Tag Archives: Tough Interview Questions

It’s official; “What is your greatest weakness?” is the most difficult question among 4

It’s almost inconceivable that “What is your greatest weakness?” is a question still asked in interviews, but many job seekers I’ve asked say they’re getting the weakness question in one form or another, which means that hiring authorities see some value in it. Mind boggling.

Branding Pro Kevin Turner has interviewed thousands of people during his career in marketing and sales, and he shares the same thought:

“Its uncomfortable to answer because who really wants to admit that they have a real weakness. I hope someday this question goes away but I don’t think it will anytime soon. So we have to be ready to ask it and digest the answers.

I polled LinkedIn members, of which 11,079 have voted at this writing, asking which four questions they think is most difficult. “What is your greatest weakness?” was one of them, and it received the highest number of votes. Here’s the result of the numbers each question has received:

  • What is your greatest weakness? 4,005
  • Tell me about yourself. 2,442
  • Why should we hire you. 2,508
  • Tell us about a time you made a mistake. 2,124

What is your greatest weakness?

Executive Resume Writer Laura Smith-Proulx further bemoans the “weakness question.” As a former recruiter, she writes:

Asking about a candidate’s weakness has always struck me as useless. After all, they’re interviewing to tell you why they’re the RIGHT person for the job and now you’re asking a question to seemingly stop the flow of positive information. (I never asked this of a candidate!) It also forces the job seeker to come up with a positive spin on the question.

Agreed 100%. And what candidate in their right mind would disclose their greatest weakness? Going into the interview they should have determined which weakness is relevant but not too relevant. In other words, it won’t kill their chances of getting the job.

On the other hand, a valid reason for asking this question is to see how candidates react. Will they answer the question calmly, or will they slide under the table? Self-awareness is one key element of emotional intelligence. A candidate who answers honestly will earn points from interviewers.

Tell me about yourself

This question (really a directive) came in as the third most difficult question according to the poll. The problem with this question is how candidates should answer it. Should they talk about their high school years, or how their kids are doing, or list off a ton of platitudes of themselves? No to all.

Recruiter and Job-Search Ally Ed Han finds this question troubling:

As a recruiter and job seeker ally, it often seems to me that while most people say they hate greatest weakness, in actual practice I find “tell me about yourself” generates by far the worst responses.

“Tell me about yourself” is often the trigger for a five-ten minute soliloquy. The interviewer doesn’t want your life story: they want to know your unique value proposition, why are you highly qualified for the position, or at least well positioned to perform the job at a high level.

The directive, “Tell me about yourself” has its merits because it requires the candidate to have their elevator pitch prepared. As well, they need to tailor it to the position’s requirements. Executive Career Coach Sarah Johnston concurs:

The most common question that I see job seekers struggle with is “tell me about yourself” because it can feel very open ended. The trick here though is to selectively tell them a 90-second version of your story as it relates to the pain points of the opportunity.

Ninety seconds is all it should take to tell employers about yourself. Any longer you’ll run the risk of boring the interviewers. I know my capacity for maintaining attention to an interview question is about a minute. As Ed says, don’t deliver a soliloquy.

Why should we hire you?

The question “Why should we hire you?” is a little better in terms of questions. But like the weakness question, it’s a bit of a cliche and one that candidates can formulate their answers going into the interview. Like the tell-me-about-yourself question, there’s a formula. One that Hannah Morgan spells out:

These are all questions job seekers struggle with and for different reasons. But I chose “why should we hire you” because while this seems pretty obvious, job seekers have difficulty connecting the dots in their answer.

You are looking for X and this is what I’ve done and the results
You are looking for Y and this is how I’ve done that and outcomes
Most importantly, based on these things I’ve learned in the interview, this is why I would like to work here.
Not exactly those words, but the idea!

This is all find and good if you know about the company, but what if you haven’t prepared for the interview, you haven’t researched the position and company. Recruiter Raegan Hill writes:

The reason is, this question often asked during the beginning phase of an interview – when the professional still needs more information about the role and company before they are able to thoughtfully and intentionally answer the question in the context in which it is asked.

This sounds like a trap to me. Shame on candidates who don’t know the position and company by heart.

