6 Sticky Interview Situations and How to Handle Them

Bad Interview

Job interviewing can be an unnerving experience, but if you know how to handle some of the stickiest situations encountered in interviewing, you can be that much more confident. Here are six of the stickiest.

  1. The Bad Interviewer. Not every professional who conducts job interviews with candidates knows how to conduct an interview effectively. In fact, some are downright lousy at it. A bad interviewer might be unfocused, disinterested, unprepared. He or she might dominate the interview by doing all the talking or might ask inappropriate and illegal questions.

The unfocused, unprepared interviewer probably hasn’t read your resume and maybe can’t even find a copy. This hapless soul doesn’t even know what to ask you. Be sure to offer this disorganized interviewer a copy of your resume while asking, “May I take you through some highlights of my career?”

While the bigmouth interviewer is holding forth, make as many mental notes as you can (or jot them down if you’ve brought a small notepad). Don’t show your exasperation; instead, be an attentive listener and hang on the interviewer’s every word. Try to get a word in edgewise by leaning forward and opening your mouth slightly. If that doesn’t work, even a nonstop talker will likely eventually ask if you have any questions. At that point, you can ask questions or describe your fit with the company and the position based on the mental notes you’ve been making.

  1. “Off-the-wall” Questions, also known as “Wild Card” or “No-Right-Answer” Questions. Occasionally you’ll be asked an interview question that’s just downright weird and certainly doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the job – for example, a question like this: “If you were an ice-cream cone, what flavor would you be?” Interviewers often ask these oddball questions to see how quickly you can think on your feet and whether you can avoid becoming flustered. Others, unfortunately, ask them because they enjoy seeing interviewees squirm. Still, others are amused by the range of creative – and not-so-creative – responses they receive.

Don’t let an off-the-wall question rattle you. Take a moment to gather your thoughts and respond the best way you can. There is rarely a wrong answer to this type of question, but quick-thinking candidates can turn the response into an opportunity to impress the employer. A response given by one of my former students has always stuck in my head as being a standout answer. The question was: “If you were a superhero, what would be your superpowers, and why?” His response: “I think I would prefer to be a superhero like Batman, who doesn’t have superpowers per se, but who relies on his intelligence and use of the right tools to get the job done.”

  1. Illegal Questions: It’s illegal to ask about age, marital status, children, childcare arrangements, and the like, but employers still do – or come up with subtle ways to ask, such as by inquiring about when you graduated from high school/college. It’s best to address the concern behind the question rather than the question itself by saying something like: “There is nothing about my personal status that would get in the way of my doing a great job for your company.” While it may also be tempting to point out the illegality of the question, doing so likely won’t endear you to the interviewer.
  1. Pressure for Your Salary Request: As a screening device, interviewers often ask early in the interview what salary you are looking for. If you ask for more than the employer is willing to pay (or occasionally, on the flip side, undervalue yourself), the interviewer can eliminate you before spending a lot of time with you. That’s why the best tactic for salary questions is to delay responding to them as long as possible – ideally until after the employer makes an offer. Try to deflect salary questions with a response like this: “I applied for this position because I am very interested in the job and your company, and I know I can make an immediate impact once on the job, but I’d like to table salary discussions until we are both sure I’m right for the job.”
  1. Questions about Being Terminated from a Previous Job. It’s always uncomfortable to be asked about your reasons for leaving a job from which you were terminated. Don’t lie, but don’t dwell on it either. You could explain that you and the company were not a good fit, hence your performance suffered. Or that you and your supervisor had differing viewpoints. Emphasize what you learned from the experience that will prevent you from repeating it and ensure that you will perform well in the future.
  1. Questions about the Future. Interviewees are often asked, “Where do you see yourself in five (or 10) years?” Strike a delicate balance when responding to this kind of question, with just the right mix of honesty, ambition, and your desire to be working at this company long-term.

Avoid responses such as starting your own business or running for Congress, which suggests that you don’t plan to stay with the company.

Focus on professional goals rather than personal and family ambitions.

Your response could be: “I’m here to let you know that I am the best person for the job. If in the future you feel I would be a candidate for a higher-level position, I know I wouldn’t be passed up.”

OR: “I hope to stay at the company and expect that in five years, I’ll make a significant advance in the organization.”

OR: “I would like to become the very best ______ your company has.”

And then there’s my personal favorite, which a student told me a friend had used. Asked by the interviewer, “Where do you see yourself in five years? The response: “Celebrating the five-year anniversary of your asking me this question!” While the response probably made the interviewer laugh, it’s probably not the best answer.


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