Handling Difficult Questions

Some people consider a job interview to be a trial by fire for a job candidate. Part of this trial is to see how well a candidate handles difficult questions. Let’s look at a couple of difficult questions you might encounter in a job interview, and see how you might formulate an answer.

Federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking certain questions that are not related to the job they are hiring for. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against any person based on race, sex, age, national origin, or religion. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 covers employment of persons with disabilities. Many states, such as New York and California, have additional laws that protect people against discrimination in interviews.  However, not all interviewers are aware of all regulations.

Difficult Questions:  Some Examples

Some examples of difficult questions and strategies for responding are:

  • “Tell me about yourself.” - Keep the focus of your answer on your job objective. You should be prepared to deliver a 30-second “elevator speech” about yourself. Do not recite your entire biography to the interviewer.
  • “Are you married? Do you have any children?” - Perhaps the questions that stump candidates the most — and cause the most stress — are questions that probe into personal lives and backgrounds. These questions are rarely intentional; it’s more likely the interviewer is inexperienced or unfamiliar with the laws governing acceptable questions in employment interviews. Rather than assume the worst, you need to decide what the question is behind the question, and respond accordingly.  For example, they may actually want to know if you are free to travel up to 25% of the time, as the job requires.  You can always ask them to clarify the question, and how it related to the job qualifications.
  • “What kind of salary package are you looking for?” - Do not go into specifics about salary during the interview. An answer might be “I would expect a compensation package that’s competitive with other highly qualified candidates, but money is not my main concern. Opportunity and growth are far more important. What I’d rather do, if you don’t mind, is explore if I’m right for the position, and then talk about money. Would that be okay?”  If forced to give a number, use data from the ACS Salary Comparator (which you have researched in advance) to give a range that is applicable for this type of job, and assure the interviewer that you know their salary is commensurate with market rates.
  • “Why do you think you’re the best person for this job?” - Repeat why you are uniquely well qualified for the position.  You don’t know anything about the other candidates, so can’t speak about them.
  • “What would you say was your greatest weakness?” - The standard ploy is to name what is in fact a strength—willingness to work hard, for example—and call it a weakness. That’s kind of transparent, and employers expect it. A better strategy is to think back to a past weakness that you have corrected, and describe how you identified the problem, the steps you took to improve the situation, and how it is no longer a problem for you. It demonstrates that you’re willing to think critically about your own skills and are open to constructive feedback and self-improvement.  However, if you choose this strategy be prepared for then to ask you what weakness you are working on improving now. 

Strategies for Answering Difficult Interview Questions

Prepare an answer for each of the previous questions before the interview, just as you would for any other question you think they might ask. In the interview itself, take a breath and think for a second to gather your thoughts before you answer.

Ask for clarification, if appropriate, or restate the question. Also, you may ask for the “question behind the question.” Perhaps the interviewer is trying to communicate a concern by asking about your family situation if the job involves late hours.

Support your assertions with evidence, stories, and specific examples. Always tell the truth (it’s easier to keep track of). This sounds obvious, but avoid the temptation to embellish your accomplishments. False information can cost you the interview or the job. Your behavior is likely to give you away, anyway. If you stammer or appear hesitant or anxious, an observant interviewer probably will ask follow-up questions. If you’re asked whether you can perform a certain task and you dishonestly say yes, it will be very embarrassing to admit you can’t once you’re on the job. If your credibility is damaged there’s little you can do to recover, and you’re likely to lose the job even after you get it.

No matter how much you want the job, go about it honestly. If you’ve reviewed your résumé and other materials, you can be clear about your skills and accomplishments without having to exaggerate.