Tell me about a time when you made a mistake

To me, the directive, “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake” is the most challenging of the four questions, as it requires candidates to tell a story and tests their sell-awareness…to a point. Based on the poll, the voters don’t agree.

In my experience, candidates tend to swallow the honest pill when asked about a failure. Why’s this? It might have something to do with be unprepared; they go into an interview thinking that interviewers won’t ask them about times they failed. Good interviewers will.

I chose this question as the most difficult one. Here’s why. Behavioral-based questions throw people for a loop. They’re not familiar with telling a story using the S.T.A.R (situation, task, actions, result) formula. Rather, candidates are used to traditional questions, such as the other three in the poll.

What interviewers hear, even from the higher-level job seekers, are speculative answers and not specifics. This is because candidates haven’t prepared for behavioral-based questions. They haven’t dissected the job ad to determine which are the most important requirements of the position.

Go to the poll to read some other great comments.

One of the toughest interview questions: “Why did you leave your previous job?”

And how to answer it.

This is an interview question that can be a cinch or difficult for job candidates to answer, depending on the reason for leaving their position. Always expect this question in an interview. It only makes sense that the interviewer would like to know why you left your previous job.

interview with woman

How you answer this question—most likely the first one asked—will set the tone for the rest of the interview. Many people interviewing for the first time are surprised when they get this question. It’s as though they don’t expect it.

Not only should you expect this question; you should have the answer to it already formulated. It should not take you by surprise. Expect it. Be prepared. If you get it wrong, shame on you.

Also, be aware of a zinger like, “Steve, tell us why you want to leave (company X) and come to work with us?” To answer this two-part question successfully requires an in depth knowledge of the company and position. Both of which are topics for another article.

What are employers looking for?

Is there a wrong answer? Not really. It’s how you answer it, for the most part. There’s no way to change the past, so your calm response is the best policy. They want transparency, not lies. They also don’t want a drawn-out story; your answer should be brief.

If you become emotional, it will send a negative message to interviewers. If you hesitate, they may distrust you or question your resolve.

Three possible scenarios

Let’s look at the reasons why people lose their job and how to address them.

1. You were laid off

This is easiest way to answer the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” As mentioned above, your answer should be short and sweet. You may say, “The company had to cut cost and restructure after a poor second quarter.

To beat them to the punch, you might add, “I was among 15 people in my group who were laid off. I was told by my manager that she was sad to see me go.” The reason for doing this is because you might get a follow-up question about how many people were laid off.

Caveat: some people think being laid off is the same as being let go or fired. It is not. Being laid off is do to company failure.

2. You were let go

This is harder to explain, but not impossible to come up with a viable resonse. This especially needs a short answer. It’s important that you are transparent and self-aware with your answer. In other words, if you were at fault, be honest about it.

You must also explain what you learned from the experience and state that it will not be repeated. Perhaps it was a conflict of personality between you and your manager, poor performance, or a “mutual departure.”

Conflict of personality. “A new manager took over our department. I was used to the way the previous person managed us. The new manager had a different style, which I didn’t adapt to quick enough. I now understand I need to be more adaptable to other types of management.

Poor or inadequate performance. “As the project manager of my department, I was responsible for delivering a release of a new data storage software. We failed to meet the deadline by a week. My VP saw this as unforgivable.  I see where I could have done a better job of managing the team.

You were not a fit for the role. Yes, this is a not a cliche in this case. “When I was hired for the role, complete knowledge of Excel wasn’t a requirement, but as the job evolved it became apparent that my Excel skills were not strong. As this position doesn’t require expert knowledge, I am confident I’ll do a stellar job.”

Caveat: the interviewer might want to dig deeper into the situation. Be prepared to answer the questions directly with little emotion. Always keep a cool head. Resist the temptation to speak negatively about your previous boss.

3. You quit or resigned

To quit a position—especially without a job in hand—means there was an existing problem. One common reason I hear for quitting is a conflict of personality with the employee’s supervisor. Another one is a toxic work environment. And a lame reason I hear is because advancement was not possible.

