During my 40 years in the recruiting and search business, I have been constantly amazed at how normally intelligent, well-spoken professionals in a particular field are oftentimes reduced to blank stares when it comes to answering questions on an interview. Similar to what many of us have experienced when taking an exam that we have thoroughly prepared for, we often freeze when we are taking the actual exam.

Unfortunately, I have seen many instances where candidates are hired, or not hired because of their interview skills. This actually works both ways…In some cases, a candidate may be an excellent interviewee, and turn out to be a poor choice of employee. Conversely, an excellent candidate may have trouble articulating an interview, thus causing them to be rejected.

In this article, I will point out several interview questions that candidates tend to trip over, as well as other interview issues that oftentimes cause qualified candidates to lose opportunities.

One of the classic interview questions which I have seen candidates stammer over is “Tell me about yourself?”

Where most people fail with a question such as this is in not really knowing what the interviewer is looking for. I have seen candidates respond by beginning with a verbal autobiography of their life story, beginning with where they were born, how many siblings they have, etc. What I always recommend as an appropriate strategy, is to turn the question back to the interview by asking “ Where would you like me to begin?”  This will accomplish two things; First, it allows you time to think about how to respond; Secondarily, depending on the interviewers response, you can determine what he or she is interested in (Do they really want to know about your education, where you lived etc, or about your specific work experience, or your philosophy on life?)  In many cases, the very asking of the question “where do you want me to begin?” gives the interviewer some insight as to your thought process (doesn’t shoot from the hip, seeks additional information before reacting, etc)

Another question that causes angst amongst many candidates is “why did you leave your last job? “ or “why do you want to leave your current position?”

The worst response to this question is to begin a tirade of all that is wrong with your company policies, supervisor’s management skills and all the dirty laundry that exists. This question oftentimes causes people to believe that they can unload all of their work frustration. In my mind, this is the equivalent of discussing all of your problems with your last spouse or significant other while on a first date with someone new!  This generally doesn’t endear you to them.

An appropriate response to this question is generally dependent on what the circumstances are.  What are your real reasons for interviewing for a new position?  Are you blocked for a promotion or have you been passed over? Is it a money issue? I am a big fan of the truth but presented in a way that is more positive in nature. So instead of “I haven’t gotten a raise in two years because my company is in trouble”, why not say something like “ I believe that I have contributed as much as possible to my current organization, and feel that there are situations in the marketplace that may offer more opportunities for growth”.  One of the best ways to respond to this question is to know as much as possible about the prospective employer, what the job requirements are and how they fit with your needs. As an example, if your research shows you that the prospective employer has an aggressive policy with regard to their AML programs, and, this is in line with your career goals, an appropriate response may be “ It si not that I am unhappy where I am, however, I understand that your organization is taking a very aggressive stance with regard to AML, this is the type of organization that I believe I can provide a great deal of value to because….”

“What is your greatest weakness?” or “What is the worst thing your former employer would say about you?” This is another one of those questions that causes candidates a great deal of concern.  I have seen candidates’ answers run the gamut from “ I am not good with numbers” (this from a candidate for an accounting position!) to “ I have difficulty dealing with deadlines”.  This is one of those questions where one must again THINK before answering. In general terms, it is not necessary to bare one’s soul with regard to an answer. Instead, position a positive attribute that could be perceived as a weakness (i.e. “I have been told that I am never satisfied with mediocrity in the output of my staff or myself” or “ I have a tendency to be the first one in and the last one out” Be prepared, however for follow up questions, such as “Does this mean that you cannot get your work done on time? Or, “Do you focus on the small picture   versus the   big picture?” 

These are just some of the many questions that tend to trip people up. In general terms, the best advice I would give a job seeker when it comes to interviewing is the following:

  • Think like the interviewer. Put yourself in their shoes and THINK before you answer a question. Every interviewer asks questions not only for the answer, but evaluate how a candidate thinks and answers the question. Sometimes how you answer is as important as the answer itself.


  • Research the prospective employer. Find it about their culture, where they are headed, what their corporate values are, etc. Sometimes, the interview may be great; however, the company may not fit your needs or you theirs.


  • Prepare for the interview by learning as much about the company as possible. Visit the website prior to the interview.


  • Confirm the dress policy of the company. If you absolutely need to be in dressed casually so as not to arouse suspicion of your current employer, advise the interviewer beforehand to determine acceptability.


  • The purpose of an interview is to learn as much about the specific opening and present oneself in as positive an approach as possible.


  • The first and second interviews are not the time to negotiate compensation, benefits, etc. If the issue of salary requirement is brought up, DO NOT MAKE SALARY AN ISSUE AT THIS POINT. Indicate that while salary is important, it is one of several factors that should be considered by both sides. Impress upon interviewer your willingness to discuss a reasonable offer at a point further into the process. Please note that in most states, It is ILLEGAL for a prospective employer to inquire about current or previous salary history