Turning The Tables

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.


  1. The best thing about my involuntary retirement is that I’ll never again have to fill out a job application, write a resume or endure a job interview.

    It’s as great as it sounds

  2. Back when I was looking for my first post-college job in 1985 I encountered an ad in the NY Times (back when that’s where you looked for a job) I found one that wanted someone with ten years experience with DB2. DB2’s first release was in 1983, so even people who worked at IBM on developing DB2 weren’t going to have ten years of experience with it. You just KNOW that ad was written by an HR drone.

  3. Deliciously snarky and yet productive. But you’re absolutely right about “personnel>human resources>talent,” which I bitch about frequently. Are you Bob with the NSA? Because one of those conversations took place quite recently.

    As an English major, I should be in HR, but then I’d have to kill myself. Their job is apparently to enable existing dysfunction within the corporate structure.

    Regarding office politics, my greatest weakness is that I’m often the last one to discover who might be sleeping with whom, since I’m too busy doing my job. This is a good thing, because if I find out about inappropriate behavior, for example, one of management meeting outside of the office with one of the young girls in customer service, I’m the one who will go directly to the CEO. Been there, done that.

    He denied it up and down, she left the company, and the CEO, a good Christian man, thanked me for bringing it to his attention. Sadly, he retired, and the guy who couldn’t keep it in his pants took over the company and ran it into the ground. Poor judgment in one aspect of behavior usually translates to other aspects as well.

  4. I’ve never been the interviewer, but I have sat in on a number of interviews for positions that would involve working with me.

    I was asked to come up with what I would consider challenging questions for an interviewee once.


  5. I have experience on each side of this situation and now that I am retired the second time I don’t plan to be an interviewer or interviewee again, ever. Briefly I thought I would like to work with our local Parks & Recreation two years ago and I have a good interview, was hired and then had to take a brief physical which was required of all manciple workers. At the little Doc-in-the-Box a nurse was assigned to take my vitals, then she checked my hearing with hearing aids on and eyesight and told me if I were driving a vehicle I probably would not qualify and she handed me a little cup for my drug test and asked if I had ever had a drug test. My answer was not in the past 69 years and I did pass that test which did not surprise me and working with the public for the first time in over a decade it only took me a few months to decide I really don’t like working with people that way anymore. I took the job for fun and found out times and changed and people have changed and I have not.

    Most of my time I was either owner or manger with up to several hundred people at times and when I could find decent applicants I enjoyed the interview process because within three or four minutes I had a good idea about the character of the interviewee. At that stage of the interview it was either thank you for coming in ever so much or a shift into real getting to know you interview. In stage two I would invite the interviewee to ask more questions about the job and I would talk a bit about expectations of the position and ask open ended questions. Given a bit of time with a question like I enjoy reading history, how about you? Or I hope the weather stays clear this weekend because my wife and I like to spend time outside and then I would shut up and listen because most people I was interested in hiring would have something interesting to say without me asking an inappropriate question about age, family, etc.

    Given enough time and nods of the head while listening made sense for me and I hire some nice good people that ended up working and moving up some staying until retirement while I moved on. I dislike the put them on the spot questions and make the squirm because sometime the liars and weasel are masters at giving smooth answers while the honest, truthful people may try to overthink, stutter and stumble with the answer. But that’s just me and my take on the interview thing.

  6. I interview people for engineering jobs rather frequently. I am apparently an a**hole because I tend to ask engineers engineering problem solving questions and not just the company approved questions. That said, the people I hire tend to have very good track records (because I know they know how to solve problems, which is their job). This is not really my idea, I am try to asks questions that are conceptually similar to the Nuclear Power technical interviews I had to go through in the Nav.

    I have had higher management veto my choices and pick other people – that has been a disaster every time it happened. When it has happened, it is mostly for “diversity” stuff – i.e. female engineers, which I don’t have a conceptual problem and I have hired female (and black) engineers who worked out great, but if they can’t solve problems in an interview, they don’t magically get better because you hire them even if they are female/minority. Actually, the biggest problem when you find a good female/minority engineer is that typically they have so many options that your chances of getting them (or retaining them) is slim.

