Stay Composed in the Face of Interview Zingers

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Interview Question

Have you ever been asked a question in an interview that seems to come out of left field? One that makes you skip a beat and make you want to ask, “Come again?” or, “Are you serious?” Unfortunately, not all interviewers ask the most kosher questions, and it’s easy to become discombobulated.

Today’s guest blogger addresses this very issue.  Frances Cole Jones, author of “The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today’s Business World” tells how to keep your cool even in the face of the most unnerving interview questions.

Don’t Get Flustered, Get Factual
By Frances Cole Jones

An epidemic of inappropriateness appears to be pervading the job interview world these days. Several people I know have gotten questions that left them speechless — and one wasn’t disconcerted so much by a question as by the manner in which it was asked.

Following are a few suggestions for how each of them might have responded. If any of you have additional ideas, I’d love to hear them. (Alternatively, if you’ve been asked anything, or experienced anything, that left you confounded, I’d love to hear those stories, too.)

Q: “Do you know the average age of the people who work in this company?”

This was a question an older client of mine got when she applied for a position in a very youthful organization. While I can only speculate about what the interviewer’s intention might have been, I can tell you the result was my client left feeling shamed for even applying.

How did I recommend she handle this kind of leading question?

Leading questions demand fact-based responses. You don’t want to get into what you think your questioner is after, or do the dirty work of negating something that hasn’t been overtly stated.

Consequently, my Monday-morning quarterbacking coaching to her was to have responded, “I do.”

Q: “You realize you’re going to need to ugly-up if you get this job.”

This statement was made to a client of mine who, admittedly, is extraordinarily beautiful. As always, we could only speculate about the questioner’s intention – though I have to say we both found the pigtail-pulling undertone distinctly underwhelming.

In this instance, again, I didn’t want her to do the troublemaker’s dirty work for him. Consequently, my 20/20-hindsight recommendation was to go with the factual, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Admittedly, thinking on your feet when facing disconcerting questions or statements isn’t easy, but if you can keep your answer short, sweet and fact-based you’re likely to disconcert your questioner as much as he or she has disconcerted you.

Finally, one of my clients went into an interview during which, in her words, “The interviewer turned his back to me throughout the interview and asked his questions while looking out the window.”

How did I recommend she handle it? Well, calling him on his behavior was going to end in a lose-lose situation: His reaction was unlikely to be positive; her outcome was therefore likely to be negative. Consequently, I suggested saying, “I find it hard to answer your questions without being able to see your face. May I ask you to turn around, or may I join you at the window?”

What makes this statement powerful is that she takes the onus on herself — it’s not that he’s being difficult, it’s that she finds it tricky to talk to someone who refuses to look at her. Also, it reminds him that her goal is to be her best self in every situation, no matter how difficult.

And, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, if we can be our best selves – regardless of the circumstances — not only do we wow others, we wow ourselves: the ultimate challenge.

Need more interview advice? Check out these previous posts:

5 Rules for Asking Better Interview Questions

What Makes Them Want to Hire You?

A Resume Helper Disguised as a Interview Guide

27 Comments
  1. I like the first 2 responses those might have stumped me at first too. I have to say the last one, would have turned me off even as a job seeker. I have had my share of poor interview questions/behavior. Some that are so subtle that unless you have HR experience (I do), you’d never know they were crossing the line.

    However I once had an interviewer who took out a book and read it during the interview. I kindly told her that it seems as if I’m keeping her from her work. I then thanked her for the interview, got up and left. I didn’t leave any room for her to speak or do anything further.

    Took her totally off guard that I didn’t act like it bothered me. I was going to call the next AM and kindly remove myself from further consideration.

    Funny thing is that I got the job offer before I could even call them the next AM. Apparently she was just a horrible interviewer. We actually worked well together after that (one of the best jobs I’ve ever had). She said I got the job because she could see I valued myself as a professional and my time and hers.

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  3. I was once asked, so if there was something you would not like me to know about you, what would that be?

    I wanted to say ‘That I hate being asked stupid questions’, but in the end I gave in and said something lame like ‘Sometimes I need to see the bigger picture when the smaller picture is sufficient to do my job’…yawn right?

