Why is a manhole cover round?

Well, it’s not because interviewers conspired to make it so.

Ever since Microsoft made this difficult interview question famous, panelists the world over have been trying to stump their applicants with ever-crazier interviews, but is it really fair?

Interviews can make or break your chance of getting your dream job – and that’s because they’re meant to. You might have passed on the qualifications and experience, won them over with a passionate cover letter, but the interview really is D-day when it comes to proving you’re the right fit.

And ‘fit’ can mean a range of things but with less than an hour to work it out, the pressure’s on both sides to get it right.

Unfortunately, interviewers can get it just as wrong as applicants – a fact that’s backed up by a recent poll by Employment Office that found a whopping 28 per cent of candidates have been asked something they considered to be weird or inappropriate.

So Many Tricky Questions

So if you’ve been grilled on how many balloons would fit in the room, or what animal you identify with most, then don’t worry, it could be worse.

At Career FAQs we’ve made it our business to predict the tricky ones so you don’t look like a deer in the headlights when you hit the hot seat. Take a look at the list below and if they throw you a wacky one, just keep eye contact, keep your back straight, maintain that smile, and don’t freak out.

Remember: all the other candidates will have to answer it, too.

The 10 Trickiest Interview Questions

1. Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

This one is touchy because you don’t want to sound cutthroat or overly-ambitious, but you do want to show that you’re motivated and forward-thinking.

And this is definitely one where winging it doesn’t work – you have to show you’ve done your research about the company and have an idea of where the position might lead you.

Focus on your professional role models and building your experience and abilities rather than running the place or changing the way things work. And don’t be fooled into thinking they want to hear about your personal life – this is not the forum for you to mention that you’re planning to marry, divorce, travel the world or have children.

2. Any question about race, sexuality, marriage or family plans

Surprisingly, some interviewers are still asking questions that are against the law. It was recently reported that pregnancy overtook disability as the top source of workplace discrimination complaints. Employment Office even reported: ‘One candidate was asked if he was gay because he was wearing an earring and another candidate was asked to explain his indigenous heritage’.

Your marital status, parental status, plans to have children, when you were born, what country you’re from, whether English is your first language, past alcohol or drug addictions, even whether you have outstanding debt, are all off limits – but that doesn’t stop some interviewers from overstepping the mark.

If you’re asked something that’s out of line, you can respond with: ‘If you are asking whether I have any commitments that will interfere with my work or travel requirements then the answer to that is “no”’. You may also want to consider whether you really want to work for a company that’s prepared to discriminate between candidates in such a way.

3. What is your biggest flaw/weakness?

Stay away from ‘perfectionism’ – you don’t want your answer to sound as tired as this ol’ chestnut of a question. Giving an honest answer will show that you’re self-aware and detailing how you’re working to improve will reveal your capacity to change.

4. What would you do if you found out a colleague was stealing?

Some questions are designed to turn up the heat and if you’re asked a loaded question like this it’s okay to ask for more detail.

This question is all about establishing loyalty, so focus on the outcome for the company: ‘I would think about whether I had all the facts. My loyalty would be to the company in that situation but I would be conscious of the impact of my actions for my colleague and make sure it was handled sensitively’.

5. The dreaded task

It’s said that former US President Ronald Reagan offered unsuspecting guests in the Oval Office jelly beans as a means of testing their personality traits. Luckily such sneaky tactics are rare, and Employment Office’s survey found that just 3 per cent of candidates admitted to being asked to carry out a weird or inappropriate act during an interview.

That said, some responses went from the odd to the alarming and including running in a foot race against another candidate, giving the interviewer cooking tips, tying a bowline knot and building a tower out of newspaper that touched the ceiling.

Don’t forget that an interview is a window into the company, so if you’re asked to complete a task in an interview that you don’t feel right about, then chances are things will come up in the job that you don’t want to do either.

6. What salary do you expect in this position?

Most of us would rather run a mile than talk money, but if this one comes up it’s good to know you’re on the same page.

Make sure you’ve investigated the going rate for the position and come up with a range you’re comfortable with. It’s a good idea to mention your current salary if you’re looking to match it, but not if you’re going after a much higher salary than your previous job.

7. If you could be a (insert superhero, animal, famous person, software program here), which would you be?

This one tests your ability to think creatively. Don’t get too cryptic; just think about the traits you exhibit – it’s an opportunity to show the side of you that you are most proud of, whether that’s the agility of Spiderman or the measured logic of an Excel spreadsheet.

8. Tell us about a time when…

Whether it’s a positive or negative situation, the key is to keep it to four distinct elements: a short description of what happened, the challenge involved, what you did at the time and what you learned from it afterwards.

This is a chance to show your ability to problem-solve and work with others, so have some strong examples up your sleeve.

9. How many balloons would fit in this room, and other seemingly logic-based questions

The key with these kinds of questions is to know that it’s not about coming to the correct answer – you may be way off – it’s about showing a logical thought process and an understanding of crucial issues and decision-points. If you can explain logically how you got to your answer and how you considered the alternatives, then you will do fine.

10. Do you have any questions for us?

Your questions will reveal as much about you as your answers. Make it clear that you have done your homework on the company by saying, ‘I understand that the role will include X and Y, but could you tell me whether it’s a new role and if not, how you might like to see it evolve?’

You might want to ask about how the company measures performance or what they see as the future for the organization. It’s best to focus on the big picture before you focus on smaller fish like working hours. Whatever you do, don’t ask about salary – wait for them to bring it up as it’s one of the first signs that they’re serious about you!

So that’s the worst of it. If you want to be really prepared,  just check out over 60 sample interview answers at Career FAQs and remember: be yourself.

It’s your character that they are assessing, not your ability to estimate the weight of an elephant without a scale – though IBM would like to see you to try.

About the Author: Marni Williams writes about career-development courses and career resources at Career FAQs.

 Image courtesy of Howie Le.