In this post, I’ll explain how to handle difficult interview questions. The most dreaded question is undoubtedly, “what’s your biggest weakness?” The question allows some people to overshare, while others smugly note that they don’t have any. Is there such a thing as a good answer? Is there a way to avoid putting your foot in your mouth and hobbling your shot at getting an offer?

Yes, and actually, it’s not all that difficult. Here are some foolproof tips:

Steer clear of personality flaws Don’t `fess up to being a bit emotional, or to taking criticism too much to heart. Don’t say that you’re not good at working with others and prefer to work alone, and don’t say that you tend to take over as team leaders because you’re “so enthusiastic.” I’ve interviewed plenty of candidates who candidly shared that they are introverts or extroverts; one even told me her biggest weakness was her bladder (and you can guess how quickly I shut down that interview).

Don’t say that you don’t have any weaknesses I’ve actually read interview advice that told job candidates NOT to own up to weaknesses. Please don’t do that. If you are a human being, then you have some weaknesses. Maybe it’s only cheesecake, but if that’s all you can come up with, see above and also get real.

Identify a minor weakness, and have ready how you’ve already addressed it When asked, “what is your biggest weakness?” my stock answer was, “I was never as proficient as I should have been at Excel, which is a good skill for someone who has managed as many mergers from the HR side as I have. When I saw that I was relying too often on my assistant to handle my spreadsheet chores, I enrolled in an online class to address that weakness.”

See why the example above works? Not knowing Excel is a pretty minor weakness (unless you are in finance; not a good one for financial folks!), but it is a legitimate weakness. Being weak in an ancillary skill is a good choice because it doesn’t raise any red flags about what it would be like to work with you. And the icing on the cake is when you declare that you’ve already taken steps to ameliorate the weakness. Just make sure that the skill you choose isn’t one that’s critical to the job you’re interviewing for!

Silly questions are another sort of difficult interview questions you need to handle

Silly Interview Questions

Worried about the inevitable silly interview questions you’re certain to be asked? The ability to think up a reasonable answer to silly questions that some interviewers persist in asking is a skill in and of itself. Last week, Cathy, a client just beginning her job search, reported back to me about her first interview with HR for a position in digital marketing.

“I came prepared to discuss not only my skills, but also to showcase my awareness of the company’s mission and its projects that I’d read about on their website and in the media, just like you told me to,” she announced. “But the first thing she wanted to know was ‘if I were an animal, what kind would I be?'”

“Honestly,” she complained. “What purpose did a silly question like that serve?”

Recruiters and HR managers like to justify their reasons for asking these kinds of silly interview questions that don’t begin to address the candidate’s professional expertise or even cultural fit. Is there some type of animal that indicates the candidate doesn’t work well with others? Is the point to see how creatively people can think on their feet?

I once wrote an article for HR professionals, “Why Recruiters Need to Think Like Job Candidates,” where I took recruiters to task for some of the behaviors that drive job candidates up a wall (the article was inspired by someone who had commented on my post “Five Ways you Blew the Job Interview,” by saying I should turn the tables and tell the story from the candidates’ point of view).

So I did. And in addition to addressing the biggest pain point – failure to communicate with the candidate throughout the hiring process – I also begged interviewers to ask more professional questions. When they ask “fun” questions or play amateur shrink, candidates find it off-putting. Instead, I suggested, focus on questions that reveal behaviors that are critical to know about before making an offer. “How did you handle a situation where everyone on your team disagreed with you, but you still felt your strategy was the right one?” is a good question to ask because the answer actually will matter if you end up getting the job.

But it’s an imperfect world, so:

Be prepared to answer silly interview questions

Take control Smile, chuckle politely, give a quick answer and bring the conversation back to your professional expertise. I asked Cathy how she had answered the animal wannabe question. “I got flustered,” she said, “and said, “a collie, because they’re loyal.” Which wasn’t a terrible answer – the word “loyal” probably delighted her interlocutor. The only problem was the conversation devolved momentarily into a conversation about dogs. Not the direction Cathy had hoped. If it happens to her again, she’ll follow her response with, “so, you were just asking me about a project that I’m proud of – on that topic, there’s something I also want to mention….”

Sell Yourself At one screening interview early in my career, I was asked, “A chimpanzee walks through that door right now wearing a billboard. What does it say?” (what is up with all these animal questions?) I was so taken aback that I just stammered, “you allow pets in the office?” Had I been more experienced, I would have taken the opportunity to sell myself. “The billboard says, ‘Lynda’s HR communications are so clear, even a chimp can understand!”

Don’t sweat it if you can’t think of something clever You’re not auditioning for stand-up; you’re there to get a job. Giving a straight answer is often the best option, especially if you’re not comfortable with humor. So if you’re asked which superhero you’d like to be, just say, “Superman. Why not go with the original and the best?”

There’s a difference between silly interview questions and those intended to gauge your thinking process

Microsoft famously used to ask candidates, “why are manhole covers round?” That sounds like a silly question, but it’s actually designed to assess how you’d approach a problem that doesn’t have only one right answer. Whatever answer you give demonstrates your sense of logic, common sense and reasoning. This is a real question, so take it seriously. Deep breath, collect your thoughts and reason it through aloud.

Questions about salary history are really difficult to handle, and may have legal implications. Read this article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

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