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You are invited to interview with a company for an opening as a controller. You have already been “screened” on the telephone by human resources. The next step is to interview with the decision maker, the individual to whom you would report if you were hired. Usually this person will make the final decision on whether to hire you.

When you arrive, dressed appropriately in a professional outfit, you announce yourself to the receptionist and are invited to be seated. Five minutes go by. It seems like an eternity. Then 10 minutes. 15. 20. 25. You are happy you used your antiperspirant this morning. Finally, just shy of 30 minutes the decision maker comes to meet you, and says, “Sorry, that last candidate took a little more time than we had allowed.” You are invited to be seated in the office of the decision maker, who begins looking at your résumé.

The dreaded “Tell me about yourself” question is asked. Where do you start? Do you start from where you were born? High school? Advanced education? Experience? What do you say? Be careful, as your answer is part of the all-important first impression.

Mason Smith, senior vice president and outplacement expert, suggests that you use a “Verbal Résumé” which may sound like this:

“I am in the process of transitioning into a new position as a company controller. My background includes more than twenty years in accounting, including the last 17 as a controller at a company in the same industry as this company. My education includes a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego. I am also a CPA. My greatest strengths are cost accounting and taxes. My last employer was XYZ, which relocated to Ohio last month.”

The decision maker asks you several usual questions. Easy.

Finally, the decision maker asks you the dreaded weakness question: “What is your greatest weakness?”

Should you fall on the floor and cry uncle? Should you sob and admit your deepest secrets? Should you whack the decision maker across the chin and demand a retraction?

If you analyze this question, essentially the decision maker is asking you to disqualify yourself from consideration. You do not want to do that.

There are several ways to answer it. One is to give a positive answer to this negative question: “My spouse says I spend too much time at work.” Be aware, a sharp interviewer may not accept this answer.

You could give a weakness, one you discovered and corrected, and by the end of the answer you have made it into a strength: “I used to be challenged by keeping track of my appointments. I took the Franklin organizational course and have found that it has provided a framework to correct this.” This answer too may be unacceptable to an on-the-ball interviewer.

However, what if you feel you are fully qualified for the position? Could you work this fact into a suitable answer for the dreaded weakness question?

“Other than learning the procedures and policies of your company, I feel I am fully qualified for the position.” This answer has saved more than one candidate from the dreaded ax of disqualifying yourself.

What about questions such as these:

  • What things might interfere with your effectiveness as a manager?
  • What major problems have you had to deal with? How did you handle them? What was the outcome?
  • How much money are you looking for?
  • Which decisions come easy, and which ones are more difficult for you?
  • What was your worst business decision, and how did you react to it?
  • How much money are you looking for at this point in your career?
  • What is the worst problem with you’ve dealt with in your professional life? How did you handle it? What was the outcome?
  • What was your most recent income level?
  • What did you like least about your last position?
  • How do you show anger and frustration?

You will note that these challenging questions are either negative or related to money.

An effective way to handle a negative question is to repeat the framework of the question briefly, make a comment, and relate a specific incident, example, story that describes how you solved the situation. Keep it positive. Review your background thoroughly so that you’re able to relate true examples from your professional background as a problem solver.

For example, the question “What is the worst problem with which you had to deal in your professional life?” is easily answered by choosing a business-related problem that was not of your making, but one that you were able to solve, thereby becoming a hero. That’s how you take a negative question and turn it into a positive response.

The money question is one often dreaded by a job-search candidate. You will notice that virtually the same question is asked several different ways. What they are asking you is: “How much is it going to take to get you as an employee?”

Rather than answer that question, especially this early in the interview process, you may want to ask, ”What is the salary-range for this position?” Unless their answer is ridiculously low, say, “We can work something out in that general salary range.” If possible, do not discuss money early in the interview process.

When the offer comes and they have chosen you as opposed to someone else for the position, then you have leverage in the salary negotiation process.

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Visduh Sept. 20, 2010 @ 9:29 p.m.

Short of eliminating the interview, a notoriously poor tool for selecting candidates who will succeed, these loaded questions are a hazard for all applicants. The screeners who use them should be sentenced to months hanging by their thumbs. Such questions do nothing to reveal the suitability of a prospect, but rather tend to favor the silver-tongued individual who can keep up a spiel regardless of the situation. That is often the least desirable candidate of the bunch and the worst prospect.

I'd hoped that such questions had been thrown on the scrapheap where they deserve to be discarded some time in the past twenty years. But no, some things never change. Such interviewing techniques are really all about word games and providing the interviewer a means to keep control of the interaction; they have little do do with anything connected to qualifications of the applicant.

Frankly, if a job-hunter encounters an interviewer and is faced with one or more of these "power questions", there's a good chance that the opening is bogus, or that it is not one you would want to be offered, or is one that would result in massive regret soon. A legitimate job interview should never be structured to put the applicant on the spot, or to make the prospect feel defensive, or to poison a prospective employment relationship. Oh, some of the hiring officials in otherwise enlightened organizations do some of those things, but most don't last long.

Before leaving the topic, that telephone screening by HR is one of my pet peeves. These so-called HR "professionals" have made laziness into a career skill, and rather than do anything resembling work, prefer to avoid human contact whenever it can be avoided and blather on the telephone. How in the world can a telephone interview reveal anything about the applicant? Answer: it usually yields little insight, but it saves the HR specialist from having to look the applicant in the eye while he/she lies to him/her. That is just the easy way out.


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