  7. Von, that is so true, going back to the early 70’s we worked so hard to hire qualified diversity and when we hired them they were hard to keep.

  8. It’s become increasingly apparent to me that in the last couple of decades, the mission priorities of the HR department have shifted dramatically from “support the enterprise by performing valuable personnel related tasks” to “mitigate and manage business risk emanating from bureaucratic and regulatory demands, with an emphasis on covering the risks coming from an ever expanding list of possible employee tort actions.”

    To top it all off, ambitious HR veeps will insert themselves into leadership failure situations, offering snake oil seminar and management training solutions as a substitute for actually creating an organization capable of executing the business plan.

    1. Yeah, I was once offered a consulting gig with a company whose VP of HR sat on the Board, and to whom I’d have to report on the project. I passed.
      Two years later they went out of business.

    2. Indeed. A couple years ago my wife’s company had a candidate at an interview who was obviously about seven months pregnant. They couldn’t NOT offer her the job, lest she sue for discrimination, despite the fact that she went on maternity leave a week after her first day of work, and stayed out for a year (with benefits). And of course they couldn’t hire someone ELSE for the job, because the job had to be there for her when she got back, so the other people in the department had to pick up the slack, exactly what they were trying to prevent by hiring someone in the first place,

  9. I’m pretty sure corporate doesn’t want me asking or answering those hiring questions. In response to that “where do you see yourself in X years?”, I want to answer, “Wandering the post-apocalyptic wastelands, searching for clean water and food, and hunting zombies, with my carbine and dog by my side.” Also, when they call for someone to do a quick interview of a new applicant, I want to ask that person, “In these times of civil unrest, there may come a point when this business needs some Rooftop Koreans to defend our property. Would you be willing and able to fulfill that need?” Like I said, I don’t think corporate wants me to do that.

    1. My answer was, “fighting off motorcycle gangs in a post-apocalyptic​ wasteland.”
      The reaction was totally worth it.

      In fairness, it was already clear by that point in the interview that there was no way my application was going to be accepted. The HR dronette made it plain that military experience was something only neanderthals had. She even flinched any time I raised my hands above my waist. (shrug) So I figured I might as well have fun with it.

  10. Those are actually pretty good answers. It’s not surprising that variants would have smart HR folks passing you on to the manager. Someone who likes no bullshit candidates will schedule the interview and say, “find out if he’s just no-nonsense, an asshole, or both.”

    The real problem is those are all horrible questions. They’re traps that are designed to test your willingness to be mistreated, with almost no relation to the job performed.

    And yet – as bad as they are, they do a somewhat reasonable job of getting someone employed. They filter out crazy people. I knew a former colonel who swore by the biggest weakness question. I think it’s because when he barked at you in a command voice, you admitted you spent the weekend smoking meth and probably wouldn’t be dependable in the long term.

    About the only thing worse than those questions are the “challenging” ones. People being interviewed are not there to entertain you.

    Old Texan has the common belief that in three of four minutes, he had the measure of a person. It’s actually between 10-12 seconds. You can videotape an hour-long interview, and show 10 second installments to random people. They predict who gets the job with well over 90% accuracy in just those 10 seconds.

    Yikes! Then why all the fuss?

    First, intuition is only really good for finding bad people. Your gut is good for sniffing out problems, and terrible at assessing potential.
    Second, interviews are mostly about connection. You make them last for a long time so that both parties are invested in the success of the employee. Hire quickly managers fire quickly because interviews aren’t painful. Jobseekers who have a history of short interview to hire time quit at the drop of the hat. We tend to not think about that when designing interview questions.
    Lastly, the best interview is one where the interviewer and the interviewee create a mental picture of working together. The jobseeker thinks they can do the job without getting yelled at, and the manager thinks they can hire without having to yell at or fire the person. It really is that simple (it’s not, but I didn’t want to have to start explaining speech patterns and brainwave hertz frequency).

    Interviewing is hard because we don’t really know what makes a good employee or a good team. We know what it looks like, but we don’t know why.

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