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)

The trap: Interviewers will purposely ask about gaps on your resume — such as a certification or experience you don’t have that pertains to the job. You might also be asked about a problem or issue you’ve never encountered. Not being able to answer only brings attention to what you’re missing.

Avoid it: These questions don’t have to be a death knell if you prepare for them in advance, says Williams.

“You need to anticipate possible objections,” she says. “Get our your resume and get out the job description. See the differences? Be ready to talk about them.”  

What can you say? Find an example from your experience that shows you have the skill or qualification they want. For example, even though you don’t have management experience in the workplace, you can draw on a leadership role you’ve had through volunteering. If you haven’t encountered the problem they’re asking about, find an example of a similar situation and demonstrate your problem solving skills by explaining how you solved it.

What are your salary expectations?

The trap:  Employers want to know if they can afford you — or if they can get you for less than they planned.

Avoid it: You can dodge any awkwardness by saying you need to know more about the position and the responsibilities first. Experts agree that job seekers should never bring up the topic of money in the initial interview, but if interviewers raise the issue it is okay to ask what range they have in mind. You won’t exclude yourself from the job or sell yourself short — and you’ve left room to negotiate when there’s an offer.

Williams advises that you can point out that you’re flexible when it comes to compensation, and that at this stage in your career there are other considerations such as meaningful work.

Questions interviewers won’t ask

The trap:  Unfortunately, many interviewers have unfair assumptions they won’t give you a chance to address. Are you genuinely enthusiastic about the position, or marking time until retirement? Are you up-to-date in your field? Can you handle new technology? Will you be comfortable reporting to a younger boss? 

Avoid it: Just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean you can’t address these concerns. Williams notes it’s up to job seekers to proactively bring these issues into the conversation.

How? Demonstrate through your answers that you’re a life long learner who embraces new technology. You can give examples of new applications you’ve learned in the past and how you’ve kept on top of industry trends. It doesn’t hurt to mention any tech you currently use — such as a smart phone or tablet.

Williams notes you will also want to point out that you’re comfortable working in a diverse environment and that you have no problems reporting to a younger boss. Explain that it’s never been a problem for you, and that you recognize there is a lot you can learn from your coworkers of all ages.  (If you’re looking for a way to introduce the issue, Williams recommends starting with something like: “I’ve noticed that you have a diverse workforce here…)

What about the prejudice that you aren’t as enthusiastic or energetic as a younger employee?  Williams notes that your non-verbal cues make an impact too. If your clothes, shoes and hair style are dated and “tired”, interviewers will think you are too. Good posture, maintaining eye contact and an enthusiastic demeanour can go a long way to combating age-related stereotypes.

“As you prepare, think about some of the unfair and unflattering stereotypes employers may have about older workers,” says Williams. “You can then be proactive and bring up these issues in a way that is prepared, positive and comfortable for you.”

Ultimately, any question can be a trap if you aren’t able to highlight your best attributes and demonstrate why you’re the best fit for the job. Regardless of how you answer, it’s important to be honest and offer specific examples to back up your claims.


For more tips on handling the job interview, see Land the Job You Love and visit Williams’ website at www.feistysideoffifty.com.

For an in-depth look at common interview traps, check out The Traps Employers Set During Job Interviews on Scribd.com.

Additional sources: Forbes.com, HuffingtonPost.com

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Courtney Keating

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