When interviewing for a job, there are some things within your control: your preparation, your resume, your attitude and your dress. Other things, however, you can’t control: your competition, your interview location and, most important, the questions you’ll be asked. And you certainly can’t control whether an inexperienced interviewer will ask you bad questions. No matter how structured the interview process or how big the company, bad questions have a way of showing up in interviews. Throughout your career you are bound to get asked a few of them.
Yet being asked a bad question shouldn’t prevent you from nailing an interview. The key is to be prepared for anything. I’ve seen candidates freeze up when asked a bad question. I’ve also seen candidates take a bad question and spin it into a great answer. This has proved to me that people can have great interviews despite bad interviewers, as long as they are prepared for some doozies.
In my time spent as a corporate interviewer and interviewee, I’ve compiled a mental list of common bad interview questions. Here is the list and some thoughts on how best to respond.
1) What is your greatest strength?
When interviewers ask this question, they are trying to get a sense of who you are and what you are good at as it relates to the job. The problem is that this question is ambiguous and opens the door to a wide range of answers. As a result, many interviewers provide an answer that is irrelevant to the job description.
The way to answer this is to tie the question back to the job description with a specific example. Say something like this: “Let me tell you one of my key strengths and why it would serve me well in this position.” That’s the answer your interviewer really wants; he or she has just worded the question poorly.
2) What is your greatest weakness?
This is the evil twin of the first question. It’s evil because it leaves room for you to completely derail yourself with a bizarre answer. On one hand, you can botch this answer by revealing a weakness that is particularly egregious or overly personal. (“I’m lazy,” or “I’m hyper-critical,” are bad responses, FYI.) On the other hand, you can go the other direction and sound phony. “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I work too hard” are disingenuous answers and recruiters see through them.
The safe ground here is to answer openly with a reasonable weakness you feel you have, and then talk about the steps you are taking to address it. By “reasonable,” I mean weaknesses that are normal for a candidate with your experience to have. For example, “I need to learn when to dig into the details and when to let go of the details. Here’s an example of that and what I have done to improve my skills in this area.”
3) Are you a strong leader?
Yes or no questions are a classic sign of an inexperienced interviewer. Of course, the interviewer doesn’t want you to answer “yes” or “no,” but the way the question is asked doesn’t really give you much to work with.
The appropriate response to this question is to go a step further with a specific explanation. “Yes, I am a strong leader. Let me give you a couple of examples of how I’ve demonstrated leadership ability in my prior experience.”
4) Why are you leaving your current job?
Warning! This question often lures people into talking negatively about their last company. Don’t take the bait. Talking smack about your past experience says more about you than it does about your experience. And never, ever, say you are leaving because you hated your old boss.
The way to answer this is to spin it positively in favor of your current job. “While I really enjoyed a lot of aspects of my old job, I decided that I wanted a chance to broaden by skill set by getting the types of experiences offered at your company, including...”
5) What are your salary requirements?
I don’t like this question because talking money is outside the purpose of the interview. The interview should be to assess if you like the company and if the company likes you. Money should enter the conversation only after both parties decide they like one another. But alas, this question still gets asked all the time.
There are two ways to answer this question. The first—and my preferred response – is the following: “Honestly, I haven’t done my full research on this yet as I have been focusing my energy on making sure that I’m a good fit for your organization and that you feel like I have the qualified skills to succeed in the position. I’m confident that if an offer is extended to me that we could come to a salary agreement that works for me and the company.”
Or, if you feel prepared to talk money, you can go ahead and throw out a number, but make darn sure you have done your research. Also, give a range to leave room for negotiation because the conversation is far from over. One example is the following: “I’ve researched similar positions in the marketplace and, based on my level experience, I feel that I should be paid 60 to 65 thousand dollars per year. Of course, that’s just my initial thinking and I would like to talk more about it as we progress further in this process.
6) If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
This is an example of the type of bizarre questions you could be asked, like “what is your favorite color?” or “if you were a movie character who would you be?” These questions serve one of two purposes: 1) to throw you off your game, or 2) to assess whether or not you are a stiff.
I don’t think these questions are very productive in assessing talent, but if you are asked a question like this, just play along. It really doesn’t matter how you answer as long as you don’t get flustered or over-think it. “I’d be a tiger because I can be quiet and reserved but can get tough when I need to,” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
7) Are you married?
This question falls into the long list of illegal questions, including questions related to your age, nationality, religion and more. (Click here for an article by Business Insider that provides more examples of illegal questions.) It’s rare that you get asked an illegal question, but it happens. Many will tell you to call the interviewer out on it, saying that he or she shouldn’t be asking those questions. My personal take is a little different.
If I were asked whether or not I was married, I would answer with a simple, “Happily!” The reason for this is that, 1) it’s usually an honest mistake made as part of the pre or post interview small-talk, and 2) I don’t personally feel like I have anything to hide.
Is this question illegal? Sure. Do you have a right to call your interviewer out on it? Absolutely. Will that help the interview go smoothly? I’m not sure. And besides, if I’m going to lose out on a job because I’m married, then I don’t want to work for that company anyway.
Granted, this is a sensitive issue and some illegal questions get way too personal. So if you don’t want to answer an illegal question, here is a reasonable response: “Would you please tell me how that question pertains to the job description.” If the interviewer still doesn’t back off, then you have no choice but to suggest that the question being asked is illegal.
One more thing: remember that if you are being asked bad questions, then your competition is likely dealing with the same problem. Most interview evaluations are more comparative than they are objective, so you don’t have to have the best interview of your life to get the job; you just have to have a better interview than your competition. Successfully answering a bad question can be what sets you apart from others who are being asked the same thing.
Don’t let an inexperienced interview cost you the job. Be prepared to nail the interview no matter what you’re asked. Happy Interviewing!