Dodging curveball questions is an art, and often it's what you don't say that will get you the job.
Megan Bromley from incentive company RedBalloon, says the worst question she has heard asked in a job interview is: “If you were a chocolate bar, what kind of chocolate bar would you be?”
“I can't for the life of me think what would be gained by asking this question,” said Bromley, who calls herself an “employee experience manager” in a company that receives between 50 and 400 applicants for each position and does first interviews in groups in an open-plan office.
“Really there shouldn't be any tricky questions if you have done your homework for a job interview. Doing research for any new role is critical.”
Paul Kelly, chief executive of the Channel Group which coaches senior executives, agreed, adding that interviewers throw in curly questions not for what you may say but to see how you react.
“The secret is to make sure no matter what you are asked, you answer the question then bridge towards the message you want to get across,” Kelly said.
“Be very clear about your capabilities and your attributes and never let on that you have muddled up an answer. No matter what you are asked, you have to show you have a measured approach and good judgement. Maintaining physical control is really important, too, no matter what you are asked.”
Kelly said the worst questions are about politics, religion and beliefs that are “innately personal”. Remember, he advised, to be as honest as you can but stick to facts, not opinion.
When it comes to flexible working hours, the experts agree that timing matters.
Kelly's advice is to raise work/life balance only in the final negotiations, once you are confident you have the job. And, he says, keep it positive.
“Be clear about what you want the leave for,” he says. “For example if you need to finish early one day, say, 'I would like to finish at three on Mondays as I coach my son's soccer team'. Show you have a clear purpose. It can be an advantage because it indicates you are rounded.
“I have one client who travels overseas a lot and in his final discussions with the chairman he said he needed to travel first class so he could sleep. He got that in his contract because he asked it at the right time once they knew they wanted him.”
Bridget Hogg, principal consultant at HR Development at Work, an Adelaide company that trains managers for interviews, agrees that questions about salary and flexibility should be left to the very end.
“Employers are recognising people do want flexibility in their hours and are often expecting people to ask,” Hogg said.
“This is where networking before the interview really matters. Check out on the company's website if they promote a policy of work-life balance; find out how the company works.
“It's best to ask about pay at the end of the interview and for specifics when you feel you have power and they really want you. The best way to ask it is to say 'What is the salary range for this position?'.”
Hogg says among the trickiest questions is “Why did you leave your last job?”
“The answer here is to focus on what you are looking forward to pursuing,” she says. “For example, if you had been made redundant, try saying: 'Due to restructuring/the financial downturn my position along with some others in the organisation were redundant. I am using this time to pursue my career in administration in an organisation such as yours'.”
She says candidates can have an advantage if they realise that behavioural and competency questions such as, “Tell me about a time when you had to raise performance issues with an individual” are asked so candidates can demonstrate skills they have used in the past.
Another tricky question can be “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
The key here, Hogg says, is to focus on your strengths and make them relevant to the position you are applying for and the weakness less relevant.
“You could say your weakness is fixing photocopiers when they break down if that is not a key part of the role or focus on detail work if your role is a strategic one,” she says. “The key is in the research before the interview begins.”
Forbes magazine recently reported that high-level recruiters claim there are only three job interview questions that matter:
1. Can you do the job?
2. Will you love the job?
3. Can we tolerate working with you?
RedBalloon's Bromley says her company tests the third point by getting candidates to meet team members to see how they react in a work situation and if they will all get on.
But she laughs at the Forbes list, saying it indicates a lot about the recruiters.
“Clearly they like to get straight to the point,” she says.
Odd ball questions
US website Glassdoor has compiled an 'oddball interview questions of 2011' list from questions that job applicants said were asked at a variety of companies. Here's a selection reported recently.
- Name five uses for a stapler, without the staples.
- What is 37 times 37?
- Are you exhaling warm air?
- Room, desk or car - which do you clean first?
- How would you get an elephant into a refrigerator?
- Would Mahatma Gandhi have made a good software engineer?
- What do you think of garden gnomes?
- Please spell "diverticulitis."
- How many planes are currently flying over Kansas?
- Does life fascinate you?
What is the strangest question you have heard in an interview? How do you handle tricky questions?
with LA Times