Resumes and Job Hunt

January 18, 2013

How to handle awkward interview questions

How to handle awkward interview questions


As an executive coach, I receive many questions from people who want to make a good impression in their interviews. But sometimes applicants are unsure how to handle the awkward questions. Here are some of these questions, and possible responses.

“Why did you leave your previous employer?”
Whatever the reason, you need to keep your response positive. It is amazing to me how many people reveal how much they hated their old boss or colleagues, or even the work itself. The next firm does not want to hear negative information about your previous employer. People there will probably assume you will “talk trash” about them as well.
Think about a positive, yet truthful way of communicating why you left (e.g., you wanted greater opportunities, you needed to relocate for family reasons, etc.). You also do not need to provide a detailed account of why you left. Employers understand that there have been many economic reasons why employees may have left their jobs.

“Why do you have so many gaps in your resume?”
Employers look for continuity in your career progression. If you have periods of no employment or gaps in schooling, they will likely ask you about those holes. They want to know what you were doing and how it might be related to your career.

First, make sure your resume is as thorough as possible and addresses any gaps. If possible, indicate what you were doing (if it was part-time work, schooling or international travel). Second, be honest -- but you don’t have to go into detail. Just help them see how whatever you were doing is somehow related to the career you are pursuing.

“Why have you changed jobs so frequently?”
Employers are looking for some assurance of stability. Since they are making a big investment in you, they want to be sure that you are going to stay with the company for a while.

If you have gone from job to job without career advancement, employers will be even more concerned about your stability and loyalty to a firm. You will need to explain to them why you changed jobs, and how those changes enabled you to develop stronger knowledge and skills for the position you are pursuing.

“Explain previous health, drug and alcohol abuse, or conviction/probation experiences.”
If you are currently capable of working, do not volunteer much information about past issues. The most important thing to a potential employer is whether you can perform the major duties of the job.

If employers ask about a gap in your work performance, and you tell them it was due to health problems, then be quick to point out that you can currently successfully perform the duties required.

Of course, I am not talking about individuals with disabilities who want employers to know about those disabilities and to make reasonable accommodations.

These are just some of the awkward questions you might get in an interview. Consult career sites such as to identify additional questions to address in your interview preparation.

Employers are trying to piece together your background and how you might best fit within their firm. View their questions from this perspective -- as their attempt to better understand you. This will enable you to calmly and thoughtfully address their questions.
Have an answer ready for these challenging questions if they pertain to you.

If you really feel that they are asking about something that is irrelevant to the job, you can always nicely (tone is important) say something like: “I’d be happy to answer your questions. I am a little puzzled as to how that question relates to this job.” Sometimes they will back off.

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