Keep calm and carry on

We take a look at some awkward job interview situations... and how to best handle them. Iwona Tokc-Wilde reports

Many of us have been there; others have heard cringeworthy stories that usually go something like this.

Everything starts well – your handshake is met with a smile from the interviewer, some small talk follows and you relax a bit. Then the interview proper begins and, because you have prepared, you manage to answer all their questions confidently. You can already see what your desk will look like until, suddenly, the interview takes a nosedive. Either it is a question you did not expect or the interviewer says or does something that throws you off balance, and you end up waving the job a mental goodbye.

You needn’t be too worried – you can still salvage the interview and come out on top. Let’s take a look at some of those tricky interview questions and moments, and how you can best deal with them.

Tricky questions

When you are asked an awkward question, it is probably not because they want to catch you out and see you get flustered, but because they try to test your ability to think on your feet. ‘These questions are designed to reveal more of the “real you”,’ adds Tony Stevens, regional manager at Hays Senior Finance.

‘Why did you leave your last job?’ is a classic and can be tricky to answer if you were made redundant or left on bad terms. ‘Be honest, say how you’ve learnt from the experience and that you are ready for the next challenge,’ says Nicholas Kirk, senior managing director at Page Personnel Finance. Whenever you get a question you could easily give a negatively charged answer to, always put a positive spin on it. ‘What would you say your weaknesses are?’ is another example. ‘Think of your weaknesses as development areas and explain you’ve started to address them – this will reflect well on you,’ says Stevens. ‘Briefly outline the situation which led to the “difficulty” or issue, the action you took to resolve it and the result.’  

‘Why would you like to work here?’ may not appear tricky at first, but ask yourself – what is it they really want to know? ‘They are checking if you’ve researched the company, its products and services, culture and values,’ says Julie Cooper, co-author of The Job Interview Toolkit. ‘It’s crucial to demonstrate enthusiasm for working for this specific company, rather than coming over as “any job will do”,’ she says.  

The question that may follow is: ‘Why should we employ you, rather than one of the other candidates?’ ‘This is your chance to make yourself stand out,’ says Kirk. The interviewer wants to know which of your skills and qualities make you the best person for the job. Assuming you researched the requirements of the job prior to the interview, the best way to answer this is to list your key competencies that match these requirements. ‘For example, your analytical skills, communication and presentations skills, positive attitude and leadership spirit,’ says Nadim Choudhury, head of careers services and employability at the London School of Business and Finance. ‘Make sure you can  illustrate each with a real-life example,’ he adds.

And what if they ask about a skill you do not have, perhaps in relation to a specific task? Bring out other skills you would use to accomplish the same thing, or demonstrate your ability to learn new things quickly by giving them a specific example.

Faced with a question you do not understand, try not to freeze but immediately ask for clarification.  ‘You can also ask for time to think so you don’t get it wrong, which could mean you ruin an otherwise successful interview,’ says Stevens. On occasion, you may get a question that feels inappropriate – for example, about your age or family status. ‘There are still employers that use questions like these even though it’s bad practice,’ says Cooper. ‘It might be a sign they are not the right employer for you, but they might just be trying to get to know you. You don’t have to reveal anything you don’t want to – smile and ask them why they need the information.’

If you are unhappy with something you have said, start over or go back to it later. ‘An interview is a two-way process so it’s acceptable for you to take the initiative,’ says Cooper. ‘You could say “could we go back to something I said earlier? I didn’t explain myself well”,’ she recommends.

At the end, you usually hear ‘do you have any questions for me?’ and all you really want to know is if they are going to hire you. Don’t be tempted to answer with a stock response, though – it shows a lack of interest in the company. ‘Instead, you could ask about their plans for the future – expansion, new products or areas – or about ways of working and how teams are managed,’ says Cooper. ‘Have the questions written down beforehand and check your list when they ask.’ This again shows you have done your homework.

"When you are asked an awkward question, it is probably not because they want to catch you out and see you get flustered, but because they try to test your ability to think on your feet."