of course.)

The Winning Move

So, the secret to winning in an interview is always to brand yourself as someone who sees the proverbial glass as being “half full.” Brand yourself as a positive, upbeat, energetic professional—not as a whiner or malcontent in your current position, or, perhaps even worse, as someone who likely would become more of a liability to a hiring company than a valuable asset.

Hey, the job market today is already tough enough! Don’t add to your difficulty and the challenge by “fumbling the ball” on the playing field! Use this secret about answering “trick” questions as just one more secret that can help you turn your job search into a job found!

About the Author

Skip Freeman is the author of "Headhunter' Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed... Forever!" and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.

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