This is an excerpt from When Can You Start? How to Ace the Interview and Win the Job by Paul Freiberger, president of Shimmering Resumes, a résumé writing, interview preparation, and career counselling service. For more information, visit www.PaulFreiberger.com.
Although it is impossible to create an exhaustive list of every possible trick question, analyzing a limited selection can be a useful exercise. Sometimes the trick is obvious, but that is not always the case, as these examples demonstrate.
There are some questions whose answers are judged according to their content. What you say actually matters. For other questions, content is less important, and style matters most. In other words, what you say is less important than how you say it.
Did you prepare for this interview?
Sometimes, people are reluctant to admit that they rehearsed. In court cases, for example, it's common for a witness to be asked about preparation, and some witnesses feel that the idea of preparation somehow undercuts the authenticity of their testimony. This is misguided.
People prepare for things that are important to them, such as trials and job interviews. Of course you prepared, but what matters here is what your preparation taught you. Acknowledge that you prepared, and let the interviewer know what you did. You visited the company's website, and you caught up on industry news. You may have spoken to people in the industry.
The more research you show, the more obvious it becomes that this job interview is important to you, and a prospective employer certainly wants to see that. Even better, you can tie what you learned to your reasons for applying to this specific company and to the skills that you will bring to the job. The mistake here is to give a brief answer that doesn't use the question's full potential. This is a real opportunity to sell yourself.
Do you know anyone who works here?
At first glance, this looks like an easy one. Of course you would want to mention any connections that you have at the company–or would you? The answer depends on what you know of that person and how he is perceived by his colleagues. It is always possible that your in-house connection is not very well liked within the company and that your association with him will actually be detrimental. Tread carefully here unless you are comfortable in your knowledge that your contact is a respected employee. Guilt by association, unfair though it may be, is not something to risk.
What things really bother you about co-workers or bosses?
This is not a question that will help interviewees who believe that honesty is the best policy. Everyone has problems with colleagues from time to time, just as they have problems with their spouses, children, parents, and siblings. It's a part of life, but a part of life that has no place in the interview.
Don't take this question as a chance to get critical. Your interviewer wants someone who is positive, not some malcontent who finds fault with everyone within reach. Admittedly, a Pollyanna-like answer is not going to have much credibility, but you can opt for an answer that, for instance, covers the different working styles of your colleagues and describes how you were able to reconcile those styles to create a productive team. With that kind of answer, you avoid excessive negativity and have the opportunity to express something positive.
Why do you want to leave your current job?
As with the previous question, this one could be answered with negatives. You could talk about all the things you hate about your present job, the horrible people, and the Dickensian conditions.
Again, try not to stray into negative territory. A better approach is to turn the table and speak to the things that drew you to the new job. Even better is an answer that ties your motivations to specifics about the company. Focus on the company's strengths, its reputation in the industry, or its way of doing business. You are not leaving your old job because it has become unbearable. You are leaving because of the exciting opportunity in front of you.
What one thing would you change about your current job?
Here is another opportunity to go negative. In fact, the question practically demands it. No job is perfect, so there must be something you would happily change.
If you cannot avoid negativity, at least avoid complaining about people. Demonstrate your desire for the most efficient processes and procedures. Productivity, too. You can mention that despite the smart and talented people at your current job, sloppy systems are stalling the rate of increased sales. You are seeking a position where you'll have a greater opportunity to implement best practices.
What kind of salary do you expect?
This is a topic of perennial debate and not much of a trick, but it is something of a trap. The question raises two issues.
First, it is always better to avoid making the first move. Ideally, you would like the company to put a number on the table and allow you to respond. You can try to postpone the issue, especially if this is a first interview, by saying that you want to focus on the fit between you and the company, and leave questions of compensation until you know that both sides are sincerely interested.
At times, though, this is not an option. In that case, it goes without saying that any number you select should not be astronomical. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that the number should not be unrealistically low. The right answer should be the product of research into industry norms. Try to get a sense of the range offered to people with equivalent experience, similar skills, and comparable education to you. Narrow that range by considering company size and location, since those factors make a difference. You can be comfortable offering a number at the top of that range, but you have to know that range before you put a number on the table.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
This question appears again and again. Its trickiness lies only in the fact that the interviewer wants to know, perhaps among other things, that you plan to be with the company for a substantial time if you are hired. You can say a lot about your interest in improving your skills, educating yourself further, and making increasing contributions in your work. Whatever you decide to say, you want to say that all of those things should be happening at a great company where you can make a difference by utilizing your expertise. For extra credit, tie your vision of your future self to specifics about the company's operations.
What would your ideal job be like?
True or not, for the purposes of the interview, your ideal job looks very much like the one you are applying for at this very company.
This is another situation in which it helps to know a lot about the company. That knowledge can be the basis for your description of an ideal job that is attainable in the current context, even if it is not exactly the job in question today.
The question might be phrased differently: "Where would you really like to work?" The answer should still focus on the virtues of the current position. It should also reiterate your desire to work for an excellent company where you can apply your skills and experience.