Regardless, a red flag will go up with interviewers if you quit your position. What some people don’t realize is that you give up your right to collect unemployment, if you quit; another reason why this is not a great scenario.

Conflict of personality. “While my previous boss and I got along well, we didn’t see things eye-to-eye on certain decisions he made, and tension was high, so I decided the best move for me was to resign.” To show you have nothing to hide, you can add: “I would be happy to discuss further if you’d like.”

Unsafe environment.I felt the work environment was not as safe as I was comfortable with. For example, there were many fire hazards in the warehouse. Additionally, the air quality was tested, and it failed. I feel fortunate that my wife brings in a substantial income; otherwise I might have stuck it out longer. My only regret is that I miss the people with whom I worked.”

Work-life balance was in jeopardy. “My job required me to drive into and out of (city), which was at times an hour and a half each way. I was missing a great deal of my son’s activities, and my health was suffering. Although commute isn’t a reason for taking this job, it will be a relief.”

Caveat: again, it is important to be transparent and honest when answering this question. To simply say you quit or resigned is not good enough. Do not be bitter when you answer this question; just state facts.


Always expect the question, “Why did you leave your last job.” Any interviewer who doesn’t ask this question isn’t doing his job. The reason for departure is essential information. I find this traditional question to be one of the most important ones for job candidates to able to answer.

How to answer, “Tell us about a time when you were successful at work.”

By Bob McIntosh

“Tell us about a time when you were successful at work” is a behavioral-based question you might face in an interview. This is a common question which can be challenging if you’re not prepared for it.

successfull

Most people who I ask about their successes at work have difficulty coming up with one on the spot.

Some believe that as children we’ve been conditioned not to promote ourselves. We have been told talking about a success is bragging, and we should not brag.

Nothing can be further from the truth if we’re asked by an interested party — interviewers in this case — who are trying to determine our value.

We should be able to talk not only about one time we’ve been successful at work. We should be able to recall many times we’ve been successful.

How to answer this behavioral-based question

A vague answer is not going to impress interviewers. In fact, it might eliminate you from consideration. Remember, how you have succeeded in the past is of great interest to interviewers, so interviewers want a specific answer.

The purpose of behavioral interview questions is for interviewers to understand how you have responded to certain situations in the past to gain insight into how you would act in similar situations in the new job.

Keep the following thoughts in mind:

1. Show enthusiasm  

When you describe this situation, be enthusiastic about your success, but stick to the facts. Describe a specific time when you were presented with a challenge and overcame it. This scenario makes the best success stories.

But don’t embellish, and don’t take credit for anyone else’s work — in fact, share credit with co-workers, management, or others, as appropriate.

2. Understand their reason for the question  

Interviewers are looking for high achievers who show motivation and don’t shy away from hurdles in their way. They want to hear about your actions which led to a positive result.

They also want to know if you succeed by yourself or as part of a team, and how you succeed — demonstrating your intelligence, your leadership skills, your diplomatic skills, or some other skills you have.

Tell them about a relevant accomplishment demonstrating the skills required for this job. You can gain an understanding of what’s relevant by carefully reading the job description to determine their most pressing need.

3. Have your story ready

Be prepared to describe a true situation when you were successful at work. It’s best to write your example, as well as others, down in order to better tell it. We learn best by first writing what we must say. It becomes ingrained in our mind.

Think of an example of leadership or management success for a manager job, an example of creativity or problem-solving success for an individual contributor job, an example of closing a big sale for a sales job, whatever is appropriate and relevant to the job.

Sample answer

What is very important in answering this question is to go into the interview with a specific Situation in mind. This is the beginning of your story. The remaining parts of your story are: your Task in the situation, the Actions you took to solve the situation, and the Result.

Let’s look at a STAR story to answer: “Tell me about a time when you succeeded at work.”

Situation

I was managing one of the largest ABC stores in New England. Although we were leading in revenue; we also had been experiencing a two percent loss due to theft.

 Task

I was tasked with reducing theft to one percent.

Actions

My first action was to have my assistant manager do a full analysis of the items which were stolen most frequently. Not surprisingly, smaller items like pencils, staplers, and calculators were stolen off the shelves.