    Looking out the window though…that’s plain rude.

  4. Regarding the second question “Do you know the average age of the people at this company”:

    What if you said “I do.” and they then ask something like, “and?” or “What age is that?”

    I’ve found that every time someone asks a “Do you know ____?” question that’s meant to embarrass me, and I say “Yes.” They say something like, “Well what is it?”

  5. Interviewers main focus is to screen out many and find a few for a position. I would approach all interviews as problem solving sessions. you need to ask a few key questions upfront at the beginning of the interview and then position yourself as someone who can solve these problems

  6. During the initial greeting, I was asked why I was using a walker instead of crutches! I had had surgery to repair two leg bones and my ankle a few months earlier. My response was: I use the walker for stability and protection!

    Note: during a dry run to their building, I discovered that there was on-going construction outside of their building. Rather than risk tripping and falling (and missing an interview), I brought along the walker.

    Outcome: no additional follow-up from the company.

  7. For the first one, I would’ve said, “why, is that knowledge a requirement for working here?” For the second…I would’ve just left. There is no call to comment on someone’s appearance (unless perhaps they’ve worn torn jeans to the interview and obviously haven’t bathed in days), and you know that statement would not have been made if the interviewee were male. For the third…hard to say. I actually like the response from TM, so perhaps something like, “I can see you’re busy, so I’ll just show myself out, thanks.” Though I’m not sure I would’ve thought about that response at the time.

  8. For the first question, it’s much more important to know the age of the people in the position which you are applying for. That question becomes much more relevant if you are hiring into an entry level position which is mostly fresh college grads but much less important if you are applying for an HR or supervisory position. This is also a question that can affect compensation discussions or can be brought on by compensation discussions. However, if you are applying for the position that is mostly staffed by recent college grads, it is certainly important because coming in older than the other employees could make you feel outcast. So if you were pressed after the, “I do,” which is really only a valid answer if you are clearly towards the end of an interview, then a discussion of your energy and willingness to grow professionally should ensue.

    The “ugly-up” question is impossible to comment on without some context–as in, what sort of position for which was she applying?

    Finally, the interviewer looking out the window could be approached two ways: One, as Kate says, showing your workplace “strength”, or Two, simply relaxing and enjoying the interview. I know for a fact I did not get one job that I applied for because the interviewer and I were sitting rather close together and he was staring in my eyes the entire 30 minute interview without looking away. I find it hard to think when someone six inches taller than I am is staring down into my eyes looking rather unhappy. (Although I think the height intimidation uncomfortableness is a lot more prevalent for men ~ 6 ft tall as I am because men taller than I am are just rare enough to make it uncomfortable to ever look up at someone… most women are used to looking up to someone’s eyes)

  9. First of all, if an interviewer gets weird on you and asks real off the wall questions that are borderline unprofessional, it’s time to seriously think hard if you want to join up with that company. Corporate cultures do vary from the healthy / productive to the sick circus / “we don’t care.”

    Secondly, remember that it’s your interview (and career) too. I really don’t care what state the economy is in, keep a firm grasp on your marketable value. Your income level can be negotiated + or – 20% from the initial offer, ask for what you are worth. If you don’t get it, move on.

  10. For the first question, I would have said, “Yes, I do, and I find that energy inspiring. I welcome fresh points of view, and new ideas”.

    For the second (and I recently faced this type of discrimination), I would say “I will take that as a compliment, but I assure you, I am not just a pretty face. Now let me tell you why I think I’m the right person for this position…”.

    And for the third, “I can see you’re distracted. Maybe we could schedule another time when I could have your full attention?”.

    If you don’t respect yourself, neither will they. Their job is to throw you off, and see how you respond. It tells them how you’ll deal with a difficult customer, co-worker, boss, etc. If you fluster easily, you’re done. I find these tactics are becoming more and more prevalent in a tough job market.

  11. The “average age” question has me concerned on a diffent level. It smacks of age discrimination and the interviewer risked more than the loss of a good candidate with that snide question.

