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Getting past sticky interview questions

By Simon on

As much as the role of an interviewer is to unearth your hidden skills, talents, and find the best fit, it’s also to ferret out any foibles that may be mild issues to serious stumbling blocks that can hinder your application.

This may range from having too many jobs or being in one for too long. It may also be about your choices of education or why you have chosen a certain career.  You may have been given the boot in a previous role or have been made redundant on more than one occasion. All are perfectly explainable. It’s all about overcoming any preconceived thoughts and being altruistic about your career to date and your character.

My advice is to think carefully discussing certain issues, even if a question appears extremely innocent it may cause you to unload things that’s best kept secret. The following may help:

You’ve been in a job too long –   In times gone by this was deemed as stability and loyalty but is increasingly becoming seen as a lack of ambition or you may have problems fitting into a new regime. Not at all in my opinion. Provide examples of how you’ve been confronted with many different challenges, honed and developed new skills or worked in an environment which is driven by change or innovation. Discuss your exploits outside of work such as climbing Everest – figuratively speaking.

It’s best not to discuss your burning desire to get of your present firm or how dull your managers are but, do emphasise your commitment to your previous employer and how you will bring those traits with you.

You can also break down your previous roles and the challenges you faced.  You can do this in clusters of skills you have developed that are significantly relevant to the potential new role and, concentrate on increases in responsibility and relevant achievements. You may agree that your career has not developed as quickly as you’d liked but this can happen to many people and it’s sometimes down to the limited openings on the jobs market. It can also be wise to mention any lifestyle changes that make you freer to make a career change.

When you’ve been in too many places –  In truth, employers tend to favour people that have stayed in places a ‘reasonable’ amount of time in previous roles. They will assume that the past predicts the future and regular job hopping can cause concern.

Realistically, the key is down to what is meaning of a ‘reasonable amount of time’. The current narrative is about 2 – 3 years. This does not mean that you should stay in a job if you’re unhappy – circumstances vary from one person to the next. We’re also in an era where long-term job security does not exist everywhere and contract work has been more available but, if you have moved jobs quite a bit, it’s best to deal with this question in a logical and convincing manner. You can detail accomplishments on each role that relate to the position you’ve applied to & solved problems with cost effective solutions – employers love people that can delete issues without fuss and solve problems.

Provide valid, honest reasons as to why you have changed jobs frequently which can be down to companies relocating or downsizing or departments being shut down. You can say that you’ve learnt from previous trials and tribulations and that this move fits your career plans and objectives. You can also add that you’ve specifically applied to this role, travelled a long way, and put a lot of effort into your application to confirm your interest.

Don’t complain about previous employers, limited chances or your looking for somewhere that pays more. Do remember other people are also being considered.

When you have gaps in your career history – Over the years, I’ve seen some employers make rash judgements on people with gaps in their career history. If you have more gaps than a rugby player’s teeth – maybe mention that you’ve been looking for the right opportunity for a while so, have taken up temp roles to fill in the time.  You can also add that you’ve become more selective and have taken time to think through your career direction, reassessed what you want, and are now fully focused on this role.

You should always, explain honestly and in a positive manner the reason(s) for any gaps and describe that the decisions and actions you have taken have helped you grow, mature, and develop.

Don’t gripe about opportunities you’ve missed out on or, blame others that don’t recognise your true worth. A career gap is more common than you think and can happen for any reason so just be open and up front.

Given the boot – it happens to the best of people and, again, is more common than you think. The number one rule is to be honest and say that you’ve learnt an enormous lesson during the experience. You messed up but, you know better now and it won’t be happening again. Then quickly turn the interview back to the best version of you. Do not bad-mouth a previous employer or give the impresion you’re hiding something.        

When you’ve taken a sideways move – Oddly enough, this can sometimes carry more negative weight than been fired. But, a sideways step can sometimes be better than staying put, if you’re moving to a company with better prospects and values.  Your best bet is to deal with this prior to your interview and explain it on your CV or in a covering note.

Again, explain the reason in the most positive fashion and explain the reason in full. It may be that you weren’t ready to take on such a responsible role at that point in your career, but you are now, due to the extra training and courses you have put under your belt.

Also, affirm that you are now ready to put into practice your new and improved skills. Remind your interviewer that you are more than ready to take on the role you’ve applied to and, back that up with your recent skills. Don’t put the blame on to anyone else. You are in charge of your career and only you.

When you didn’t take a degree  –  Simple answer is that it now costs a fortune but if you must have to skip around this question – discuss your experience and skills as your education and tied to the fact that everyone is not in a position to afford further education, you will be noticed for your work ethic and honesty.

When a degree is rigid, interview at companies that are too small to operate an HR department, and your first line of contact is the hiring manager, assure them that the lack of degree does not hinder your ability to do the job and hit home that you’ve kept up with new trends throughout your career and you never want to stop learning.

In most recent times, I see less and less employers ask for a degree unless it is a specialised role and, a lot are more focused on whether you can do the role in question and fit the team culture.

Why should I hire you –  Summarise in a point by point succinct fashion how your experience and skills match the key aspects of the role, to a tee, unequivocally. Add any competitive edge you can think of and hit home the message that this is the best job you have come across in a very long time.  Avoid clichés such as I’m hardworking or organised. Be specific in areas you can add value. Never miss the opportunity to align your expertise to the main components of the role.            

In any of these situations – as soon as you have tapped into an interviewer’s sense of fairness, start to plug in again to the reasons you should be hired.