By the time you sit down for an interview, managers know all about your work experience and skills. If they didn’t think you could succeed at the job on a technological level, they wouldn’t have invited you to come in to chat—but will you fit into the company’s culture?
But interviewers don’t stick to scripts—if they did, your average candidate’s life would be that much simpler. Instead, they mix up the discussion about IT and experience with questions that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. Invariably, these questions aren’t about right or wrong answers: They’re designed to uncover your thought processes and ability to keep cool under pressure. In other words, each one is a test unto itself.
Here are some questions you might not expect to hear during an interview, along with their point and a possible approach to answering.
If you could only choose one, would you be fast or accurate? Why?
Hiring managers ask this to measure how a candidate handles an awkward question that has no correct answer, suggested Alice Ain Rich, a career coach and HR consultant in Newton, Mass. How will the candidate handle the unexpected?
Addressing such questions is more about your approach than the actual answer itself, and the key is to remain poised, thoughtful and relaxed. Rich points out that neither being fast without accuracy or accurate but slow will be rewarded in most jobs, so pick a position and back it up with a logical argument. Because there is no “right” answer, this is an opportunity to showcase how you present your views and support them.
What kind of salary are you expecting?
Why is this a trick question? Because managers are hoping you’ll throw out a number, which is never a good way for you to begin a negotiation. If you do, you run the risk of either leaving money on the table or pricing yourself out of the job.
When answering, try to push off any conversation about compensation to the point where the employer has shown serious interest in bringing you onboard. One option is to ask about the company’s budget range and indicate that you can stay within it.
Managers ask this question for an obvious reason: Budget’s always a consideration and they want to negotiate to their advantage. But as Rich observes, you can finesse the discussion and use it to make a strong statement about why your interest in the job is about fit, potential and contribution… As well as money.
What expectations should a leadership team possess in order for you to be successful?
Because cultural fit is so important to the hiring decision, managers ask this question to flag areas where a candidate’s view may not align with that of the organization, said Mary Cavanaugh, a senior consultant at career management firm Keystone Associates and an independent career coach in Norfolk, Mass.
The key to the answer is to do your homework. Find out as much about the company’s leaders as you can, as well as its culture. For example, how much emphasis does the company place on teamwork and collaboration? Does it encourage innovation? Is it a positive place to work? “Don’t be afraid to say that corporate culture is one of your criteria for targeting them as a potential employer,” Cavanaugh advised.
Tell me about a time you weren’t successful at work. What did you do?
Hiring managers ask questions like this to catch you off-guard and see how you react to negative assumptions. “Never let them see you sweat,” said Elizabeth Lions, a Dallas-based career coach and author of I Quit! Working For You Isn’t Working For Me. “Answer it directly and to the best of your ability. We’ve all dropped the ball at work. It’s not the mistake you’ve made, but how you handled it that tells the story.”
Would you go to the whiteboard, and [blank]?
Whiteboard tests aren’t really tricks, but we include them here because their point isn’t really about the answer you scrawl up there. Hiring managers use them as a way to see how you approach technical questions and organize yourself on the fly. In this case, Cavanaugh said, you prepare yourself by being ready for the possibility. Do that and you’ll remain calm and think more clearly when they hand you the marker.
Interviews are where hiring managers try to get a sense of you as a person, to see if you’ll fit well with the team and the corporate culture. They’ll try to nudge you out of your comfort zone with questions you don’t expect, and for which there may be no clear answer. Whatever you’re asked, take a breath, remain calm, and think through what you say.
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