Friday, July 25, 2008

Interview Questions

Types of Questions

Interviewers use five different types of questions - directive, non-directive, hypothetical, behaviour descriptive, and stress. Being aware of the different types can help you in the preparation stage as you build your skills inventory. It may also help you focus in on exactly what is being asked and what the employer is looking for in specific questions.

Directive Questions

The interviewer determines the focus of your answer. The information that the interviewer wants is very clear. If you have completed the research on yourself, this type of question should be easy to answer.

Example: "What skills do you have that relate to this position?"
"I have very good communication and interpersonal skills that I have refined through several summer and part-time jobs working with the public. In addition, I am fluent in both English and French."

Non-Directive Questions

You determine the focus of your answer. The interviewer asks a general question and does not ask for specific information. The most common non-directive question is "Tell me about yourself." When answering the question, keep in mind that the employer is interested in knowing how your background and personality qualify you for the job. In your answer, you should cover four areas: your education, related experience, skills and abilities, and personal attributes. As you talk about these areas, relate them to the job you are seeking. Decide what your response will be before starting to speak, this helps to keep responses concise.

Example: "Tell me about yourself."
"I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology, and have recently completed the course in Volunteer Management through the Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg. These have given me a strong background in many of the principles of human behaviour and the recruitment, training, and supervision of volunteers. I have experience in working with young adults in a helping capacity, both through my position as a Peer Advisor at the University of Manitoba, and as a camp counsellor at a camp for behaviourally troubled adolescents. Both of these positions involved individual counselling, facilitating discussion groups, and teaching young people about health issues - all of which relate directly to the services which I would be training volunteers to provide within your organization. In addition, I thoroughly enjoy working with young people, and can establish rapport with them easily."

Hypothetical or Scenario Questions

When asking a hypothetical question, the interviewer describes a situation which you may encounter in the position and asks how you would react in a similar situation. This is a good way to test problem solving abilities. When answering this type of question, try applying a simple problem solving model to it - gather information, evaluate the information, priorize the information, seek advice, weigh the alternatives, make a decision, communicate the decision, monitor the results and modify if necessary.

Example: "Suppose you are working your first day in our laboratory, and a fire at a nearby work station breaks out. What would you do?"
"Before I start working in any laboratory, I always locate the emergency equipment, such as eye washes, fire blankets and alarms. I would also review the safety protocols. So in this situation, I would be aware of these. As soon as I noticed the fire, I would shut down my experiment and if the fire is significant, I would pull the fire alarm and help to evacuate the lab. In the case of a very small flame, I would ask the staff member at that station what I could do to help, which would vary with the type of substances involved."

Behaviour Descriptive or Behavioural Questions

This type of question is becoming increasingly popular in interview situations. It asks what you did in a particular situation rather than what you would do. Situations chosen usually follow the job description fairly closely. Some employers feel that examples of past performance will help them to predict future performance in similar situations. There is no right or wrong answer to this type of question, but keep in mind that you should relate the answer to the position. If you are interviewing for a research position, talk about a research project you completed.

Example: "Give me an example of a work situation in which you were proud of your performance."
"While working as a sales representative for XYZ Company for the summer, I called on prospective clients and persuaded them of the ecological and economic benefits of recycling. I also followed up on clients to ensure that they were satisfied with the service they received. This involved both telephone and in-person contacts. I increased sales 34% over the same period in the previous year."

When preparing for this type of questioning, it is crucial that you review the skills and qualities that the position would require and identify specific examples from your past which demonstrated those traits.

Stress Questions

Some questions will surprise you and possibly make you feel uncomfortable during an interview. For example, "Which do you prefer, fruits or vegetables?" There are many reasons why an interviewer might ask such questions. They may want to see how you react in difficult situations, or they may simply be trying to test your sense of humour. Such questions may directly challenge an opinion that you have just stated or say something negative about you or a reference. Sometimes they ask seemingly irrelevant questions such as, "If you were an animal, what type of animal would you be?" The best way to deal with this type of question is to recognize what is happening. The interviewer is trying to elicit a reaction from you. Stay calm, and do not become defensive. If humour comes naturally to you, you might try using it in your response, but it is important to respond to the question. What you say is not nearly as important as maintaining your composure.

