Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Five Worst Interview Questions

My friends, I apologize for my extended absence. Over the past several days I've had a rather interesting series of misadventures, and some day (if I'm not careful) I'm likely to tell you all about them.

Meanwhile, now that I'm back to my regularly-scheduled--um, schedule--I'm teaching a class called Career Development.  Of course, it has as a primary topic a lesson or two on doing resumes, but too many people look at it as just a resume course.  It's so much more than that.  There are lessons on networking, lessons on researching, lessons on what to do after you accept your dream job to build it into a career, and so on.  And there are many lessons, too, on everyone's anti-favorite topic: interviewing.

Yes, I know how much everyone hates to interview.  Hate it, hate it, hate it.  But like doing basic math, and like eating spinach, it's a basic requirement of life.  If you're going to be successful, you will have to face down the dragon of the interview process and learn to come through it relatively unburnt.

I know, I know, I hear the contrary voice already: but what if you work for yourself?  Working for yourself creates your own employment opportunity, poorly-paying though it may be at first, and so there's no interviewing required, right?


Someone who's self-employed may not have to interview with a potential boss, but at the same time he isn't going to make any money at all unless he's selling either a product or a service.  After all, the only place you can open your doors and have people walk in and give you money is a church.  If you're selling a good or a service, you're making sales pitches.  Maybe you're making them in person, maybe not.  Maybe the pitch is in front of a board of directors, and maybe it's in the form of a query letter to an agent or a publisher.  Doesn't matter, it's a pitch.  And a pitch is just, I must add, like an interview.

That said, saying that a sales pitch is just another interview is backward.  I should be saying that an interview is just another sales pitch.  In a job interview, you're selling the most precious thing you have in the world: your future time.  Your job is to convince the buyer--the interviewer--that your future efforts will provide more benefit to the company than they cost.  The buyer, meanwhile, is trying to determine whether your future efforts will benefit the company more than others' future efforts.

It's a complicated game.  It is, however, quite do-able, and actually kind of enjoyable once you get the idea behind the process and learn to relax.

Interviews take many forms, incidentally.  To enter West Point I had to endure a grueling panel interview in the Congressman's office to win his nomination.  To get my first job after the Army, I had to show up and prove I could say the world "computer" without messing it up.  My second job after the Army was even simpler: I don't even recall being asked any questions other than "when can you start?"

The first two jobs after the Army, however, were for fairly low-wage positions, one a retail clerk and one a bench electronics tech.  The employer in neither case was betting much on the outcome.  For my first teacher position, a job directly impacting the organization's customers, I endured a screening interview, followed by a panel interview, followed by a "test teach" in which I had to present a lesson (on Windows 3.1, which will give you an idea how long ago that was).  For other interviews I've had psychological and even math/logic tests.  For my dean positions I've handled series interviews in which they march the candidate (me!) from office to office for an hour-long question and answer session in each location.  Some interviewers have been the program directors who will work for me, and they often all ask the same questions as each other, while others are corporate heads who ask questions directed from different areas of the business.

It's--well, it's tough.

So with that in mind, let me talk about the five hardest questions I've had to face:

Tell me about yourself.

The interviewer doesn't want to hear about where you grew up, nor does he want a rambling discourse on every job you've had.  This is a prompt for what's known in sales as the elevator pitch.  It's named such because it's what every good salesman has on the tip of his tongue in the event of meeting somebody somewhere--like an elevator--and not having a lot of time to explain what he's selling.  Have you ever seen anybody remain on an elevator after their floor is reached?  I haven't either.  An elevator pitch has to be quick, it has to be engaging, and it has to be powerful.

Thirty seconds is what we teach in class; you have thirty seconds to impress the interviewer with your education, your experience, and your character before he starts thinking about finishing the interview and going to lunch.  This is the key part of any interview, and it's the answer you should spend the most time rehearsing.  Rehearse it till you can't stand it any more.  Rehearse it till your dog starts walking away from you when you start in on it.  Rehearse it till you sound like you're not just rehearsing it. 

So I understand you met ______ (another interviewer).  What did you think?

To quote the robot on the classic Lost In Space: "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"  This one's a steaming pit of fanged vipers waiting to swallow you.  Remember, you don't know the office politics.  You don't know what the two people think of each other.  You should, however, know this: speaking poorly about the other interviewer, no matter what the guy did during your time together, is always a wrong answer.  So, incidentally, is speaking glowingly of him--best case, it'll come off as sycophantic, and worst case you're heaping praise on a guy the current interviewer despises.

Words you should consider using: professional, articulate, qualified.  Interesting is a good word to use if your impression wasn't all that great.  Think of something positive to say.  And don't under any circumstances let the interviewer lead you down a negative path, no matter what negative comments he may make.  Remember, he might be employing the stress interview technique of baiting.  Just.  Don't.  Take.  The.  Bait.

What are your greatest strengths?  What are your greatest weaknesses?

Yes, I bundled the two questions, because they're two sides of the same hazing technique.  Hey, look, if they wanted a perfect person they would start by asking you to walk across the office pond.  They also don't want someone who's perfectly without strengths, of course.  But think about what you're going to say (hopefully before the interview).  If you're asked about strengths, keep in mind that they don't care about your strong musical ability--that is, unless you're applying to be a rock star or some such.  Pick strengths that are directly applicable to the job at hand.

