Be Sure To Answer The Question Asked

For a job interviewer, few things are annoying as asking a question and then having the candidate for the job talk for the next three or four minutes and not answer the question asked. Sometimes it’s by accident and sometimes it’s by design, but in both cases, you’ll get a failing grade.

Let’s say you get asked why you left your last position, and the truth of the matter is you were fired. Okay so that question is the one you’ve been dreading, hoping it wouldn’t come up, and yet here it is dropped into your lap and you’ve got to respond in some way. Telling the interviewer anything but why you left your last job sends up huge red flags in the mind of the interviewer.

Now the interviewer is suspicious about you and your integrity and honesty, your ability to listen and respond appropriately, may be insulted by your apparent belief that the interviewer will be gullible enough to not notice, etc. Of course saying nothing more than, “I was fired” isn’t great either. In this case it would be better to be honest yes, but to immediately start the rebuilding and repair work necessary to put your dismissal in the best light possible without at the same time discrediting or painting the past employer as a fool.

Again, look at a question like, “How has your past experience and education prepared you for this position?” The interviewer is giving you the chance to pick and choose responsibilities and achievements from your present and/or past employment/volunteer experience and your education, and draw a link to how the company would benefit from having you bring those to the job. Unfortunately, many people I’ve interviewed myself tend to talk only about their past experience and fail to then do the critical piece which is to demonstrate their understanding of the job they are now applying to and how they could use those skills.

Of course being able to link any experience and education to the job you are applying to demands one essential piece of information; you must understand thoroughly the position you are actually applying for ahead of the interview. Many years ago I was in a position where I was hiring sales people in work in fashion and footwear. I remember asking the question, “So tell me what your understanding is of the job you are applying for?” Most people immediately started talking about variations of sales and service; the essential guts of the job. One applicant said however that he had no idea what the job really involved and yet he said he was totally qualified to do it. If you have no idea what skills are required to do a job, how can you say you are qualified?

In this day and age, many jobs that are advertised include a list of responsibilities, educational requirements, desired qualities and skills, time commitments, and sometimes even where the position ranks as in upper or lower management, entry-level etc. The job description and the requirements provide huge clues as to what qualities and strengths you should be talking about in your interview.

So you get asked, “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses”, or some version of this question. If you have done your homework and actually studied the job posting more than once, or viewed the company’s website to find out about what the company values, you now have some ammunition to build into your answer.
So talking about your laid-back approach to dealing with people and your low-pressure sales tactics may be ideal in some positions, but if the car dealership says right in the ad that they want people who are aggressive, driven to up-sell, and tenacious, you won’t fit in. This homework is how you answer the question asked AND fit the criteria.

Now there’s always the exception. “How old are you?” or “And what are your political/religious views?” These two questions where I live in Canada are illegal. So are questions about your sexual orientation, your ethnicity etc. You still have to decide how to address the question once asked. You might not mind saying, “I’m 32 years old”. But you might not feel comfortable saying, “I’m 18”, or “I’m 62”. You could reply, “That’s interesting, because we both know that this question is illegal, so I’m intrigued that you’ve asked it. I’d be willing to tell you if you might tell me how my age would impact my ability to perform the responsibilities of the job”. It would depend on how the interview is progressing and the tone of things leading up to the question as to what you’d say.

If you are unsure of the question once you’ve launched into your answer, consider checking with the interviewer to ensure you heard the question correctly. A better strategy of course would be to ponder the question a second or two longer than you normally might and come up with a proper response right off the bat.

All the best in your job interviews to come!


One thought on “Be Sure To Answer The Question Asked

  1. This article makes a very valid point. Great candidates really listen to the interviewer. They want to know the interviewer’s interests. They are not busy formulating a reply even before the interviewer finishes his question.

    But there is another point worth making: after you answer the question the interviewer asked, answer the question he should have asked.

    Consider the standard question: “tell me about your greatest weakness?” Clearly the interviewer doesn’t want you to catalog your shortcomings, particularly if it’s done in a self-serving way.

    What the interviewer may want to know is how devoted you are to your own professional development. For example, consider a senior executive looking for a position as a chief marketing officer in the automotive industry.

    Well before he arrived at the interview, he takes stock not just of what he knows and what he can do, but what he doesn’t know, but should. He now has one-half the answer to the question. The other half is what actions he should take to remedy the situation.

    While I am no fan of “scripts” in interviews, our candidate might answer the question this way: “As I follow industry trends closely, I noticed the EU is imposing challenging fuel economy limits to be in force by 2016. Some companies, like BMW, seem to respond by focusing on hybrids. That’s where I need to get smarter. What is the potential ROI for a company in our industry that invests heavily in hybrids? I’ve already reached out to my network to get informed answers. I’m also reading the EU mandate in detail. I should have a recommended approach in about 30 days. When I do, I’d like to get your reactions to it.”

    Notice that the answer is always aimed at offering the interviewer value. And it aims at continuing the conversation.

    After all, the best interviews are collaborations; not interrogations.


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