Example: "Which do you like better, Lions or Tigers?"
"Oh, lions definately. They appear so majestic and are very sociable. To be honest, I think that seeing The Lion King four times has probably contributed to this!"

Opening Questions

These are often non-directive questions as the employer wants to see where you will go with your answer. You should mention your relevant background, education, experience, skills, and personal attributes. Always keep in mind the position which you are applying to, and link the information to it. This is not the bulk of the interview, so keep the answer relatively brief and to the point. The most common opening question is "Tell me about yourself." Another less common opening question is "What can I do for you today?" This question "throws" many people as one's first reaction might be to think "What do you mean? I'm here for an interview!" This could be considered a type of stress question. Maintain your composure, and answer the question as completely as you can.

Example: "What can I do for you today?"
"I'd like to discuss with you my qualifications for the position of horticultural assistant. I believe that I am very well suited to this position because I have related education, experience, and skills."

Negative Questions

In a negative question, the employer asks you to identify a weakness in yourself or to describe a situation in which you performed poorly. If you are asked a negative question, answer honestly, but always turn it around and end on a positive note. If you are asked to identify a weakness, you do have to identify one. However, don't choose a weakness that is central to the job and that will eliminate you from the competition. Further, always state what you have done to overcome the weakness and/or demonstrate how it's not such a bad thing after all. If you are asked to identify a situation in which you performed poorly, choose one that is not closely related to the duties you would be performing on the job. Also, be sure to state what you learned from that mistake, and how you would handle the situation differently next time.

Example: "What is your greatest weakness?"
"I find it difficult to speak in front of groups. However, to develop my confidence and public speaking ability, I have joined Toastmasters International. I have given numerous speeches over the past five months and have already noticed a big improvement."
Example: "Give me an example of a work situation in which you were not proud of your performance."
"A number of years ago I was working as a salesperson in a lumber and hardware store. One day, a customer came in and began complaining about the prices. He wanted me to give him a large discount on some merchandise. I explained that I did not have the authority to do that and suggested he speak with the manager, who was unfortunately not in that evening. The customer became verbally abusive, at which point I told him that I could no longer be of assistance to him, and left the sales floor. I learned that I could have taken more responsibility in ensuring the customer's needs were met by taking his name and number, and promising to have the manager phone him, for example, and I also learned that every customer is valuable to any business. Now, given the same situation, I would take the time to understand the person's needs - perhaps a similar, less expensive product would have done the job and would have ensured that the customer felt valued by the company."
Example: "Your GPA is rather low, why is that?"
"If you look over the last two years, you'll see that it has dramatically improved over that time. As I got into this area of study, I became much more focussed, and my marks reflect this. The overall GPA however, is pulled down by my first two years."

Illegal Questions

Sometimes employers ask questions that violate the Human Rights legislation relating to employment. It is important to understand that Human Rights legislation exists at both the federal and provincial levels, and is not necessarily consistent across all provinces. Which legislation an employer falls under depends on the nature of the company. For example, working at a local biological research laboratory may fall under provincial jurisdiction while a nuclear research facility would fall under federal. To verify which law an employer would fall under, or for more information, you can:

contact Student Employment Services, or

contact either the Manitoba Human Rights Commission at (204) 945-3007 or the Canadian Human Rights Commission at (204) 983-2189
Often, employers may not be aware that they are breaking the law, thinking that they are simply making conversation. You have every right to refuse to answer an illegal question, but be aware that if you do refuse to answer in a confrontational manner, it may have an impact on the interviewer's impression of you.

There are many illegal questions that an employer might ask. Protected subjects include: race, religion, age, marital status, gender (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, family status, national or ethnic origin, handicap or disability. Examples of some of these are:

"What is your maiden name?"
"Is your spouse subject to transfer?"