The weaknesses part always messes people up.  I know, 'cause I always ask that question when I'm the interviewer.  "I don't have any significant weaknesses" sounds to the interviewer like "I'm a dirty rotten liar who's only interested in getting a job so I can pay for my crack habit till I'm fired."   You have weaknesses.  I have weaknesses.  Everybody has weaknesses.  But here's the thing--be smart about the ones you tell him about.  Make them job-related, and make sure they're weaknesses that can be turned into strengths.  For example: "I am not good at keeping up with filing in the midst of a normal day of management" (which is something nearly any honest manager would cop to) "BUT I've learned to compensate for that by coming in while my kids are at baseball/soccer/music events to catch up on the mundane crap of office life."

Okay, leave off the kids part, and the mundane crap part.  But do you see where I went with that?  I showed that I acknowledge I'm not good at something, and that I know how to work around it, and while I was sailing that tack I managed to zip in the conversation that I'm a hard worker. Win, win.  And win. 

Tell me specifics about a time you demonstrated _______.

Now, this question is more complex than it appears at face value.  It's a part of what is called behavioral interviewing, a technique founded on the philosophy that your past behavior is the best indicator of your future performance.  What the interviewer is looking for is a specific example from your past that will show him that you're more likely to respond appropriately in the future.

I love asking this type of question, by the way.  When we interview faculty candidates, I'm the meanie who comes in after the program director and zings behavioral question after behavioral question at the teacher to be.  "Tell me about a teacher you thought did a great job.  Mm hmm, and so what was it that Mr. Smith did that earned him that?  Tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult student.  Tell me about a time you worked with a student of a racial or ethnic background different from yours.  Tell me about the time you most embarrassed yourself in front of a class."

That last one is nearly out of bounds, so I seldom actually ask it.  I think it, though.  If you've been in a classroom for any significant length of time, you've done something embarrassing, trust me. 

What can go wrong with your answer?  Well, a few things, actually.  One mistake that many interviewees make is to completely ignore the request for something specific and give generalities: "when dealing with difficult students, you should...."  No, I don't need to know what you should do.  I need to know what you did do.  That's why I'm asking a behavioral question.  Another is that they give examples that aren't really relevant.

The worst mistake interviewees make, though, is sitting there looking like a fish out of water, bequeathing me with an ultra-intelligent sounding series of "um, um, um, um, um...."  Hey, lookit, I don't expect you to remember everything you've ever done.  But certain key things should stand out, like the first time you broke up a fight in a classroom.  Unfortunately nerves can play a big factor in our ability to dredge stuff up out of our memory banks, but that's why preparation is so important.  I have a series of the most likely behavioral questions interviewers will ask me written down, and I have notes about the answer I can give.  If I am going into an interview, I'll review them quickly.  I've pre-selected certain events in my past that make the best answers to those questions and several others, and I know those cold.

Practice, practice, practice. 

Why shouldn't I hire you?

What the hell do you mean, why shouldn't you hire me?  I'm perfect for this job.  There's nobody in the entire world who can do this crap like I can.  Hire me, or you'll regret it till your dying day--hell, till your grandson's grandson's dying day.


I can tell you from experience that this is probably the toughest question to answer in an interview.  You've primed yourself up to spend an hour telling the guy why he should hire you, and wouldn't you know that he pulls this crap on you.  Why shouldn't he hire you?  Why?  I don't know--I think he should, right?  I mean, does he not like me?  Am I the wrong person for the job and didn't realize it?  Am I worthless, weak?


Ease up a bit, pardner.  The answer to this one is related closely to the "greatest weakness" question.  It's just--well, bigger in scope.  Greatest weaknesses can be little stuff, but this one's your chance to prove that you know the overarching picture.  The best answer to it will be completely specific to the job for which you're applying, too.

Find the thing that most people would look for in the position that least describes you--that you can turn into a positive.  It's tough, but I'll give you a personal example.  A lot of career colleges are heavy in allied health programs (like medical assistant, dental assistant, and so on).  I have zero background in those fields; I'm an old grumpy IT guy at heart.  What in the hell would an old grumpy IT guy be doing running an allied health school?

Good question, right?

The answer is fairly simple: I'm an expert not in any AH field, but rather in both business (by virtue of my MBA and background) and education (by virtue of my PhD and background).  That makes me qualified to be a dean, but the cherry on top of that sundae is that I won't ever be accused of playing the Favorite Program game at an all-AH school.  Most deans come from one program or another, which means that that particular program is either the most fully-resourced, or the most picked-on, or both.  If I'm applying to an AH school dean position, though, I don't have that potential problem, right?

So--my answer to that question: well, you might be more interested at first in someone who comes from a background in one of the disciplines you teach.  In my case, though, you'll find what I think you need more: an education expert who's impartial, who's going to be fair across the board in his treatment of all the program directors and their faculty and students.

See how that works?  Turn a frown, upside down!

Gawd, I hate that phrase.  I hate it even more when I type it.

On that note, go forth and interview!


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