WorkWise: Interviewers today asking tough questions

culp@workwise.netJuly 28, 2013 

(Lynn Hazan & Associates Inc.) Brittany Sommer, left, intern at Lynn Hazan & Associates Inc., reviews interviewing protocols in the Human Resources Management Guide with the company’s founder and president, Lynn Hazan. The executive recruiting firm is based in Chicago, Ill.

Good employers today ask job seekers very tough questions. You don’t want to be tongue-tied and you don’t want to struggle, whether questions address employment status, overqualification or other items.


Long-time executive recruiter Lynn Hazan, founder and president of Chicago, Ill.’s Lynn Hazan & Associates Inc., needs information to present to clients. When she asks candidates what they’ve been doing since their employer eliminated their job, they often struggle.

“Most of the time they say they’ve been consulting or doing freelance work or projects,” she explains. She tells them to include this on their resume. She further advises them to be truthful about company restructuring. Performance didn’t factor into job loss? Say it.

Many people today face charges that they’re overqualified. Barbara Gebhardt, founder of the staffing company Opus Staffing in Melville, N.Y., asks about it directly: “Aren’t you overqualified for this position?”

She reports that most people wonder why it’s an issue, agree or launch into an explanation of why they fit. She listens for references to training and experience that reduce ramp-up time and hasten productivity. Then she listens for references to the specific type of position, work and company the person wants, versus title or compensation.


Bill Bonnstetter, chairman of Target Training International Ltd. in Scottsdale, Ariz., has been providing client companies interview questions for more than three decades to assure a good match and avoid bias. He maintains applicants follow his classic “Why should I hire you?” by “going brain-dead, because they don’t understand their skills or talents.”

He suggests that a person in sales for ten years respond immediately, “I’ve developed skills. I’m very persuasive. I manage territory. I’m great at prospecting.” Bonnstetter states that experience and education don’t guarantee success. Hazan would concur with him that mentioning occupation doesn’t help, but she’s really looking for “the candidates' competitive advantages ... how they can make positive contributions.”

Ryan Koral, owner of TELL in Troy, Mich., hires film editors, videographers and interns. He probes for authenticity. His show-stopper – “Out of this circle of people, whom would you hire and why – and you can't hire yourself” – leads to an uncomfortable silence followed by a joke, such as “Oh, man. I can’t hire myself.”

He wants “people who speak honestly about what they’d do, because we’re looking for honest people in the work we do,” Koral explains. “We need to connect with the person. This question gives them an opportunity to compliment each other. If they can do that and be honest, including at the expense of not getting the job, it (speaks to) character. How are they reading people? What things matter to them?”

Philip Black, environmental department lead at Wood Group Mustang Inc. in Houston, Tex., hires technical and non-technical people for the firm’s consulting to the oil and gas industry. He considers his toughest question for engineers and programmers to be what they did that “increased the value of the product or service their company provides. They seem to be taken aback,” he comments. He wants to hear about efficiencies, such as hours or money saved.

He asks project manager interviewees to imagine themselves the lowest-paid person on a project, with him as the project manager. “We’re halfway through the project and the pressure is increasing,” he says. “What is your most valuable contribution to the project and the impact?” He wants a response valuing each team member.

After practicing for tough questions, if you fear feeling paralyzed, Hazan recommends smiling at the interviewer. Feel those nerves calm.

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