We’re all familiar with those tiresome magazine or newspaper articles which tell you “How To Ace That Sweet Job Interview” or suchlike nonsense. I’ve sat on both sides of the desk many times, and I am still amazed not just at the stupidity of interviewees, but also at the still-greater idiocy of the interviewers — and I mean the “screening” interviewers such as Human Resources (or as we used to call it, Personnel, a more honest term in that it involved persons as opposed to resources). Mostly, interviews with the people who are going to be your future boss are hundreds of times more productive because the manager has a better idea of what he needs from a subordinate, than does some drone with an English degree who can barely understand the corporate mission statement, let alone the specific needs of an engineering or marketing department.
So, with all the usual caveats — following my advice is something you need to do with the greatest suspicion and/or trepidation — allow me to present Kim’s Ultimate Answers To Interviewers’ Dumb Questions.
“What skills will you bring to the company?”
– You mean, other than what’s on my resumé?
“Can you explain some of the gaps in your resumé?”
– I don’t consider them to be gaps. During one of those “gaps”, as you call them, I learned to speak a foreign language. During another “gap”, I learned basic HTML. I used those opportunities to improve my marketplace value.
“Are you a punctual person?”
– For me, five minutes early is on time. But the converse of that is that unless it’s a client, I don’t tolerate unpunctuality in other people.
“Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.”
– You need to define what you consider “difficult” first. What some people might consider difficult, I might consider unremarkable or inconsequential. (Then examples: I once turned a competitor’s best customer into one of our best customers. I turned our cost-center department into a profit center.) Avoid any mention of how you dealt with office politics — these discussions are poison because HR, having no actual marketable skills themselves, will be well versed in those Dark Arts.
“What would you consider your biggest strength as an employee?”
– Managing expectations. Generally, I try to under-promise and over-deliver, and always under budget or ahead of the deadline.
“What would you consider your biggest weakness?”
– You mean work-related weaknesses? Can’t think of any, off-hand, other than perhaps a dislike of unproductive meetings. I get very impatient when my work time is wasted.
(Follow-up snarky question:) “So how would you classify this meeting?”
– This is a productive meeting. From my responses, you’re trying to decide whether you want to employ me; and from the corporate culture you’re showing me, I’m trying to decide whether I’d want to work here.
“Are you prepared to work weekends and holidays?”
– Of course I am. By the way, what’s the usual compensation for doing that: longer vacations, flexible hours, or overtime pay? I don’t mind any of those as exchanges for giving up my personal time. I’m not a clock-watcher by any means, but I do value my spare time. (Unless you’re applying for a management position, this is a perfectly acceptable response, by the way.)
“Do you get along with people?”
– Most people.
(Follow-up question:) “What kind of people don’t you get along with?”
– People who confuse input with output. Also, people who don’t understand the Iron Triangle (cost, time and scope). [If you have to explain the difference between input and output to the interviewer, you may wish to reconsider your job application.]
“What do you know about our company?”
– Other than what’s on your corporate website? Not much. I do know quite a bit about your competitors, though, because I did some homework on them so I could start work as productively as possible.
(Follow-up question #1:) “What do you know about our competitors?”
– I really wouldn’t feel comfortable divulging that except to my future boss, as his subordinate.
(Follow-up question #2:) “Have you been in contact with any of our competitors?”
– Not yet. I wanted to see how things went with your company first.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” (Mostly, this question has disappeared from most interviews, because today’s would-be employees have little idea where they’ll be in five days, let alone years. Still:)
– It really depends on how my job changes, or what happens to the company over that period of time. With the rate of change today, what with companies starting up and failing, or being taken over by competitors, I think that five years is too long a period in which to make strategic career decisions at this point.
“Will you take a drug test?”
– The minute you can prove to me that the CEO and all the other senior executives have taken the same drug test. Then, sure.
[HR will say that they can’t show you that for privacy issues, but repeat that you don’t want to see the results, just proof that the test was taken. When they say, “It’s corporate policy; everyone has to take the test,” insist on proof. If they say, “you have to take my word that everyone has taken the test”, then your response should be that they should have no problem about taking your word that you don’t do drugs. By the way, if senior executives don’t have to take the test, then it’s not corporate policy. If the drug test policy only applies to lower echelons, ask how they’ve avoided being sued so far.]
“Do you have any bad work habits?” (I swear, I was once asked this question, a variation of “What are your weaknesses?” which has now been excoriated so often that it’s no longer asked.)
– I don’t know what constitutes a “bad habit” in your opinion. Could you give me a few examples? (Then answer those, and only those, with responses like: “I’d never do that” or “I’ve never done that” or “People do that?”)
“Do you have any questions for me?”
– Only about the salary (hourly rate), which seems a little modest for the skills and experience you’re asking of an employee at this level. But I’d prefer to discuss that topic with my future boss here, rather than at so early a stage in the process. (Unsaid: I don’t want to hear all that bullshit about salary grades from you, but from the guy who has actual budget authority.)
I should probably point out that if you actually use the above examples in an interview, your chances of getting the job will drop faster than a Kardashian’s panties. But at least you’ll have had some fun along the way. I should also point out that I have used some of these, or at least variations thereof, on my own behalf. Quite often, amazingly, I made it past HR to the boss’s interview because it appeared that the HR drone saw quite clearly that they were out of their depth, and like all good bureaucrats, kicked the problem over to someone else.
Use with caution.