Job interviews: Prepare for the right comeback

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Wallace Immen, From Friday’s Globe and Mail

James Dimas thought he was well prepared to answer any question a job interviewer could pose, but he was caught completely off guard when a hiring manager asked: “What’s your favourite colour?”

“I had no idea what he was getting at,” said Mr. Dimas, who was interviewing for a full-time job in information technology in Vancouver.

“I know there is a theory in personality assessment that picking red means you are competitive, blue might indicate that you are creative and pink might be an indication that you aren’t aggressive enough. But it’s still a stupid question,” said Mr. Dimas, who lives in Vancouver and has been blogging about his interview experiences on the website LinkedIn.com.

His response to the interviewer was: “How is this relevant to our discussion today?” In that case, the fact that the interviewer had no good answer tipped off Mr. Dimas that he didn’t want to work for the company.

“Asking how questions are relevant helps keep interviews on track and gains respect of interviewers because it shows I’m focused on the job at hand,” said Mr. Dimas, who is currently doing contract software sales.

Having the right comeback can help you stand out from the crowd as the peak fall job-hunting season opens, career experts say. Interviewers facing marathon days of grilling candidates will be ruthless in trying to separate the gems from the also-rans by asking questions designed to test a candidate’s ability to think on their feet.

Ultimately, it’s not about answering quickly, but about speaking creatively and following up with relevant and interesting information so that an interviewer who may have asked a question a thousand times will perk up and think, “Wow, this person is saying something worth hearing,” the pros say.

The Globe and Mail asked Mr. Dimas, as well as career coaches Colleen Clarke, president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto; Jack Chapman, Chicago-based owner of Lucrative Careers Inc. and author of Negotiating Your Salary, and Scott Ginsberg, a St. Louis-based consultant and author of -ABLE: 35 Strategies for Increasing the Probability of Success in Business and in Life, for tips on anticipating tough interview questions and following up creatively. Here’s a summary of their responses:

Where do you want to be five years from now?

Best response: Because you don’t want to be seen as mercenary, use a response along the lines of “I hope to still be working for this company, with newly acquired skills, and growing responsibility.”

Pitfall: Don’t go into the exact title you’re aiming for in the future because that job isn’t on the table now. And don’t say you want to reach a certain level, because that might indicate you would leave if promotion doesn’t come fast enough.

Why do you want to work for this company?

Best response: You’ll want to come armed with research about the company. Not only does the job posting match your qualifications but you’ve done your homework and you’ve found you really like the company’s reputation and its prospects for the future.

Pitfall: Don’t suggest that you’re looking at the job because you’re in the market for a new challenge. Your message should be “I chose you,” not that you will try this on for size.

Why should we hire you?

Best response: Have an answer prepared about how you will save them money, increase productivity or free them to do their job by taking care of pressing needs using your unique skills.

Pitfall: Don’t simply list your skills. This isn’t a question about you; they already know your skills and now they want to hear how hiring you benefits them.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

Best response: Come to the interview with a recent example of success that is relevant to the position and the company that you are interviewing with. Radiate pride in the telling.

Pitfall: Saying anything that could be interpreted as negative, such as that you managed to avoid downsizing at your last employer.

What skill do you believe needs development?

Best response: No one likes to be asked the weakness question, but prepare for it with something you can do, would like to excel at and preferably is something that you are already taking action to improve. An example might be that your French is a bit rusty but you’ve just joined a French discussion group to upgrade your skills.

Pitfall: Being too flip or being too honest. Go in to the interview with two different examples, because they may find one too obvious.

Why did you leave your last job?

Best response: The truth is the simplest explanation possible. “A personality conflict” is perfectly fine as an explanation if you were dismissed, for example. And “reorganization” covers a multitude of scenarios. Answer quickly and move on.

Pitfall: Many people are tempted to overexplain. But people don’t care about every detail; they just want to know why you left.


BEWARE THE QUIRKY QUESTIONS

Don’t be fazed by weird and seemingly irrelevant questions.

What is the last book you read?

Best response: If only Robert Ludlum or Moby Dick come to mind, just say you are an avid reader not only of books but articles related to your industry.

Pitfall: Straining to think of a good response or saying it’s been a long time, which suggests you aren’t organized enough to make the time to read.

What real or fictional person would you trade places with for a week?

Best response: Something along the lines of “I haven’t thought about being someone else, but if there is one person I respect deeply is my dad.” If you answer it this way – they have no choice but to respect your answer.

Pitfall: This can be a real trap. The person you like may be someone the interviewer personally despises.

If you won $20-million in the lottery, what would you do with the money?

Best response: Keep it short and caring: “I would use it to help people,” which shows generosity and responsibility.

Pitfall: Saying anything that suggests that if you had the chance, you’d ditch your job.

Why did you work a short time at a previous job?

Best response: A simple statement that the choice was beyond your control. A good answer might be: “I can understand your concern, however, being in a company like this, with the right management and vision, will make sure that I stay for years to come.”

Pitfall: Getting into your interpretation, reaction or frustration. What’s done is done and you should be looking forward confidently.


THE RIGHT ANSWERS

“Tell me about yourself …” can be a minefield in a job interview. Here are suggestions for the types of responses that can make a memorable impression, from career adviser Scott Ginsberg, author of 11 job-hunting books.

State your brand

“I can summarize who I am in three words,” immediately grabs attention and demonstrates your ability to be concise, creative and compelling.

Have a credo

Being able to say “A quotation I live my life by is …” will show that personal development is an essential part of your growth plan.

Offer insight

“People who know me best say that I’m …” is a response that indicates you have good self-awareness.

Be unexpected

“Well, I Googled myself this morning, and here’s what I found …” is a way to sound tech-savvy and fun.

State a vision

A statement like “My passion is …” demonstrates you have enthusiasm and drive.

Make this job your goal

“When I was seven years old, I always wanted to be …” can suggest you’ve been preparing for this job your whole life, not just the night before.

Be entertaining

“If Hollywood made a movie about my life, it would be called …” gives you star potential.

Show and tell

Find a creative image or object and say: “Can I show you, instead of tell you?” Mr. Ginsberg is fond of pulling a brightly coloured pebble out of his jacket pocket and saying, “I’m solid as a rock.” Who could forget an answer like that?

Create a testimonial

“The compliment people give me most frequently is …” not only becomes a recommendation, it indicates you welcome and act on feedback.