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4 Tips for Dealing with “Negative” Interview Questions

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The purpose of a job interview is to learn everything possible about you, your career, and your work-style in under an hour. (Sometimes under 30 minutes!) It’s a pretty tall order if you ask me. In terms of “everything there is to know” that doesn’t just include your big strengths, or accomplishments. It also includes your less glamorous moments, your weaknesses, your mistakes, times when you couldn’t finish a project, couldn’t get along with someone… and lots of other things you wish you didn’t have to talk about.

When an interviewer is asking those more “negative” or developmental questions, it can sometimes feel like they’re waiting for you to shoot yourself in the foot. From my experience as a recruiter and the one doing those interviews, I can assure you that that’s not what they’re looking for — they just want to find the right candidate for the role.

However, answering these tougher, more negative questions does require a bit more finesse. Here are my top four tips for dealing with negative job interview questions without shooting yourself in the foot:

1. Don’t Pretend You’re Perfect

The worst thing you can do is give a B.S. answer or try to pretend these questions don’t apply to you. The worst offender is any “weakness” that’s really a strength (i.e. “I work too hard”) or saying you’ve never made a mistake (not likely). The reason your interviewer is even asking these questions is to make sure you can own up to your mistakes and learn from them. If you say you’ve never made a single mistake (which I think is impossible) that will indicate to your interviewer that you can’t recognize when you have. If you can’t come up with a weakness, it will indicate to your interviewer that you think you’re perfect. Have you ever worked on a project with someone who thought they were perfect? Not fun!

2. Don’t Give Examples That Are Directly Related to Core Aspects of the Job You’re Interviewing for

Since we’ve established the key is to be somewhat honest and forthcoming with these questions, let’s set some ground rules for that too. While you do want to give real examples, you don’t want to give any that would make the interviewer doubt you’d be a good fit for the job. A good example is a weakness of “public speaking.” If you use that as your example of something that is a weaker area for you, but you’re applying for a role as a trainer, it could be seen as a red flag. If you’re applying for a role as a researcher, it’s probably okay. Your weakness should never be a core skill needed for the job.

In terms of mistakes, give one that didn’t have a huge negative impact. The best examples are mistakes that are easily resolved. An example might be “I was working on a project late at night and there were a few typos. I was able to catch them when I looked at the project the next morning and I was able to fix it in time. However, now I always make sure check my work in the moment before I submit it no matter how late it is.”

3. Show How You’ve Learned or Grown from Your Mistakes or Weaker Areas

All negative experiences can be useful as long as you are able to learn from them. Instead of freaking out about a mistake you’ve made or something you’re not as good at, learn from them. If you can show your interview what you took away from a less than ideal situation it shows them that you have the maturity and insight to learn and evolve. That is a really important quality!

4. Show Professionalism and Maturity

All negative questions are going to be about less than ideal moments and situations. Especially when you’re asked about working with a difficult client, boss or teammate, be really careful about how you answer. Showing professionalism and maturity in this type of answer will be key. You always want to be diplomatic because hey, dealing with difficult people is something that will come up in any job and you need to know how to work through that without letting them get to you.

Next time you get a negative question in an interview, don’t shy away from it. Be real and honest, share information that will not get in the way of you being hired, show that you are able to constantly learn and evolve, and always show off your professionalism If you can do those four things, you will be able to master any negative interview question.

What’s your advice for answering “negative” interview questions? Tell us in the comments.

Topics:

#Recruiting Interviewing Career Advice
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Your advice is always so amazing Jaime. I think this is one of the questions asked the most and probably one of the "trickiest" to navigate: How you keep yourself in a positive light while still answering authentically.

Carly Heitlinger
Carly Heitlinger

Using negatives that don't impact the core requirements of the job is great advice. I think it's common sense, but oftentimes during an interview, you're thinking about the specific job (and subsequent tasks) at hand... so those might be the things that come to mind first!! You definitely don't want to shoot yourself in the foot :)

This type of question almost always comes up so do yourself a favor and have an example PREPARED! Don't wait until the interview to think of an answer to these types of questions! This way you will not be caught off guard and can answer thoughtfully to show your interviewer that you are articulate and someone who can learn from their mistakes.

I agree that showing Professionalism and Maturity when dealing with a difficult circumstance or individual is the best route to go .

"be really careful about how you answer" - this is so true. I recently had a candidate throw a former teammate under the bus as blame for a situation gone wrong and that was a HUGE red flag that they (1) weren't able to take responsibility and (2) had low emotional EQ as doing that in an interview situation is a poor move. Great advice as always, Jaime!

If you can show a growth mindset to a negative question I'm always very impressed because it tells me that you are going to be able to tackle whatever project is in front of you and always be open to learning how to do it better.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Great advice....I was bullied by some very powerful women in my last position, so there is a part of me that freezes up when asked about dealing with difficult people. I still can't seem to figure out what I possibly could have done differently to avoid that situation. So I don't want to talk about it, even when it is the first thing that comes to mind when asked about difficult people in an interview. I usually try to talk about something that didn't completely devastate me.

1 - I think its ok to own up that sometimes the thing you consider your greatest strength and ally, can also land you in trouble, and move quickly to explain both scenarios so its understood.

2 - Don't detract from the interview's key purpose from your own perspective, ie for you to do your job and get yourself hired in an hour or less.
The HR person is not the one hiring you, you are hiring you.

3 - Recognise that some HR folk, even in fancy companies, are themselves inexperienced at interviewing, and pray you get someone sensible and pleasant to deal with.

4 - Keep a journal of the interviews you have and be specific about the interviewers, the questions asked and responses and importantly, what you liked or did not like about the role as described, and how you were interviewed (ie the match seeking process).

Anonymous
Anonymous

I was also bullied in a work situation by a male collegue. Usually, I am able to getalong with everyone, but, the person just did not like me at all and would go out of his way to try adversely effect my position at work. After speaking with my supervisor, I realized no help was coming, so finally I had to confront the situation. We had an ugly huge agrument in the parking lot (I dont recommend doing this)but, in the end after standing my ground, I felt better. He still continued to talk behind my back, but never again did he try to bully me and in a strange way, we were able to be in the same room without the tension. In time, I received a promotion and finally left he job for a better one and he is still there, in the same position. The takeaway for me is was to stand my ground even in my knees shake and my voice wiggles


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