  12. During a performance review, I was told that my development plan was too “motherly” – I had just returned from 6 months maternity leave – I got up and walked out of the interview room and straight into the HR managers office…

  13. I had an interview with one of many at a major Asian import car mfg’s. The final and deciding interview was with the Regional parts and service manager who had my resume before him. After clearing his throat and doing his best to make me think this was the first time he read my resume he acknoledged my having worked at another major Asian import mfg. Then when I had bitten on the bait he stated ” I’m not at all impressed” Needless to say I was staggered at first. Then I became quite pissed. Finally I realized I had to respond and the first response on my mind was most likely not going to be the best. So fianlly after careful ruemenation I responded ” Well MR. K I did not list my time on the resume to impress anyone it is where I worked for that time period. I got the job. To me this pointed out that the interviewer knew he was a prick but that he had a sense of humor.

  14. Pingback: Freshers Yaar! » Blog Archive » Battling Impossible Interview Questions

  15. !) I wouldn’t think you have just average people working here – so no, I don’t know their average age.

    2) Yeah, right.

    3) Can you tell me when the interviewer will arrive?

  16. I actually went to an interview, was told the interviewer wasn’t available, was asked to interview with someone else, who spent most of the interview at his computer. I should have suspected that he was emailing/IMing to the original interviewer, but I didn’t. And I didn’t suspect anything wrong when the original interviewer didn’t do the interview, though I was scheduled. I’m so naive about people sometimes. But it didn’t surprise me a year later that the person who was supposed to interview me was caught up in a workplace mis-spending scandal…and fired. What goes around, comes around, and usually gets you from behind and in the behind.

  17. I was in the same situation just a few days ago at a job interview in the mall at a store where they sell younger peoples clothes, which I might add seems to be most stores in the mall. However this person interviewing me was all of 20 im 54, he didnt want to look at me either, he keept looking past me, One of his trick questions was do you think your fashion forward, I guess he thought I didnt know what that ment. But I told him yes I am. then he said how woud you classify fashion forward so I told him it would be fashion for today not yesterday, then he couldnt think of anything else to try and stump me with so he said well I have about 20 more applications to look at which is usually your que that they dont want you, and he said give me till thursday but I knew he wasnt going to hire me right then and there, I thought there was a law against age discrimanation, well there is Iknew that but I also know its very hard to prove, its your word against theirs so why even have it. needless to say I wouldnt recomed that store to any of the young people I know just because I thought he was rude and treating me like some used up garbage.

  18. I’m a physician who after a first interview, that I return for a second interview where I could spend time learning more about the practice. When I returned a week later, I had a full book of patient appointments waiting for me! This was without an employment agreement in place, nor was I covered by their malpractice insurance or worker’s compensation. When they called me to offer me the job, I told them that I expected to be compensated for the work I had already performed. They called me ten minutes’ later to rescind the offer.

  19. I’ve been asked some pretty strange, inappropriate questions over the years, but I think that by far the most bizarre was when I was interviewing for a paralegal position (a career I did not end up pursuing) at one of the leading law firms in a smaller Southern city in 1982. The interviewer (male), out of nowhere and with all seriousness asked, “Do you know about the birds and the bees?” (Exact quote.) Talk about being floored!

  20. Pingback: Freshers Yaar! » Blog Archive » Star Wars or Star Trek? Questions you just might hear in the interview

  21. Pingback: Star Wars or Star Trek? Questions you just might hear in the interview : The Work Buzz

  22. The interviewer asked, “How do you feel about working for someone much younger than you?”

    My reply, “Great! I hope that person can give me some pointers on my wind-surfing techniques.”

    I got a second interview, but by then, I had already found a job.

  23. I had an interviewer, who lived in the same neighborhood I did, ask about a relative who was on Megan’s Law online; she then proceeded to call the police when she noticed the family vehicle at the local elementary school where his wife was picking up their nephew…I was so shocked…still am. How are you supposed to respond to something like that?

  24. “May I ask you to turn around, or may I join you at the window?”
    That was your suggestion?!  Bad idea.  Sometimes it’s best to suck it up and do your best, then if you get the job if it turns out you report to the guy you can then decide to address it.

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