After reading an article by business performance management consultant and executive coach Dan Coughlin on how to handle difficult corporate situations, it struck me how that same advice does not always apply to interviewing. Coughlin recommends confronting difficult situations head-on, such as when a peer is degrading your efforts around the office. But in job interviews, being direct isn't always the right approach. Some questions and situations surface during job interviews that you simply should not discuss. I've encountered a few recently during my job search. I share them with you here to show why the direct approach didn't work, along with some advice on how to handle these scenarios.
We've all had times when our gut reaction is to avoid someone. But what should you do when your gut is telling you during an interview that there are some serious issues with the management team, such as an internal power struggle, or a high-maintenance individual on your new team that you would be expected to "handle"? Some people would likely avoid bringing up the issue of the management team's infighting during the interview, but then politely decline further interviews with that company. Based on my personal experience, I recommend you follow your instincts and do exactly that.
I recently had two opportunities where something about the team dynamics didn't feel or sound right. In one case I followed my own advice. In the other, the position looked ideal for my technical- and client-building skills and was with a firm that had created this new position due to its growth, so I decided to take a chance and find out more. I needed to know if the situation and the person in question could adversely affect my ability to perform in the position. As you would expect, the discussion became awkward. And while the rest of my interviews with this firm were great, I was not asked to the final interview stage. In hindsight, I should have left it alone and walked away, rather than potentially burning a bridge or a networking relationship.
Or, there may be other barriers presented that could prevent or make it very difficult to succeed. On an initial interview with a recruiter, I was given all the position specifications but the recruiter refused to provide the name of the client firm. I certainly can understand an independent recruiter worrying about the potential loss of revenue if a prospect bypassed the recruiter and presented themselves directly to the client firm. Despite my reassurances, the recruiter remained silently adamant on the company name. His reticence completely negated my ability to prepare for my next interviews: Without knowing the name of the firm, I couldn't do much research. In prior similar situations I have been able to gain the trust of the recruiter during the course of our interview and generally learn the firm's name. So as this interview with the recruiter progressed I later asked about the industry this position would need expertise in. And again, I was met with silence. At this point, my gut was screaming "back away." Somewhere between me and the hiring manager was a severe trust issue that I simply did not want to deal with. Perhaps this recruiter had been burned recently by a prospect, or he had not yet built up a trust relationship with his client firm. Either way, as a job-seeker I need to be able to trust that a recruiter will present me in the best possible light. If we could not establish a simple dialogue on such basic information as an opportunity's industry, then my experience tells me that this recruiter was not looking to build a two-way trust relationship. Thanks, but no thanks.
Occasionally I have been asked by an interviewer to describe a situation where I failed miserably. Yikes! This question is more difficult than the "Tell me your three best traits and one bad trait" question, since it asks for a specific example of failure with no redeeming value implied. This question has caught me by surprise more than once during interviews that up to that point had been going great. I've tried responding with a non-business situation (e.g., destroying my sister's bicycle as a kid while jumping over a parked van - and yes, I made it over), but after the nice chuckle they still asked for a business example. My advice is to think this one out beforehand and write out your planned answer. Your answer needs to cover a negative business issue without crossing the line that raises your interviewer's eyebrows. Blowing a major client proposal by forgetting to change all the names and statistics of their competitor in the templated presentation is a good example to give because almost everyone can relate to it. On the other hand, backstabbing your old boss is a bad example to give, even if it saved the company millions of dollars. Further, like the "bad trait" question, make sure you end your example with the awe-inspiring lesson you learned so that you leave the interviewer with a great positive memory rather than a negative one.
Like all aspects of interviewing, anticipating needs and issues beforehand gives you time to reflect and plan ahead. Researching the personality of the firm and of your interviewer can provide some insight into those needs and issues, and thus what to expect during your interviews. Knowledge is power, and power is control. Being able to maintain control under difficult situations is a telltale sign of an experienced leader and exactly the kind of differentiator prospective employers are looking for during the interview process.
These are some examples from my current job search. I would very much like to hear yours. What is the most uncomfortable interview question or scenario you have ever experienced, and how did you handle it?
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.