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Turn a Tough Interview Question Into an Opportunity

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I lost my association job due to a reorganization, but they replaced me right away with someone who has the same job title and duties. As I am interviewing for new positions, I am often asked if someone is in my former position, and I answer yes but that I don’t know their job duties. Is honesty the best policy in this situation?

A: Just from the way you’ve asked this question, I think you know the answer: Yes, honesty is always the best policy. However, there may be better ways to phrase your response during an interview.

Anytime you’re asked a “land mine” question like this, answer honestly but without giving too much information. If you’ve ever had to give a deposition or even if you watch legal dramas on TV, you know that attorneys advise witnesses to answer only the question asked and, if possible, answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Never elaborate—this gives the interviewer information he or she may not have had and opens you up to questions you may not want to answer.

In your situation, when asked if your former position was filled, you can answer with a simple “yes” and leave it there. If the interviewer asks a follow-up question about who filled the job and what that person’s duties are, respond that you have no way of knowing that information. It should end there.

Anytime you’re asked a “land mine” question, answer honestly but without giving too much information.

The moment you’re asked a problematic question, your mission becomes how to turn the conversation in a positive direction. As soon as you say that you don’t know what your former employer has done with your old job, talk about the job you are interviewing for and how right you are for it.

It might go something like this: “I am not in a position to know what my old employer is doing with that position, but I am absolutely sure that my strengths as a (fill in the blank) will be a great match for your open position.” Then, start sharing your carefully prepared examples of how you accomplished a task or project that will highlight your qualifications.

Turning a negative into a positive by selling your strengths is how you will help the interviewer forget your last job and focus on what you can do for his or her organization. That’s what sets you apart and gets you the job.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

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