4 things to consider when answering personality interview questions

The majority of people I interview aren’t transparent when I asked the questions that require them to reveal something about their personality. The question could be what they enjoy doing outside of work or even something as simple as the genre of literature they prefer.

This is natural; who wants to talk about their personality with a complete stranger? In an interview their focus is on answering questions that are relevant to the job at hand. This is what they’ve prepared for.

However, avoiding answering personality interview questions is an irritant with interviewers and can hurt your chances of landing a job. Interviewers want—even need—to know who they’ll be hiring as a person.

Sure, your engineering, marketing, finance, operations, or management experience is necessary for the role to which you’re applying. But there’s more to you as a person than just this requirement.

Do you recall when you were a child and your parents told you they wanted you to be honest? Do you have a relationship with someone that’s based on trust? Interviewing is the same; the person or people interviewing you want to hear and see self-awareness.

I find myself getting irritated when job candidates danced around questions asking for them to reveal something about themselves because I honestly wanted to know their answers to my appropriate questions. But for those who obliged me, I am impressed and their answer prompted me to ask follow-up questions.

There are four reasons why job candidates are hesitant to answer this question.

  1. They don’t understand why it’s being asked.
  2. They overthink how to answer it.
  3. They don’t want to answer wrong.
  4. They think it’s irrelevant

Why interviewers ask the questions they do

Here’s the thing, you’re more than your title and responsibilities; you’re someone your colleagues and superiors will be working with at least eight hours a day. They’ll want to know you as a person and have conversations with you that doesn’t have to revolve around work.

When I go on a walk with a colleague or am eating lunch with them (pre-pandemic), the last thing I want to do is talk about work. It’s a time, albeit short because I don’t take a long lunch, when I don’t have to think about work. Talking about work during these times makes me irritable.

Instead, I like to talk about what they did over the weekend or what they plan to do for the upcoming weekend. I’ll give you an example. One of my colleagues is an avid cyclist. I admire this, as he sometimes goes on 30-mile journeys or more. He’ll talk about how he cycled the back roads of Massachusetts.

As an interviewer, I want to know what makes a person tick outside of work. I want to know that they have interests. They don’t have to reveal their whole life, but if there’s a commonality, that’s even better. If there isn’t, that’s cool. I don’t cycle, nor do I want to; but to hear my colleague talk about it with such excitement is enjoyable.

Don’t overthink it

As I interview some candidates’ via Zoom, I can see some of them thinking way too hard about how to answer the question, “What do you like to do outside of work?” It’s like their minds are doing somersaults trying to come up with the perfect answer. I want them to chill; just answer the question.

In some ways I blame people like myself and other job coaches for teaching our clients to carefully weigh answering questions in a manner that won’t hurt their chances of landing the job. Maybe too carefully. But this innocent question isn’t one of them.

During a Job Club meeting, I asked the participants an ice-breaker question that was simple in nature. Because it was only a Job Club meeting, most participants were animated in answering, “What do you do outside of work?” But a few of them asked, “What does this have to do with work?”

Admittedly this irritated me. It was a simple exercise and something to get the hour-and-a-half kicked off. Regardless, the few participants immediately went into interview mode. They were overthinking the simple question. They didn’t want to get the answer wrong.

There’s no wrong answer…usually

Well, usually you can’t answer this question wrong, unless what you like doing outside of work is pulling wings off of flies. This image is too morose, but you get the idea. When I ask about candidate’s outside interests, I don’t care if they’re similar to mine or if they’re totally different.

For example, if someone loves the theater, that’s perfectly fine. If they enjoy yoga or meditation, great. I even like to hear about activities they enjoy doing with their family. And, no, I don’t hold this against them.

We’ve told our clients to stay away from talking about their children. Why? I have children, albeit older in age, so I love family people. I also assume they’ll dedicate the required time to the job and not spend an unnecessary amount of time with their family.

By the point I ask this question in an interview, I should have a good sense that a candidate is a good fit for the job—able to excel in the technical aspect of it, are motivated to take on the challenges, and will be a good fit for the role.

The caveat of answering this question is to steer clear of political or religious activities. This is something I will stick by as a career coach. There are just some things that are out of bounds. I used to say anything to do with hunting was taboo, but I’ve since changed my mind on that.

