Tough interview questions – and how to answer them

Few people enjoy job interviews and no matter how well you prepare, there’s always one awkward question that catches you out and leaves you wondering how well you really did. We’ve teamed up with John Lees, career coach and author of “Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions” to guide you through some of the trickier questions you might face.


1. What kind of person are you?

Questions like this can be maddeningly open-ended in an interview situation. Does the interviewer want to know about your working style or your personality? Should you give them chapter and verse or a succinct summary? ‘It’s best to seek clarification quickly,’ says John Lees – or you could go down the wrong track entirely. Sample answer: ‘Perhaps you’d like me to talk about my working style? Well, I’ve been described by colleagues as a born trouble-shooter…’

2. How do you see us as a business?

You should have done your homework on the organisation you’re applying to, and while it may have thrown up some less-than-flattering results, this isn’t the time to air any concerns you may have. John Lees advises that you take the opportunity to ‘show the depth of your knowledge and the reach of your contacts by sharing briefly what you have learned about the organisation from your research’. Sample answer: ‘You’ve got a great reputation, which is why I am pleased to be talking to you.’

3. Can you work overtime? Evenings? Weekends?

This is a question which stumps many jobseekers. The dilemma is whether to go all out to appear flexible – or set some ground rules from the outset so that you don’t appear to be a pushover. John comments: ‘Talk about the demands of the job rather than your restrictions. Portray yourself as someone with a strong work ethic – but don’t appear so hungry for the job you haven’t given any sensible consideration to managing workloads as well as work/life balance. ‘Don’t immediately say yes to such questions, but seek details and information and respond with both a flexible attitude and evidence of past commitment.’ Sample answer: ‘My last job often required me to stay late to get things done, and that was fine as there were options for late starts or home working on other days.’

4. When has your work been criticised? What was your response?

As well as establishing that you have the relevant skills and experience for the post you’re applying for, potential employers will probably want to get a feel for what you’ll be like to work with – and this question gives you a chance to put their minds at rest. They won’t believe you if you say your work has never been criticised, so John Lees advises preparing a couple of examples of instances that you have received feedback and taken it on board. Sample answer: ‘I was criticised by my last boss for using internal email too often. He was right, it’s often much better to walk over to someone’s desk and maintain a proper relationship. Also you are more likely to get cooperation and hear an honest answer about potential snags.’

5. Have you ever been dismissed from a job? Describe the circumstances.

In this context ‘dismissed’ means ‘fired’ – redundancy is entirely different. If this does apply to you, John recommends being transparent and trying to show how you have changed and developed. ‘If you start to get into the rights and wrongs of the situation, you are almost certainly going to give the interviewer grounds to exclude you,’ he explains. Sample answer: ‘I was dismissed from my first sales job on performance grounds. It was a tough job but I completely misinterpreted what the organisation meant by sales targets. As you can see from my later history, that’s an experience I’ve never forgotten. I now take performance very seriously indeed.’

6. Would you have any reservations about taking this job?

‘If you do have any reservations, now is not the time to raise them,’ advises John – but he also suggests that if the job has obvious drawbacks then it would be naive not to mention them. A flat ‘no’ and a quick follow-up question is an efficient way to deal with this one. Sample answers: ‘I suppose some people might be put off by the travelling involved, but that’s one of the attractive aspects as far as I’m concerned.’ ‘No reservations, just a question: How long before I’d be handling my own accounts?’

7. Why aren’t you earning more at your age?

You might not agree with the assumption behind this question, but John Lees argues it would be a mistake to challenge the interviewer over that. Instead he suggests giving an answer which shows you have taken the long view – or that you’re not motivated entirely by financial reward. Sample answers: ‘I decided that the company I was with offered me far better training opportunities than I could get elsewhere. Now that I am fully qualified, however, I want to achieve the going rate for the job.’ ‘I have had opportunities to move into higher-paid roles, but I have always chosen jobs that I find stimulating and interesting.’

Book recommendation: Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions by John Lees, McGraw-Hill Professional; 3 edition (16 July 2012)
Copyright 2012