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No. 46 – What’s the best way to handle a job interview question I can’t answer?

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9 February 2022

I’ve only been out of school for a few years so I don’t have much experience in job interviews. Sometimes when I’m asked a question that I don’t really know how to answer, I try to buy time by saying that I might need a moment to think about how best to answer it. The problem is things get awkward and the silence seems to go on forever. I generally don’t know the answer to give them anyway. Do you have any advice on how I can handle this a little more smoothly next time?

I will let you in on a secret it took me far too long to believe – it is totally OK to say in an interview that you are not sure of something or even that you don’t know. In fact, it is much better to say that than to try and make up an answer you think could be what they want to hear.

Word of warning, if you are asked something like, “Why do you want to work for this company?“, you can’t say you don’t know. If you are asked, “Can you tell us what you would do if [X] happened?” and you can’t quite think of the answer, try responding with something like: “That is an interesting question and not a scenario I’ve had to deal with before. However, in a very similar scenario I did [insert anecdote]” . You are acknowledging you don’t know the answer to that specific question but you are also offering an insight into how you have handled other tricky situations. Being honest will always reflect well and show you are willing to learn.

I recently discovered that my boss was accused of a child sex crime alleged to have occurred when he was a much younger man. My boss was charged but the matter was withdrawn before it went to court. This all happened a few years ago and well before I worked with him but as soon as I heard about it, my opinion of him changed. I know that is incredibly unfair since he has not been found guilty of any crime. I like my job and I otherwise like my boss but there is a nagging doubt in my mind that I am finding hard to move past. How am I best to handle this?

Your response is perfectly understandable. It is natural that any allegation like this is bound to raise questions in your mind about what happened and the kind of person your boss is. The important legal foundation of innocent until proven guilty is sometimes difficult in practice.

The question for you is: are you able to move on from what you have learnt? If not, you might need to think about whether it’s time for you to move on before you create an uncomfortable situation for yourself and for your boss.

I worked as a senior business analyst and project manager for a company on contract, via a consultancy, for more than eight years. It began as a three-month gig, but as I proved myself, the contract was extended year after year. Recently, 30 minutes before going on agreed leave, I was told there would not be a job for me when I came back. No warning, no explanation and no opportunity to say goodbye to colleagues. I understand I have no recourse given my contract had expired and the new one had yet to be executed, but I would really appreciate some advice on how to avoid a similar situation in future.

Contract work can be tough given it can end without any notice once the contract has expired, just as you have discovered. It sounds like both you and the company may have started to take things for granted since the critical element of your working relationship – the contract itself – was able to expire. I can see how this might happen, especially since it seems renewal of the contract had only been a formality over the years.

My advice for ensuring this doesn’t happen again is to remember that the contract is, in the end, all you have. It’s the only thing offering you any sense of security so be sure to establish a process for how you will review and renew a contract with any new company from the outset. You’ll know better than anyone that you won’t want to find yourself in this position again. Good luck!

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