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Job Seekers: Answer that Question with a Question!

Last week I wrote a blog post called “The Number One Rule for Job Seekers.” The thrust of the post was to impress upon job seekers that they should never, ever, lie on their resume. The post focused on not lying or embellishing on your academic credentials or work experience. I received a great follow up question from another blogger, Mike Lehr, whose opinion and input on these matters I respect very much. (Quick plug, you REALLY need to check Mike out on his leadership blog: omegazadvisors.com)

Mike posed the question, “….I am more curious about…your advice to candidates on selling themselves to the max without lying? As context, I find many candidates disqualify themselves for a job or help the interviewer disqualify themselves.” Mike went on to give the example of when someone is asked during an interview if they know how to use Excel. His point was that there’s a big difference between being just able to open up an existing spreadsheet and populate it with data vs. creating a new spreadsheet, developing multiple formulas and creating pivot tables in the spreadsheet. Mike, along with other readers that follow me, wanted to know what my advice was in handling this type of generic, catch-all question. Mike and others wanted to know if people should just answer the question as posed to them and say, “Yes,” and leave it to the interviewer to dig deeper or should they qualify the answer up front themselves?

ID-10091332The funny thing about this question is that if someone experiences being asked it, it is typically because of an inexperienced interviewer. That is, if someone truly knows the job that they interviewing you for, they would be able to qualify that question appropriately because it would link back, at the very least, to a proper job description. However, the reality is that thousands of job seekers each day are faced with answering generic questions like this. Therefore, there is a real danger, like Mike pointed out, in candidates potentially disqualifying themselves from jobs based on how they answer it.

So, my advice on your next job interview when you are asked, “Do you know to use X?” or “Do you have experiencing in doing Y?” is to answer that question with a question of your own. Keep in mind, the number rule for job seekers still applies (and always will) in this case. That is, if the interviewer asks you, “Do you have experience with using Excel?”, if you literally have never used Excel, you need to respond honestly and indicate that. However, if you have used another type of spreadsheet before, quickly follow up with that information.

Now, assuming you have used Excel before, what I was getting at before was that you need to take control of the interview at this point by asking a question of your own. This takes poise and confidence but it is so critical to your future success in the interview that you do this. So, what you, as the candidate, should do is indicate that yes, you have experience in Excel, but then ask, “What specifically does this job require me to do in Excel, that way I can give you a more informed answer.” By responding with a question of your own, you have taken control of the interview and have also shown the interviewer that you are confident and capable of a well thought out answer. You demonstrated that you are serious about the job (because you want to give a proper answer) and want to help them get the right information out of the interview.

I have also found that by asking a question of your own, so as to qualify your response, it also puts the onus on (poor or uninformed interviewers) to actually know the job and provide you with more information to go on. This way, you as the interviewee aren’t arbitrarily disqualifying yourself from the process by being too vague, or perhaps inadvertently misrepresenting yourself. At the end of day, there are going to be times when you have an interviewer who doesn’t/can’t provide you with any more context to the question. In cases like these, you just need to take a breath and simply expand on what you know you can do and have done in that particular area (Excel) and hope that it hits the mark. I don’t recommend that you ever respond with Yes or No answers to these types of questions. More often than not, you will find that those responses will disqualify you from the job process or worse yet, move you ahead into another round of interviews for a job that you are not even remotely qualified for! Remember, you need to always be managing your personal brand so take the time to ask the qualifying questions!

The bottom line for job seekers is that there is nothing wrong with you asking questions during the interview. You need to get a better feel for the job so that you can provide more specific and targeted responses to the interviewer. So, next time you are asked one of these vague types of questions, take control of the interview and start asking your own questions – don’t answer YES/NO.

What about you? Do you think you can make this approach work for you? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 Responses

  1. Scott … I think your point is good, but I would add that the candidate will still need to answer the next question, which might well be that the company expects experience with the more complex use of Excel.

    In this situation I might be inclined to deflect a little by asking a question about the importance of that experience. “Is it critical that I have experience with those aspects of Excel, because I have some experience with Excel and have a demonstrated capability to master new skills quickly.” The candidate might even throw in that they would be willing to do some self study at home to get up to speed before starting the job if it would help.

    One of the great messages in your blog is that often an interviewer is more interested in how you respond than in the actual answer.

  2. Kevin – good points. That type of candidate approach is all part of the candidate selling process and is another level of candidate skill/confidence. I do come back to the fact that a big problem are interviewers asking questions for which they have no idea as to what is an appropriate response. Truth be told, if a proper performance success profile was done, the question would be asked in such a specific way that a candidate could answer accurately so as to reflect their experience and ability.

    Of course, as you stated, there are times when a candidate who indicate HOW they would solve a particular problem (if they, in fact, had not done it before).

    Thanks Kevin!

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