How to Pierce Through Veiled Job Interview Questions

Imagine this job interview scenario:

Interviewer: "Are you a team player?"

Interviewee: "Not really. I am always on the lookout for myself, and will stab anyone in the back that I don't like or who stands in the way of my career success."

Although there are lots of people who behave the way this respondent described, few are so self-destructive as to admit it in an interview. In reality, straightforward questions often don't yield straightforward responses. Hence begins the never-ending interview game of trying to get to know a candidate by asking veiled questions where the answers can reveal unscreened, and often unintended, information.

Employers have a legitimate need and right to screen candidates for behavioral traits and actual abilities that relate to job performance. And candidates have a legitimate right and need to present themselves, within the bounds of honesty, in the most favorable light possible. Within these boundaries lay myriad potential interview questions and responses. It is no wonder that when you search for "how to answer job interview questions" on Google, you come up with more than 1 million results.

Over the course of time this blogger and others have suggested fruitful ways to answer many run of the mill questions like: "Tell me about yourself," "what are your greatest strengths/weaknesses" and "what are your salary requirements." Other articles tackle dealing with behavioral questions that begin with "Tell me about a time when ..." or "how would you deal with a situation like ..."

But when it comes down to it, interviewers know that they can't just come out with the straightforward questions like: "How reliable are you," "how trustworthy are you," "how will you get along with others in this workplace" and so forth.

You made each transition in your professional life. You need to prepare to offer a snapshot of your professional self, often referred to as your personal brand.

Beyond that, however, it is impossible to memorize answers to all potential legitimate questions. You can, however, find interview success when you step back and gain perspective about what the interview itself is all about and what the employer really does have a legitimate need to know about you. This way, you can pierce the veil of questions to get to the real concerns that lie behind them.

Here are two examples of things interviewers aren't likely to ask directly, how they seek the information they want and ways you can penetrate the veil for interview success:

1. "Are you ethical? Do you follow the rules?" Of course you would respond in the affirmative, perhaps more than a bit indignant that the question was raised.

Instead your interviewer might ask: "Suppose you were just a day or so away from making an important quota and time ran out. You know that in the next time period you would more than likely have no problem substantially exceeding the objective, and given the way reports are generated you have a few days to submit your data. What would you do?"

While in the abstract everyone will say that they are ethical, in this situation some people would just report the numbers as they are, and others would massage the data if they felt that no one would find out and they would save embarrassment or worse.

In an interview you shouldn't even hint that you might act dishonestly. Instead you might suggest that you'd report the data as it is, with a note explaining why and/or how the target was narrowly missed and pointing out why and/or how this isn't likely to be the case next time around.

2. "Will you bad-mouth me or this company if things don't work out for you here?" Instead the question might be: "Tell me why you left your last job without another one in hand" or "tell me about a time you were disappointed in a co-worker or boss."

Even if you had a boss from hell, experienced discrimination, bullying or had a truly horrible work experience, your current interviewer shouldn't be put into a position of judging between you and your former employer. Just because a question is asked it doesn't mean that you're required to spill your guts.

Remember that every moment you spend on the past is precious time not focused on the positive value you can bring to your next role.

You might say something like, "Well, like anyone else, I'm not always pleased with every single person's actions. But I'm not here to complain about others. Instead I'm here to focus on the future. I am the kind of person who likes to learn from both positive and negative experiences and to use these insights as the basis for future success."

When you take even a second during an interview to discern what questions lie behind the questions you're actually asked, you can respond more effectively. And when you do that, you will be on your way to a positive interaction and interview success.

Happy hunting!

Arnie Fertig, MPA, is passionate about helping his Jobhuntercoach clients advance their careers by transforming frantic "I'll apply to anything" searches into focused hunts for "great fit" opportunities. He brings to each client the extensive knowledge he gained when working in HR staffing and managing his boutique recruiting firm.