However, large amounts of other items of all types were being stolen by my own staff and not making it to the shelves. This was of most concern to me, as the majority of money lost was happening here.

For the theft committed by customers, I instructed my staff to smother the customer with kindness. In other words, attend to any customer who seemed to need help or who was lurking around.

For the theft from the dock, my assistant and I brought our un-loaders into my office one-by-one and asked each of them if they were skimming merchandise from the trucks. One out of five admitted to doing this, so I released him without pressing charges.

I instituted a policy that prevented any vehicles to park or drive to within 100 feet of the unloading dock. I also had cameras installed facing the point of delivery. Previously there were no cameras.

Result

Both the external and internal theft was reduced significantly. The policies, extra personnel, and cameras I implemented were successful in reducing theft to .75% and have been doing the trick ever since.

Bonus – Learned

I learned that while most employees can be trusted, unfortunately a small few can’t. I also learned that theft can be reduced at a minimum cost, e.g., I didn’t have to install more expensive cameras to cover every square inch of the store. After all, the store wasn’t a casino.


The Bottom Line

Expect behavioral questions to be asked by most interviewers. Have examples of how you have handled difficult situations, structured as STARs so you clearly present both the situation and the positive result.

This article originally appeared in Job-Hunt.org.

If you enjoyed this article, check out others about tough behavioral-based questions:

Photo: Flickr, Marc Accetta

How to answer, “Tell me about a time when you persuaded your boss.”

And a sample answer.

Rarely will anyone say behavioral-based questions are easy to answer. They require a job candidate to recall a time when they performed a skill successfully, or unsuccessfully, and then tell a story about performing the particular skill.

Persuasion

The story must be specific and succinct, which are two challenges some job candidates struggle with. To this point, many people I’ve interviewed try to deliver a general, long-winded answer that doesn’t hit the mark. This is not what interviewers are looking for.

The four thoughts candidates need to take into consideration are:

  1. Interviewers want to see how you’re going to respond to this difficult question.
  2. They want to see self-awareness/honesty.
  3. Understand why they’re asking the question.
  4. Have your story (short) ready.

I go into detail in a previous article on these considerations in a previous post.

Let’s look at a behavioral-based question whose purpose it is to determine a candidate’s ability persuade her boss: “Tell us about a time when you convinced your boss to adopt an idea that he disagreed with.”

Using the S.T.A.R formula you begin your story.

Situation

Our company was using Microsoft Excel to keep track of our customers’ orders and appointments, but the process proved to be inefficient. It was becoming laborious to enter customer information, and the sales department complained that accessing it was too difficult.

Task

As the sales operations manager, it was my responsibility to find a solution for this antiquated process.

Actions

I knew we needed a better process, so I approached my boss to explain that we needed a true CRM software. His reply was that we didn’t have the money, nor the need for CRM software. I wasn’t going to argue with him. I needed to prove my point.

First I called our main competitors to see what they were using to organize their customer transactions and appointments. At least nine out of ten were using CRM software. And most were willing to tell me the brand they were using.

Salesforce was being used by the five of our competitors. Hubspot was was second with two, and Zoho and Agile were the others.

I knew my boss wouldn’t go with Salesforce just because it  was the leader of the pack. He would want to know why it would be the best fit for our sales and marketing department.

I conducted thorough research on the four products, including one called Kintone, which was in the top ten for security. The others didn’t list that information. I knew we needed a product that would store customer data, track customer interaction, track leads, and most importantly be user friendly for the sales team.

After two weeks of researching products and talking with salespeople, I narrowed the list to three software, based on reputation; overall customer interaction; ease of use; and, of course, price.

I asked my boss if I could have half an hour of his time to discuss my CRM proposal. He reluctantly agreed. When he entered the conference room, he was surprised to see a PowerPoint presentation I created shining on the screen.

At the conclusion of m presentation, he paused for what seem like hours and finally asked me which software I would suggest. I said Salesforce, but he liked Zoho better.

Result

We implemented Zoho CRM, which over two years improved efficiency by 50%. I know this because I tracked the hours the staff had used with Excel and later used with Zoho.

