Tough Interview Questions - A CV Centre Guide

Turning negative situations into positive ones

In any interview, it is quite possible that you will be faced with having to answer questions that require you to give what seems to be a negative response. This can include being asked to explain what you consider your weaknesses to be, why you failed an exam or even explaining why you were dismissed from a previous position. The trick in any situation like this is to turn this potentially negative situation into a positive one, something that can of course be quite hard to achieve.

Often, an interviewer will be deliberately trying to expose you to this kind of question to see just how well you respond to such pressure. It is essential that you remain calm when the question is posed to you and do not appear flustered in any way. Examples of how to answer potentially negative questions are provided below:

"What do you consider your weaknesses to be?"

When asked this question, it is perhaps tempting to say "I have no weaknesses ..." but this should really be avoided. An interviewer wants to know that you are able to look at yourself objectively and to criticise yourself where appropriate. However, it is important not to simply come up with a list of what you consider your weaknesses to be, but instead to try and reflect positively on these by outlining the active steps you are taking to overcome them. Another tip is to avoid saying that one of your weaknesses is to work too hard or to push yourself too hard. This answer is often considered to be a cliché and sounds almost like it came straight out of a poor book on interview techniques!

"Have you had any previous experience in this line of work?"

Obviously, this will only result in a negative response if you have not had any experience in the line of work for which you are applying, but it can easily be turned into a positive. Make it clear that the reason for applying for the position is so that you can gain experience in a line of work that has been of interest to you for some time. Also, highlight any skills or experiences you do have that are perhaps transferable to the position which you are applying for.

"Why did you leave your previous position?"

It is essential here that you do not give a negative impression of your previous employer as this can be seen as a sign of disloyalty. The obvious and most positive answers to give here will be along the lines of:

  • Seeking further advancement
  • Wanting to diversify
  • Hoping to achieve greater training opportunities
  • Looking for a new challenge

However, in some circumstances, you may have actually been dismissed from your previous role and this is probably the hardest reason to put a positive slant on. Be honest when answering this question, acknowledge responsibility for the causes of your dismissal but say that you have learned a great deal from the experience and know exactly how you should behave if similar circumstances occur in the future. Explain the reasons for your dismissal and how you know now that you were in the wrong.

Another potentially negative response could be if you left because you were being bullied. Depending on how you explain this, it can open you up to expressing bitterness or recrimination, traits that are not necessarily attractive to a potential employer. Where possible, try to demonstrate forgiveness and show that you have become a stronger and better person as a result of your experience and do not feel tempted to be apologetic about the situation.

"How would you handle the following situation"...

An interviewer may often pose a scenario based question asking you to imagine yourself in a difficult or negative situation and ask how you would deal with it. Below is an example of such a scenario and a model answer that should impress an interviewer by showing your ability to prioritise and to "fire-fight" and not to become easily flustered.

You are a receptionist working on the front desk when all of a sudden a fax arrives, several phone lines start ringing, clients arrive at your desk and a courier delivers a package that requires your signature. How do you cope with this situation?

"My first priority would be to answer the calls while simultaneously presenting the waiting clients and the courier with a professional and friendly smile. The calls can be answered and put straight through or be put on hold, allowing me to deal with the client and the courier thereafter. The people waiting in front of me are able to see just how busy I am, whereas those on the phone will simply feel ignored if their calls are not answered and may consider it unprofessional if their enquiries are not dealt with promptly. Having successfully prioritised the visitors and the calls, I will then be able to respond to the fax when there is more time."

"How are you on punctuality?" / "What's your sickness record like?"

It may well be tempting to give the interviewer a glowing record of your perfect timekeeping and your complete lack of illness over a given period of time. However, it is important to remember that the interviewer will most likely be seeking references from your former employers and these are just the kind of facts that they may well check up on. If you have been absent from work for significant illnesses, do not be embarrassed by this - the interviewer will understand that people do fall ill from time to time and as long as they are given no reason to suspect that the illness was contrived, you should have nothing at all to be worried about.

Punctuality is very important in any job as it demonstrates your commitment, dedication and loyalty to the company. If you have had a poor record of punctuality in the past, you must be sure not to try to hide this but to explain that, despite your track record, you are more than aware of the importance of punctuality in ensuring that all daily deadlines and workloads are achieved and that you are able to offer 100% commitment.

How would you explain gaps in your career?

A number of people have gaps in their career for reasons that include world travel, long-term sickness or simply inability to find a suitable position. Each of these can be explained in a positive or a negative way. Positive examples include:

World Travel - Explain how the travel was self-funded enabling you to experience total independence and how you sought part-time and temporary employment in the countries that you visited if necessary. The experience provided you with an invaluable insight into different cultures and has enhanced your ability to integrate into a multi-cultural environment.

Long-Term Sickness - As mentioned above, this is never something that should be discussed with any feeling of shame or embarrassment. Feel free to talk about your illness as openly as you like and explain that you used the time at home as productively as possible, for example by reading literature relevant to your profession.

General Unemployment - Sometimes, the right job is not available at the right time and there is nothing that you can do about this. Make sure that the interviewer understands that you were proactive in your job seeking during this time making use of the internet, local recruitment agencies and jobs papers to help find the most suitable job for you. Also, perhaps indicate that the reason it has taken you so long to find a job is that you are waiting for an appropriate position to come along rather than leaping into an unsuitable role simply to remain in employment.

"What disadvantages can you see in working for us?"

Be honest in this situation - if you genuinely believe that there will be any disadvantages then talk about them but make sure that you have done your homework and know enough about the company to pass judgement. Also, do not simply be negative about the company - if there are disadvantages, explain how you would overcome these and, if possible, how you have overcome similar situations in the past.

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When it comes to interviews, people often think, "Well, I'll just turn up and be myself."  Which is fine, but it won’t get you the job!  You need to plan and prepare for an interview as you are still up against many other applicants and this is your key opportunity to make an impact.  Your CV may get your foot in the door but you're on your own in the interview – and sometimes the most able candidate on paper can really shoot themselves in the foot when they actually get to the interview.

On average, there's likely to be at least 5 other candidates being interviewed for the same vacancy. So, everything else being equal, that gives you, at the most, a 20% chance of getting the job.  But there's so much you can do to improve your odds of success.

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