Turn job interview traps into triumphs
Ever feel like job interviews should come with a warning: “Anything you say can and will be used against you”? With many qualified candidates applying for jobs, employers may resort to some sneaky tactics to narrow the field. If you’re a seasoned job seeker, you may be facing unfair assumptions about your age and abilities too.
How can you avoid getting caught? We talked to Mary Eileen Williams, author of Land the Job You Love: 10 Surefire Strategies for Jobseekers Over 50, about some common interview traps and how to gracefully deal with them.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
The trap: It may be a sneaky way of finding out if you plan to retire soon or jump ship if a better opportunity comes along. Hiring and training new employees is expensive, so employers want to make sure a candidate is going to stick around — but they don’t want you to be too ambitious either.
Avoid it: Steer clear of any jokes about retirement, rocking chairs or golf, says Williams. Instead, emphasize that you enjoy your work and that you’re sure the position would allow you to grow your skill set and take advantage of any career opportunities within the company.
“Showing that you are willing to grow with the position and with the company is the best way to answer,” says Williams.
Other experts note that you can use this question to ask about future prospects within the company — “where do you see me in five years?”
Aren’t you overqualified for this position?
The trap: Interviewers may assume you have high demands for compensation or you’re looking for a job — any job — to tide you over until you find a more senior position.
Avoid it: It’s important to be positive — and okay to be a little vague, says Williams. Emphasize that the position is in line with your current interests and career goals, and that you’re sure the company offers the challenges and potential for growth you’re looking for. Show how your above-and-beyond expertise and experience will bring added value to the position — it may just give you an edge over other candidates.
Williams also notes to be open about taking a job with less responsibility than a past role if that’s the case. For example, you might start with: “I’ve enjoyed my role as manager, but found I prefer doing the hands-on work myself” or “At this time in my career, I’ve chosen…”
What is your biggest weakness?
The trap: Is there something wrong with you that makes you a bad hire? Interviewers already know the clichés such as “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist”. Your response could eliminate you from consideration, but dodging the question can be damaging too.
Avoid it: How you handle the question is as important as what you say. Williams notes you need to provide an honest answer, but choose a weakness that isn’t a major part of the job. Come up with a past example and demonstrate to interviewers what steps you have taken to address the issue and how it isn’t a problem for you any longer.
(Need more details? We have an article on how to answer this tricky question.)
If you get the “where could you use some improvement?” version of the question, experts say to focus on a new or cutting edge area of the business and note that’s where you would like to gain more expertise.
Tell us about a time your work was criticized or you made a mistake
The trap: Like the weakness question, employers may be looking for things to use against you. Evade the question and it could look like you won’t take responsibility for past mistakes.
Avoid it: Williams notes it’s important to keep the focus on how you’ve received lots of positive feedback for your work and you welcome critique that helps you improve. (No one is perfect, after all.) When pressed for an example, make it a minor one and explain what you learned from the experience — and how you won’t make that mistake again.
Tell me about the strengths and weaknesses of your former boss/team/company.
The pitfall: The real question is are you going to bad mouth your former supervisors, colleagues and clients?
Avoid it: Williams warns this question can be a minefield. Always stay positive and emphasize the strengths — and develop a bad memory for past problems. You can acknowledge that every workplace has some issues, but you can’t think of anything major.
Tell us about a time you did x (when you haven’t done x)