One of the coaching services that clients value most is preparing for job interviews. For many people, going for a job interview is about as much fun as getting a cavity filled: uncomfortable, occasionally painful, but something you can endure when followed by a nap.
I’ve written guides to preparing for interviews, conducted hundreds of mock interviews, and developed numerous workshops on interview success. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on every interview scenario, but I’m pretty confident that I prep my clients well.
However a client recently showed me that I’ve left out a critical question all this time: the one you fear the most.
This particular client is a dynamic, upbeat marketing manager who was laid off during a massive downsizing. He’s working through the transition with enthusiasm, and had 4 interviews scheduled before his last day of work. I’ve requested permission to feature his job search materials as a sample for other clients.
So I was taken by surprise by what happened when I asked how he would answer questions about this layoff. He stopped and was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, I could hear the anger behind his words: “I don’t plan to talk about it, there were 500 people involved and it’s all over the news.” I acknowledged that the story wasn’t a bad one, but reiterated the need to prepare a response about his personal situation. “I’ll just tell the truth – I’m not going to put together some long-winded lie. Let’s move on.”
Whoa, Nelly! What just happened here? Pause, deep breath, THINK!
I realized that with my strengths-based style and his impeccable instincts, I almost let him go into interviewing without any idea how to handle the question that he feared the most. I gently explained that taking a few minutes to prepare would enable him to address the underlying concern quickly, in order to return the conversation towards the future. In just a few minutes, we were able to put together a brief, reassuring response which proved his separation was not performance-related.
A few days later he told me that the question was asked in 1 of the 4 interviews that week. Luckily he moved through it smoothly and is still in touch with the company. And lucky for me, now I’ve got some clear recommendations for my clients when we work on that fearsome question.
When you figure out which question that you fear the most, here’s some tips on how to prep your answer:
- Figure out what concern is driving the question
In this example, the first-round interviewer needs to make sure that my client wasn’t “laid off” at a convenient time when his performance was lacking. It would be embarrassing if a senior manager found out the layoff was performance-related in subsequent rounds of interviewing.
- Identify evidence to address the concern directly
My client was able to cite that he had recently doubled revenue in a product line through a major overhaul of the company website that he led. Usually a specific story is the best evidence you can provide. In this case, good performance evaluation scores, recent raises, or a recent promotion would also be concrete evidence to share.
- Determine how to address a weakness or mistake
Sometimes you fear a question because there’s truth to the interviewer’s concern. It’s tempting to avoid the issue, however an incomplete answer is likely to leave the interviewer feeling even more uneasy rather than less. Presenting a mistake or weakness will strengthen your position if: a) it is not an essential ability for the job, and b) you describe it a learning opportunity. In my client’s case, his worry was that he was not the last person to be laid off in his department; however his former boss is helping with his job search and an enthusiastic reference for him.
- If necessary, provide an example of improvement, learning, or commitment
For situations where you’ve made a mistake, always include a subsequent opportunity where you were able to do a better job based upon what you learned. Other clients have overcome an issue like “overqualified” by providing personal insight into long-term career goals, and showing how a lower position will actually move one forward.
- Outline a 60-second response
I always recommend jotting down talking points rather than memorizing scripts. Take enough time to address and reassure the interviewer in an authentic manner, but don’t dwell upon it either. Pause after your answer to see if the interviewer has any additional questions, then use the end of your response to transition the conversation back to something about this job that you’d like to learn more about.
Here’s a general idea of what my client and I came up with for him, as he might say it:
I certainly understand why you need to ask. When ABC was bought by XYZ overseas in 2012, downsizing was inevitable. ABC has gone through 2 rounds of layoffs in 2014 with a total of about 800 separations in Anytown.
I made it through the first round because of my performance – in fact, in the first 6 months after overhauling our online store I doubled revenue for the E, F, & G lines. When I got the word that I was part of the layoff this time, the company asked me to stay on for 2 months to see some key initiatives through.
I just had lunch with my old boss this week, who has been great about putting me in touch with marketing executives at LMN and OP companies. He wanted me to know that many of the separation decisions were made back east, and in some situations tenure with the company was a higher priority than recent performance.
Honestly, I’ve been getting more interested in moving my skill set into brand management anyhow – it’s a luxury to explore new directions without trying to hold down a job at the same time. I’ve been tinkering with Hootsuite ever since I got certified, has anyone here had success using it for your social media campaigns?