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MENTOR - THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE

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If you want a new job you need to be ready for killer questions. But will you fight like a tiger or hide up a tree,...
If you want a new job you need to be ready for killer questions. But will you fight like a tiger or hide up a tree, asks Sally O'Reilly

What kind of jungle animal are you? If you haven't given this much thought, and have a job interview coming up, now is the time to decide if you are a tiger or a chimp. Off-the-wall 'killer questions' are now part of an interviewer's repertoire. If you want to shine, you've got to be prepared.

Alan Warner, head of people and property at Hertfordshire CC, says there's no need to fear the killer question - tough questions are just a way of probing beneath the surface. 'People can talk you through a job specification, but these questions are about stopping people in their tracks and making them think,' he says.

'For instance, if you are talking to a bright graduate who may be chief executive one day, you are looking for them to think in that way. So you might ask: 'under what circumstances would you de-recognise a trade union?'

'We are looking for a credible, thoughtful answer - there is not necessarily a right or wrong approach. But a glib or a smart answer is not what we are looking for - we want a considered response.'

Dealing with killer questions means preparing well for the whole interview, stresses John Lees, a careers coach and author of Job interviews: top answers to tough questions (McGraw-Hill Business). 'You can't anticipate the killer question, but you can prepare well in every other way,' he says.

'You should then be able to answer any questions which relate to your ability to fill the post, and also to any unexpected hypothetical posers which relate to the job.'

And if you are bowled a googly, Mr Lees stresses that the trick is to be as laid back as possible. 'One role of killer questions is to see if applicants have a sense of humour,' he says. 'It's often not so much what you say as how you say it - there might not be a right or wrong answer, but keeping your cool is absolutely necessary.'

Fail to prepare thoroughly and any question could be a killer, says Mr Warner. 'It's astonishing how many people haven't done their homework. We saw an example of that on the TV series The Apprentice. These people really wanted the job, but had no idea what Amstrad [Alan Sugar's firm] actually did!

'When I came for my first job at Hertfordshire, I went to the town hall and collected loads of leaflets about its services. Now all you have to do is look at the website.'

Jill Rothwell, acting chief executive of Harrow LBC, says she is often surprised how easily candidates can be floored. 'My recent experience with senior appointments confirms that some candidates have struggled on budget management - a bit worrying when you are trying to recruit for a senior finance job,' she says. Other candidates - who really should have known better - were unsure how to tackle points on working with councillors, understanding the boundaries between political and managerial accountability or working with diverse communities.

Neither Mr Warner nor Ms Rothwell are fans of the totally crazy interview question, leaving such gems as 'If you were an international brand, what would you be?' to the giddy world of advertising.

Ms Rothwell believes councils should play it straight. 'The questions that work best are those which are linked to the competencies and requirements for the job, and are designed to explore particular aspects of the role,' she says.

'The worst are people's 'pet' question. For instance, one member always liked to ask: 'If the council gave you six months paid leave, what would you do?' He thought the answers revealed much about the motivation of the candidate. In fact, it does nothing of the sort, beyond showing how well they could think on their feet.

'And never ever ask a female chief executive - as I heard one member do - how she thinks she will cope with her childcare!'

Killer questions have their time and place says Mr Warner - for example, a chief executive is more likely to have to deal with the odd curveball than a care assistant. 'Interviews should be seen in context, as part of a series of processes,' he says. 'It's a bit like an exam, you are looking for evidence of what people can do, and a killer question can be asked as part of that.'

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