Money & Career

How to answer tough job interview questions

©iStockphoto.com/AlexRath Image by: ©iStockphoto.com/AlexRath Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

How to answer tough job interview questions

One of the most nerve-wracking, if not the most nerve-wracking, parts of the job-hunting process is anticipating tough questions that come up during interviews. Getting stumped in the middle of an interview can cause apprehension even if you know you can nail every aspect of a job.

First off, you need to accept that while you might not be able to anticipate every hard question in the world, you can prepare smart and honest responses for some of the more common ones so you can face your next interview with confidence.

We checked in with career counsellor Shirin Khamisa, the founder of Careers by Design, for some best practices for how to keep your proverbial cool in real-life interviews. Here are some tricky questions that come up, plus how to deal with them.

1. "What's your biggest weakness?"
This is the question most of us love to hate, and yes, it still gets asked by potential employers. Although some interviewers have moved on to situational questions -- meaning, queries that start by asking you about a scenario (a situational question might start with "Tell me about a time when…") -- many still ask this simple question or a variation of it. Interviewees get tripped up by this question, says Khamisa. "An ineffective answer is to give a cliched response, such as 'I tend to be a perfectionist' or 'I'm a workaholic,'" she says.

The solution is to be real when answering this question but to disclose something that's not integral to the job role, otherwise you may cast doubt on your ability. "Talk about a weakness that you have identified as an area of professional development. Show how you have already made some progress and share your goals for improvement," says Khamisa.

2. "What is your salary expectation?"
It's tough to be put on the spot about how much you want to earn, even if you're quite sure of what you want to be paid; it's even harder if you're unsure. That's where research and confidence come in. "Some experts say that being the first one to propose a number is a show of power, and others assert that knowing what the other party is thinking gives you the advantage," says Khamisa. "I advise my clients to directly ask employers to tell them the salary range they have determined for the role. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask." Then, you can assess whether the market information you have gathered is realistic.

At that point, you can give an answer if you're comfortable or you can ask for some time to think about it. "In order to talk money, you need to have a full understanding of what the role involves," she says. "So if you don't have enough details to answer the salary question, say so, and ask for the information you need."

3. "Why did you leave your last job?" or "Why do you want to leave your job?"
There is no one-size-fits-all response to this, but definitely don't let it push your buttons and evoke an emotional response. "I worked with an accountant who came across as very calm and insisted she was no longer affected by the conflict with her previous boss; she was surprised when she found herself venting during an interview for a new position about how she had been mistreated," says Khamisa. Another client, a laid-back marketing manager, was so embarrassed about being laid off that she spent valuable  "air time" at the interview overexplaining and defending herself, recalls Khamisa.

The key is to release the feelings from work-related issues and conflicts so you can answer the question appropriately; seek help from a career counsellor if you really don't know what to say.

4. "Tell me about a time when you failed."
This is the aforementioned situational question posed by job interviewers, which sometimes is phrased as "Tell me about a challenge and how you overcame it." The reason for this is employers want a sense of whether you're resilient, says Khamisa. However, interviewees dread talking about mistakes. Here's how Khamisa recommends you do it:

"You can use the acronym CAR to help you remember," she says. Paint a picture by giving a concrete example that briefly describes how you failed (Challenge), how you bounced back (Action) and how you used this learning to further develop an important skill (Result).

Here's an example:
C: "I hired someone who was not a good fit for the job and had to let him go within six months."

A: "Before I hired again, I took time to evaluate what went wrong. I consulted a mentor and listened to an audio course to help me build the skill of selecting the right staff."

R: "The next five people I hired have all been a good fit and made a significant contribution to the team and the bottom line."

5. "_________?"
Yes, fill in the blank yourself. Because everyone has her own stumper, and part of preparing for a job interview is identifying the questions that you find most difficult. You don't have to go it alone, either. Try your answers out on a colleague or a friend who doesn't know all the details of what you do, says Khamisa. This will help you uncover where you're using jargon or making assumptions that language you used at your previous employer is generally understood.

You can also get professional help in your interview preparation from a career coach, who will help you to confidently communicate your value to employers. "Since your strengths come so naturally to you, you may not realize the value of what you can offer an employer. Other times, the problem is you don't have the words to specifically describe your skills," says Khamisa.

While you can hire a career coach, keep in mind that, in Canada, many communities, organizations and provincial governments provide career-counselling services for free. Start with an online search tailored to your community, such as "free career-counselling Edmonton." If you're a recent graduate, your alma mater may have a career centre or services or counsellors to help you out.

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