Don't Be Blindsided By Recruiters' Questions

by | March 31, 2009

All recruiters have their favorite questions, but what are they really after?

You'd be surprised. In most cases, recruiters are like courtroom attorneys. They never ask a question without knowing the answer they want.

You may field some deceptively simple queries, while others may be more unusual. In either case, your answers will say volumes about your personality and style. Search executives likely are hoping you'll respond spontaneously. That way, they'll learn about your character and whether you'll match an employer's culture.

Take the question, "What are people's greatest misperceptions about you?" The idea behind this question is to find out what you really are like around others, because, says recruiter Mark Jaffe, president of Wyatt & Jaffe in Minneapolis, what you view as misperceptions are other people's truths.

"The idea is that there are no misperceptions, but [when] you take the candidate off guard, they unwittingly tell you what you wanted to know in the first place," says Mr. Jaffe.

Another favorite: "If I were to call your manager, what would he or she say is the one thing that you're relied on for the most?"

"This question forces candidates to get outside of themselves," says Dennis Spring, president, Spring Associates Inc., New York, N.Y. "The answer tells me how she perceives of herself in the organization, but not through her own eyes," he says. "She's trying to put herself in her boss's place.

How Should You Prepare?

When interviewing with a search executive, you'll be thoroughly screened to determine whether your job history matches your resume and if you'd be a good fit. The best way to prepare is to realize there's often a motive -- something the recruiter is trying to learn about you -- behind each question, no matter how simple. If you take the question at face value and don't think about what the recruiter wants to gauge, your answer could trip up your candidacy.

Curveballs are tricky; there's no right response and no way to prepare for them, says Chicago recruiter Ted Martin, founder and chief executive officer of Martin Partners LLC. "That's why they're good questions. It shows how you think on your feet." Besides, he adds, candidates shouldn't have stock answers for every question. "If you're ready for all of them, you're running a process, versus showing how you think," he says.

Honesty is always the best policy if you have a skeleton in your closet or other issue that might damage your chances. Get things in the open so the recruiter can decide if the information is damaging, says Steve Jay, vice president of Frank Jay & Associates in Houston. "It's a good thing to tell us because we are going to find out anyway," he says.

Self-Confidence Helps

Executives who know themselves well and are self-confident tend to fare best when talking with recruiters. Typically they have little to hide and other options besides the job in question, so they aren't nervous about responding.

Larry Stevenson, CEO of The Pep Boys, a 600-plus automotive and aftermarket retail store and service chain based in Philadelphia, met with between eight and 10 search firms while determining a new career step. Mr. Stevenson, 47, had been CEO of Chapters, Canada's largest bookseller. He began looking for a new assignment in 2003 after selling the retail company and taking some time off.

Search executives asked Mr. Stevenson many open-ended questions, such as "How would people describe you?" and "What is your biggest weakness?"

Executives at his level should be able to answer just about any question that's pitched to them, he says. It's crucial to know yourself well and present yourself honestly when interviewing, says Mr. Stevenson, who took over as CEO of The Pep Boys in May. Otherwise, while you may convince an employer to hire you, you won't be suited for the job or enjoy it, he says.

Anatomy of a Question

Mr. Martin says his favorite question to ask candidates is, "If you had to do it all over again, what would your career choice be and why?" If a candidate answers that he or she is in the right career, Mr. Martin follows up with, "Has your career progress met your expectations? Why or why not?"

Regardless of the answer -- whether the candidate has met all of his or her expectations or would have chosen another career -- Mr. Martin says he gains a surprising amount of insight into how the person thinks. "It's just an insight gainer," he says. "It wouldn't knock them out of the running."

Is it fair to call such a question a curveball? That implies that the batter -- you -- can't hit it. But recruiters want you to be able to answer their favorite queries, says Jim McSherry, managing partner of McSherry & Associates 2 in Westchester, Ill. Those who know themselves and are confident about their abilities will respond with composure to whatever they're asked and aren't bothered by questions they can't anticipate, he says. That says something about a candidate.

Mr. McSherry's favorite question? "If I were to talk with the people who know you best, how would they describe you?" By answering it, candidates usually give him a thorough self-assessment based on what others have told them, Mr. McSherry says. "It summarizes and confirms what I've learned about them during the time we've been talking."

A Manager's View

But Phil Timm, a property specialist in Philadelphia for SBA Network Services Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla., says an unexpected question is by definition a curveball. He's been on the receiving end of more than a few from recruiters and, as a hiring manager, likes to ask them himself.

"It's a curveball because you're throwing them off the rehearsed interview process," says Mr. Timm, 53. "Candidates come in here thinking they'll just get standard questions, so the idea is to throw them a curve because that's what happens in business."

Mr. Stevenson says he doesn't do much advance preparation for interviews with recruiters, especially when the meeting is an introduction. If he's being interviewed for a specific job, he'll do research on the company. He adds that the recruiters he was introduced to were "particularly straightforward" and that none of the questions he was asked were unfair or deceptive.

His biggest weakness? "Not getting the balance right between family, leisure and the rest of it," he says. "At senior-executive levels, we tend to have an on-off switch. I don't know if we're very good at balance."

Compose Yourself

When he's met with recruiters in the past, Mr. Timm says he prepared thoroughly by reviewing books and material on the Internet about interviewing. A half-hour before his meetings, he made a point of relaxing and not thinking about the interview. "The best impression you can make is that you're composed, you have answers and you trust your accomplishments and communication skills will effectively convey your abilities," he says.

One question he views as particularly tricky is "Are you the right person for this job?" Answering is difficult because even if you aren't suited for a position, "you want to say yes, and people would tell you to say yes," Mr. Timm says. "I've said, 'I would like to know more, I certainly have the talent but would have to explore it,' " he says.

Filed Under: Job Search


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