Bonus: lesson learned

I learned that the way to persuade my boss was to show him what I proposed, rather than get into a heated debate. This is how I have and will continue persuading my bosses to agree with my suggestions.

This article originally appeared on Job-Hunt.org.

Photo: Flickr, Henrik Therkildsen

 

How to answer, “Tell us about a time when you had to deal with pressure” in 5 easy steps

You’re in a group interview and it’s been going smoothly. You’ve answered the questions you prepared for. To your credit, you read the job description and identified the most important requirements for the job, Marketing Manager.

Mock Interview

The interview is going so well that you’re wondering when the hammer will fall. When will the killer question be asked? That question would be, “Tell us about a time when you had to deal with pressure.”

In the job description, one sentence read, “You will be working in a fun, fast-paced, pressure packed environments. If you like challenges, this is the job for you.”

Sure enough one of the interviewers asks the question you were dreading. “Jane, tell us about a time when you had to deal with pressure. How did you approach it, and what was the result?”

Great, a behavioral-based question. You never considered what you did at your last job as having to deal with pressure. Pressure wasn’t in your vocabulary. Coming to the interview, you ran a scenario over and over in your mind.

The interviewer is waiting for your answer. How are you going to respond? You decide that you’ll ask for some clarification first. “This is a great question but one I’m having trouble with,” you say. “Would you give me an example?”

“I’m referring to a time when you had to meet a deadline as a Marketing Manager. There will be deadlines to meet here,” one of the interviewer says calmly.

All of the sudden it occurs to you that you had many deadlines to meet, and that you met almost all of them, 95% at least. You will have no problem answering the question honestly. It’s just a matter of recalling the specifics of a story that comes to mind.

“Thank you Ms. Jones. This helps a lot.”

Remembering the S.T.A.R formula a career coach told you to use, you begin your story.

Situation

Three years ago I was hired by my previous organization to manage the marketing department. One major problem the company had was a lack of social media presence. I mentioned this in my interview with them.

Task

Shortly after I was hired, I was given the task of creating a more robust social media presence. The VP of the organization came into my office and gave me the exciting news; and as he was leaving, he told me I had a month to pull it off.

Actions

  • The first thing I did after hearing the news was evaluate the situation. We had a Facebook page that was barely getting hits. Some of our employees had LinkedIn accounts, and that was about it.
  • I approached one of my employees whose LinkedIn profile was strong and asked if she would be willing to create a LinkedIn company page. I was strong with LinkedIn, but knew very little about a company page. She was excited to take this on.
  • As I left her cubicle, she told me she would also take on the Facebook page. I joked with her about taking on Twitter. She told me it would be too much work, in addition to her other responsibilities. I agreed.
  • From looking at our competitors’ social media campaigns, I realized our strongest competitor had the top three I mentioned, as well as Instagram and Pinterest. I didn’t have the staff to implement these two platforms. I would need to hire a person to take these on.
  • My VP agreed to letting me hire a person to take on Instagram and Pinterest, but told me I had a budget of 20K. I was able to negotiate 5K more, plus an additional month on the deadline.
  • The person I hired was looking for part-time work, 25 hours a week, and knew Instagram and Pinterest very well, having taught it at a local community college. He agreed upon 22K for salary.
  • The last step was letting our clients and partners know about our new campaign. Once the campaign was a few weeks off the ground, I had one of the staff send out a mass mailing through ConstantContact, letting them know about our campaign.

Result

At first the reaction I was hoping for from our audience was sluggish, but after a month our visits to Facebook increased by 300%. LinkedIn visits increased by 50%, and Twitter gained 50% more followers. Instagram also did well with 4 visits a day. It was agreed that Pinterest would be dropped after a month since its inception.

Even with the extended due date I negotiated, my staff were able to complete the task by a month and a half. In addition, my VP decided that our new hire would be offered a full-time position monitoring all of the platforms.


There’s one more component of your story to make it complete: what you learned. This will close the loop.

Learn

What I took away from this experience is that when the pressure’s on, I react with decisiveness. I’m more than confident I will do the same for you.


This behavioral-based question is a common one asked in interviews. Be prepared to answer it and make sure you use the S.T.A.R formula. This is the best way to tell your story.