Good interviewers ask relevant questions

I like to think that if I ask a question about what a candidate likes to do outside of work there is a good reason for doing so. Throughout this article I’ve talked about reasons for asking this question. I like to know the person as a person. I want to see how they answer; do they show self-awareness or are they guarded. Another reason would simply to put the candidate at ease.

Prior questions or ones to follow the personality questions are about the position and, to some extent, the company. These are all legit with no malice intended. This can’t be said about poor interviewers, of whom try to trap candidates into saying the wrong things.

Here’s the thing, every question an interviewer asks should be relevant. I for one am not a big fan of the generic questions, such as “What is your greatest weakness,” “Why should we hire you,” and “What do you plan to do in five years.” To me, they’re throw away questions.

What’s telling is a poll that I’m conducting at the moment where I ask, “Why do some candidates have a difficult answering questions about their private life?” Of close to 10,000 respondents, only 18 percent of have answered that they think questions like the one I write about today are irrelevant.

Following are some responses to the poll I conducted.


Tara Orchard: Some people prefer to keep their personal life private and focus on their skills and experience. Perception of the question is important. For some personal means too personal, including relationships, family, religion, personal beliefs, obstacles in their past and other private factors.

I remind clients it is useful to have some personal information to talk about but it need not be very personal. They can talk about why they selected the school they attended, an interesting adventure they had, sports, arts, hobbies and so on that are relatable, general or interesting.

The employer is likely either trying to build rapport or see if the person is well rounded, not digging for private information. As usual, perception and preparation are key.

MARY FAIN BRANDT: I think job candidates are simply afraid to “answer it wrong”, which is silly! Perhaps they are worried how they will be viewed if they say are a huge STAR WARS fan or if they love Comic Con, or if they spend all their personal time shuffling their kids around to soccer games and cheer practice. Or the big one – I am active in my Church.

I think people are afraid to say the wrong thing.

I say share something light, but don’t hide who you are. After all, if you do get the job, conversations will come up about what you did over the weekend.

Austin Belcak (He/Him): As I’m writing this “Don’t want to answer wrong” is leading the pack. It’s a bummer that companies have made candidates feel that a simple question could be a trap. Says a lot about the interview and hiring practices right now.

Anastasia Magnitskaia: That is a great question Bob! Part of it, sometimes we are so prepared to answer questions that we have researched and practiced that this question can come as a surprise. Think about answering the question with substance- we all have things we do outside of work that will inspire others. Don’t sell yourself short and answer “I watch tv”. I also want to add that if a company is asking that question, it shows that they actually do care about work life balance!

Erin Kennedy: Oooh, that is a great reminder, Bob McIntosh. It IS a question they may get asked. It’s good to be prepared with those types of questions as well. Keep your answers prepared and skim them lightly (no need to delve into your personal life).

Erica Reckamp: You can usually navigate this by picking out a couple of benign hobbies. Avoid anything dangerous (insurance liability) or elitist (yachting anyone?)

Most often, it’s an opportunity to open a broader conversation with the interviewer. If you’ve done your research in advance, this is a great opportunity to mention shared interests!

LAURA SMITH-PROULX: This is a great point, Bob McIntosh. I really think people are caught off guard and hesitant to get too personal in the interview. It’s good to prepare for some version of this question and give a brief description that doesn’t stray too far from the subject. “I’m a voracious reader” or “I enjoy the local outdoors” might help combat nervousness.

Lotte Struwing: I think many may want to keep their personal lives to themselves. Without understanding the question, they may think it’s not a legal question and are uncomfortable responding to it.

Paul Upton: Hiring manager perspective:
I love this question as well as “tell me about yourself”. As a hiring manager I’d love to hear when candidates tell me about who they are personally and professionally… we tend to spend more time with people that we work with than many other folks in our lives, so it’s so important to be personable and show your human side.

I’d always get a bit discouraged when candidates just jump into stuff they think I wanted to hear and focus strictly about the job.

These types of questions are such a great opportunity to really stand out and show who you really are and why you’d be someone folks would love to work with!

Paula Christensen: loved your poll Bob McIntosh and this follow up. I’ll continue to be optimistic and view this question as a chance to build a connection and create engagement. I do agree that keeping polarizing subjects out of the response makes sense. Don’t over think it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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