Don't be rattled by trick questions at a job interview

Your Career

June 29, 1992|By Joyce Lain Kennedy | Joyce Lain Kennedy,Sun Features Inc.

Dear Joyce: I interviewed for a position with a major bank, one for which I am a qualified man. As the interview progressed, I received both verbal and nonverbal signals that I was an acceptable candidate. As the interview was winding down, the decision-maker asked me to tell what I would do if I were given $10 million today. After considering my options of either a pro-work or "take the money and run" answer, I picked pro-work.

To get feedback, I asked the interviewer how he felt about my chances for a second interview. He stated that he was disappointed with my answer to the $10 million question, that my pro-work answer showed him a lack of daring or imagination. I felt comfortable with my answer, but still after a job search of 18 months, I also wished I had known the code. How should a person respond to a question like that? -- J.C.G.

Dear J.C.G.: More than reflecting risk-taking and innovation skills, this is a values clarification chestnut, an offshoot of the version used in career planning: What would you do with your life if a rich aunt died and left you $1 million? By dumping financial constraints, the exercise is supposed to reveal your innermost yearnings and commitments.

But your interviewer spoke of daring and imagination so let's address that. Many people would argue that it was daring and imagination that turned a portion of the banking industry into a toxic waste case. Lending binges to less developed countries, highly leveraged corporations and real estate magnates all showed daring and imagination -- as well as problem outcomes.

By contrast, your pro-work answer shows you believe in making money the old-fashioned way and it should have pleased an employer at a bank where I'd want to keep my money. So why didn't it? Here are a few possibilities from New York executive recruiter John Lucht, author of the excellent and revised "Rites of Passage at $100,000 Plus: The Insiders' Guide to Absolutely Everything about Executive Job-Changing" (Viceroy Press, [800] 842-3769).

* You came across as a plodder, cautious rather than dynamic. By introducing a fanciful scenario, maybe the interviewer wanted to break through the stiff facade to get a look at the real you, such as, do you have a sense of humor? Perhaps you could have grinned and said, "$10 million? Great! You get your wife and I'll get mine and we'll sail around the world on the QE2 and think about what to do next."

* This probably was a trick question similar to the one asking you to name your five greatest strengths. If you go on to name six or seven, that supposedly shows you're insecure. By throwing you this curve ball, the interviewer could have been looking for a no-baloney response as a token of your honesty. If your answer seemed contrived to say what employers want to hear, it could mean your other answers were too.

* The interviewer may have gone to an interviewing seminar and learned to ask stressfully hard-to-answer questions as a test for flexibility and creativity. Are you one who can color outside the lines without going off the page? Or, less likely, perhaps the question just popped into the interviewer's head. Stress or spontaneous, you could have turned it back, "$10 million? In my dreams. Gee, that's one I'd like to think about. What would you do?"

Advance analysis of behavioral traits associated with a specific occupation, as well as research on the company, will help you frame an answer to any question.

But John Lucht and I agree: Regardless of the correct factory answer, it's not to your advantage to let the interview degenerate into a game in which each party tries to trick and out-posture the other. When values clash at the interview, it's disappointing but still better than littering your resume with a poorly fitting job that you leave too soon.

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