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Don’t Let Awkward Interview Questions Throw You Off Your Game

You’re suited up, know the company’s backstory and stats, and have a list of smart questions in hand; you are officially prepped for your job interview. But hold on - what do you do if the interviewer asks you something a little uncomfortable, awkward and possibly illegal? Laugh nervously? Get up and leave? Respond with the same question, “What kind of car do you drive?” At some point in your job search, a weird question will come your way. My best advice? Have a plan. 

A skill most hiring managers don’t hone.

Most people aren’t trained to interview. It’s an important skill, possibly even critical for the business, but not something typically covered in training sessions. If interview instruction were provided, it likely focused on things like open-ended questions and behavioral interviewing - good stuff, but not enough. And if you only interview twice a year, you’re not going to master the process. Even with extensive training and experiences, there are people like me. We’ve been to countless lectures on best interview practices and what to avoid, yet will still ask (within reason) what’s on our minds.  Given that, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked what you like to do on vacation or what your favorite food is. 

Wanting to understand the whole candidate.

Here’s the thing, when I am interviewing someone, I know I have about an hour to decide if they can do this job for the next twenty years.  Figuring out if they can do a job is pretty straight-forward.  But determining if they should do the job – that is something else entirely. In my truest desire to understand the job seeker as a person, my questions may appear to come off the rails a little.

Does it matter for their work performance if they like dogs or cats or where they grew up? Do they like to cook, or have they traveled abroad? Did they work during school or do they live with roommates? We are, in many ways, the sum of our stories and experiences. We are nurture as much as nature. So what is my advice to do when the odd question comes up? Answer it.

Go for it.

Like turning in to the direction of a skid –  don’t fight it. The key is knowing yourself and being comfortable with your story. If someone asks me, “So, eight years of college, are you a doctor?” My answer would be something like, ‘Well, I went to George Mason University. It was mostly a commuter school at the time, but it was the best school I could afford. I studied economics because it gave me answers to what I saw in business. I got a Bachelor of Arts as I felt it made me more well-rounded.  It took me eight short years to get my four-year degree and when I did finally graduate, I realized I was suddenly qualified to continue waiting tables.” Not a particularly flattering story, but it is true and honest. The moral is that I learned a lot from that experience, all of which still drives me to this day.

Be confident in your answers.

What mostly matters about your response to a question is your understanding and conviction. You were brought in on the strength of your resume. On paper, you line up well with the job description. Now they want to get to know the person. The person doesn’t give one-word answers, they reveal who they are. When I ask a potential salesperson what their parents do for work, it really doesn’t matter - it’s not relevant. What matters is hearing how their parents’ experiences may have shaped them.  

Clearly, some questions are off limits and many don’t really matter, not on the surface anyway.  But the more comfortable you are with yourself, with what makes you, you - the more comfortable your interviewer is going to be with you.  

Don’t be afraid to be who you are.

“That is all well and good, Stu, but what if they don’t like that I go to Comic-Con in full costume on my vacations? It’s none of their business and I need a job.”  True, and if you are only looking for a JOB then I agree. But if you are looking for a career, do you really want to be with an organization that doesn’t take you for who you are? Your 2-20 years with a company should feel like a marriage, not a prison sentence. So when they bring the odd, a little askew, slightly out of bounds, lean into it.

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