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5 Annoying Job Interview Questions and Why They're Asked

Thinking about the psychology behind common interview questions.

Key points

  • "Tell us a little about yourself" subtly allows the panel to see if you’re clear in your thinking and answering.
  • The panel wants to see that you’re a realist who values self-improvement.
  • The interviewers want to hear about how you are a problem-solver and your process for doing so.

In light of discussing work–life balance and personal value, among other related concepts in my most recent pieces for this blog, it seemed reasonable to keep the work-related discussion going. Job interviews are kind of a surreal setting to be in when you think about it, especially after considering our discussion of personal value.

There’s a lot of work involved in preparing for an interview—for something that, ultimately, may not pay off. Assuming the vetting of resumes is done right, every candidate "should" be employable; then, it comes down to who is "best" in the interview. Though what determines "best" is often ambiguous, one thing is for sure: When the panel asks you questions—no matter how silly they may seem—your answers need to be clear, concise, and what they want to hear.

There are many tips online for how to answer interview questions, but perhaps more helpful is understanding why these questions are being asked. If the rationale is clear to you, then successful answering is more likely. So, here’s a list of five commonly asked interview questions (often described as "annoying") and the rationale for why they are asked.

1. Please, tell us a little about yourself.

Newsflash—no one really wants to know about you, the person—only what is relevant. Well, why not just ask, "Could you please run through your resume for us?" Some panels do ask it the latter way, but, what often happens is that the person will literally go through their entire curriculum vitae and, given that the panel can read, this often winds up wasting time.

"Tell us a little about yourself" subtly allows the panel to see if you’re clear in your thinking and answering. If you’re able to take a very broad concept and whittle it down, succinctly and concisely, making sure to address how what is being regaled is both relevant and important to the position, then you’ve succeeded in answering the question. It can help to exemplify some of this with personal experiences—hence, the "about yourself" aspect of the question (which gives you the opportunity to potentially make your answer more memorable/personable/likeable)—but only if it helps make your points. No one wants to hear about your weekend endeavours in decoupage.

2. Why do you want to work here/in this position?

"Because electricity doesn’t pay for itself" is the answer everyone in the room is thinking, but it’s obviously inappropriate. If money is your priority (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that— that's the point of "working"), then it can be assumed that if another position were to pop up elsewhere three months after you’re hired, you’ll probably jump ship. Accounting for time and resources spent on the hiring process, along with whatever training and "hand-over" processes are necessary to get you going in your job, if you’re just quick turnover, why would they hire you?

This question is designed to learn about your motivation. Quite often, all you'll know about a position you interview for is the job spec. Your answer to this question lets the panel know how much you prepared for the interview, your understanding of the position, and how you see yourself applying your skills and experiences. The "wrong" answer will show the panel that you aren’t someone who is prepared, you may not really understand the role, you aren’t particularly suited to the role, and/or you might not last long before quitting.

3. Tell us about one of your weaknesses.

You can’t be too honest, because some weaknesses are just not likely to be "fixable" (e.g., I find it difficult to get along with others). On the other hand, a common—though similarly poor way of answering the question—is to try disguising a strength as a weakness (e.g., I’m a perfectionist, so I refuse to submit work before it is absolutely perfect—an answer I’ve heard multiple times and that actually implies that the person has time-management issues and may also be indecisive—two weaknesses that are hard to fix).

The purpose of this question is to see if you’re in touch with reality. Obviously, no one’s perfect, but do you apply that logic to yourself? If you have difficulty identifying a weakness, that means you don’t self-evaluate enough, and self-evaluation is an important part of performance monitoring and enhancement. Whatever weakness you identify, make sure to address that since becoming aware of it, you’ve been working on it and how you are working on it. The panel wants to see that you’re a realist who values self-improvement.

4. Tell us about a workplace problem you’ve encountered in the past and how you overcame it.

Often, this question is worded in a way that involves conflict with a colleague. Don’t talk about personality clashes or anything that could potentially make you look like the villain or the cause of problems in your own story. Simply, the panel wants to hear about how you are a problem-solver and your process for doing so. It also wants to hear about your communication and collaborative skills. Adding "conflict" to the equation ups the difficulty level of the question because it forces you to exemplify how you communicate under duress. Remember, the question is not about problems or conflict per se; rather, it is about solutions, communication, and collaboration.

Notably, another common way of assessing how you deal with conflict is to have one interview panelist challenge your resume or ask questions in a rude manner. Of course, the person may just be rude or ignorant. However, this tactic (which I don’t like) is often used to evaluate how the interviewee responds to conflict or difficult situations/people in real time. Simply, if an interviewer is rude, don’t take it personally, don’t get defensive, and don’t be a pushover. Be patient and be clear.

5. Do you have any questions for us?

Sometimes this question is used as a courtesy extended to the interviewee; sometimes it’s mandatory for the organisation to provide an opportunity for questions. Regardless, always ask a question. This is usually the last question asked and, consistent with the recency effect, is the taste you’ll leave in the mouths of interviewers, so be strategic with your question. Sometimes, this question doubles in purpose and accounts, to some extent, for another common question—"What do you know about this organization?"...which can risk winding up like "What don't you know?" Simply avoid this route and don’t ask a question for which you should already know the answer. Likewise, if you can easily find the answer after a quick search online, don’t ask it.

One strategy I think particularly useful is making it clear that: you’ve done your homework on the organisation; you know the job specs, and you think you’d be a good fit for the position—and because of this, ask if there’s anything you could elaborate on further or clarify. This response makes it clear that you are confident in your knowledge of the organisation (without risking asking a poor question) and further implies your value of clarity.

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