"What religious holidays will you be unable to work?"

"Are you planning to have children?"

"Where did you learn to speak English?"

"Tell me about the health problems you have had in the past."

"Where were you born?"

Some options in responding include:

1) Attempt to address the issue that the employer is likely concerned with

Example: "Do you have children?"
"If you're concerned about the overtime, that won't be a problem for me, my family life has never interfered with my ability to do a job."

2) 'Bounce' the question back at the employer

Example: "How old are you anyway?"
"Are you concerned that I may not have enough experience?"

3) Ask the employer directly to explain the question's relevance

Example: "Were you born in Canada?"
"How might that relate this job?"

How you handle these types of questions is really a personal decision. Some people might feel comfortable answering; others may not. Many people find it best to "work around" the question, as with the afore-mentioned options.

NOTE: For students applying for employment outside of Canada, remember that the legality of enquiries made by potential employers varies greatly throughout the world.

Salary Questions

When responding to a question which asks you to state your salary expectations, it is important that you have done your research and that you are flexible. If you know what others in similar types of positions earn, you can back up your request with that information. You should always suggest a range, as some organizations may offer other opportunities (such as training or potential advancement) that may make it worthwhile to accept less than you normally would. Also, consider factors such as access to a company vehicle. Student Employment Services has information on salary ranges for many different professions.

Example: What kind of salary are you looking for?"
"The Student Employment Services at the University of Manitoba has statistics that show most _______________ start anywhere between $26,000 and $32,000 per year. I would like to earn towards the upper end of that range based on my three summers experience in the field and high marks in my academic program, but I am also interested in what opportunities the position offers."

Salary Negotiations

When entering into discussions of salary, benefits, etc., it is crucial that you know your market value before you enter that room! As the above example illustrates, salary surveys can help. Another avenue is to speak with people working in that particular industry, and ask for a range (don't ask individuals for their specific salary). As well, prior to negotiations, consider what your lowest acceptable salary would be, keeping in mind factors such as the different 'costs of living' in various locations.

Be prepared to justify any salary you suggest. To do this, cite your relevant experience, training and past achievements as in the above example. You may want to suggest a salary range, and then immediately ask the employer what the range for the position is.

If you are concerned that your previous position's low wage might affect the salary which you are offered today, be ready to discuss your skill level at present. You may now be completed your program, have had considerable related experience or added specific skills to your inventory.

Finally, if your negotiations involve productivity bonuses, profit sharing or something similar, it is fine to ask for details such as, "In the past, how have people in this or similar positions benefitted from these? Such programs would certainly affect my desired salary."


Trying too hard to impress; bragging; acting aggressively.

Failing to emphasize the fact that you have related skills; discussing experience using negative qualifiers (i.e. "I have a little experience...").
Body Language

It is easy to create a negative impression without even realizing that you are doing it. Are you staring at your feet, or talking to the interviewer's shoulder? Be aware of what your actions say about you.
Lack of Honesty

The slightest stretching of the truth may result in you being screened out.
Negative Attitude

The interview is not an opportunity for you to complain about your current supervisor or co-workers (or even about 'little' things, such as the weather).
Lack of Preparation

You have to know about the organization and the occupation. If you don't, it will appear as though you are not interested in the position.
Lack of Enthusiasm

If you are not excited about the work at the interview, the employer will not assume that your attitude will improve when hired.

Keep in mind that rejection is a normal part of every job search. For every position, if 100 people apply, 99 will be rejected. If you are rejected, it does not mean that you are not a good applicant. It simply means that you were not the best applicant for that particular job at that particular time. Don't get discouraged. Rejection happens to everyone and is not a reflection of you. Consider each new application a new opportunity.

Walt Disney's idea for Disneyland was rejected by six major banks before being accepted. They said no one would come.

A record company which had the opportunity to sign the Beatles rejected them. They felt that electric guitar music was only a phase.