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Rescuing job interview headed for disaster

  • Story Highlights
  • Under pressure during a job interview, a surprise question can throw you
  • Authenticity may be the best form of damage control after fumbled answer
  • Expert: Write down and memorize three stories of work achievements
  • "Don't despair if one answer doesn't go as well as you'd like"
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By Jonathan Bender
Special to CNN
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(LifeWire) -- A job interview can be like a bad date -- a horrible experience that lasts a lot longer than necessary. The culprit is often The Stumper: that question we fumble.

Expert says authenticity may be the best strategy for damange control in an interview.

Expert says authenticity may be the best strategy for damange control in an interview.

Mary White, CEO of a training-consulting firm in Mobile, Alabama, asked a candidate to tell her something that wasn't on his resume.

"He told me about all the money he had spent on therapy to get over his ex-wife, who looked just like me," White says. "I was looking for the emergency button before I eventually had security escort him out."

Lesson: Think before you speak. But when the discussion gets off track, there are ways to steer it back. Sometimes, your attitude says more than your answer.

Software analyst Kyle Baley, of Nassau, Bahamas, figured he was in trouble when he couldn't remember the name of the company where he was scheduled for an interview -- his first for a full-time position. (It didn't help that the startup had no sign above its door.)

Then the interviewer asked him about the online-learning company's Web sites, and Baley could give only a cursory answer about their color. The interviewer called him out for failing to research the company.

"When he put me on the spot, the only thing I could do was come clean," says Baley, who admitted losing the job ad, which contained the URLs of the sites he was being quizzed on. He still got the position. careers editor Douglas Hardy says Baley used the best strategy for damage control when an interview appears to be headed for disaster.

"Authenticity is something people are really afraid of in a job interview, but it's extremely effective," Hardy says. "It humanizes the conversation, and it shows that you're self-aware."

But not all candidates benefit from being candid. White remembers an interviewee who talked himself out of a position with her company, MTI Business Solutions.

"I asked him why he left his last job," White says, "and he told me that they actually expected him to work past 5 o'clock."

Questions about what you think of your old boss, where you see yourself in five years and your greatest accomplishment have all stumped even the most promising candidates. Former Silicon Valley recruiter Nick Corcodilos, founder of, has seen the situation all too often: An interviewee under too much stress spouts off a nonsensical, canned answer that had been crafted as the perfect response.

"If you memorize too much, it will blow up in your face," Corcodilos says. "Something will throw you off-kilter and you'll be like a stand-up comic who can't remember his lines."

What's behind the tough questions

It's hard to say which question will trip you up: What's your biggest weakness? How much money do you expect to earn? How many ping-pong balls fit into a 747?

Yes, that last one is among the logic questions and stress techniques some companies (Microsoft, in this case) use to assess recruits. Los Angeles author William Poundstone looks at them in his book "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" Another stumper: Which state should be eliminated from the United States?

Interviewers ask such questions not because there is a right answer, Poundstone says, but because those questions provide insight into a candidate's thought process. Managers are trying to discover the most information in the shortest amount of time, he says.

"You don't get candid references, you can't ask a lot of questions because of discrimination issues, and puzzles are ultimately egalitarian," Poundstone says.

So how can you handle these (and the more usual) curveballs?

Hardy says there is no perfect question -- or perfect answer: "Nobody can ask you one question and know everything about you." So view the interview as a whole, and don't despair if one answer doesn't go as well as you'd like.

It's all about preparation

Hardy says the key to successfully answering difficult questions is eliminating as many variables as possible -- and that takes preparation. He has three tips for facilitating the interview process:

• Write down and memorize three stories of achievement at work. It's hard to think when you're placed on the spot.

• Listen and adjust your strategy accordingly. An interviewer often will give clues, whether physical or verbal, about how they want you to answer. If an interviewer nods in response to your answer, it's a good bet that they approve of your reply. Ask for specifics or for an example if you think a question is too vague.

• Know the salary range you're willing to accept. A range gives an employer an idea of what you're looking for without forcing you to commit to a number.

If you don't get the job, well, at least you won't have to worry about the interviewer calling for a second date.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jonathan Bender is a freelance journalist living in Kansas City, Missouri.

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