You’re about five minutes into your chat with a recruiter or hiring manager, and you immediately realize that it’s going to be tough to show what you’ve got. The first few questions they’ve tossed out are so generic that answering with any precision is out of the question. And they’re zeroing in on the parts of your resume that you’re least excited to discuss.
Don’t worry–there are a few ways you can dodge those frustrating queries and steer the conversation back toward what’s really impressive about you. Here’s how.
1. Suggest A Better Related Topic
Your hiring manager might be inexperienced at conducting interviews, or else just overwhelmed with their work that week and unprepared to speak with you. If they bring up something you’d rather not discuss or just don’t have a lot to share about, career expert Martin Yate suggests posing a question like this: “Would it be of value if I described my experience with ______?”
If they mention something similar to what you’d really like to talk about, Yate recommends segueing with a remark like, “I recently completed a project just like that. Would it be relevant to tell you about it?”
“This approach–asking questions that allow you to follow up with your skills and accomplishments in that area–will give the interviewer information to make a favorable judgment on your candidacy,” Yate explains, even if it’s not information they’ve actively sought out with their own line of questioning.
2. Focus On The Future
If you are worried that the hiring manager is spending too much time talking about an old position you’ve held or work experience that’s now somewhat outdated, just switch to the future tense.
Job seekers often hate answering hypothetical questions like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” but the best tactics for handling that standby can help you get out of the weeds of your deep past as well.
As recruiting pro and Fast Company contributor Lars Schmidt pointed out in a previous story, “Today’s workers are more likely to be on a nonlinear path,” so you can pretty much say exactly that to a hiring manager who keeps harping on a position you held four years ago: “I learned a lot in that role, and the experience helped me pivot toward another career path. I think that really taught me how to find transferable skills in unexpected places and adapt to change.”
Then look ahead: “Consider shifting the answer to frame it around intangibles, knowledge, and experience you hope to [gain],” Schmidt suggests. This can prod the interviewer to contemplate your future potential rather than just your work history.
3. Get Back To The Job Description
You may find yourself fielding questions you shouldn’t have to–some of which are legally off-limits. Anything having to do with your marital status, gender, race or ethnicity, religion, and other personal information has no place in a job interview. Certain states and municipalities have even banned employers from asking about candidates’ salary history, since it that tends to reinforce gender and racial pay gaps.
But “often, the interviewer doesn’t realize they’re asking something that is illegal and could be perceived as offensive,” one career coach told Glassdoor last year. “It’s no excuse, but they may think they’re just making friendly conversation.” So if you find your job interview heading into territory you’re uncomfortable with, always nudge it back toward the job description. For example, “I’m confident I’ll be able to perform all the duties of the role,” is a perfectly acceptable non-answer to a question about your kids.
You can also reflect questions back to your interviewer. If you’re asked where you’re from, you could say, “I’ve been based here in Chicago ever since college. What about you?” This lets you avoid delving into where you grew up and turns it into mere small talk.
4. Ask Your Own Question
You can often answer a question with a question. You may have to give a vague or noncommittal answer first, but as long as it lets you slide into a discussion topic you do have a lot to say about, go for it: “Speaking of ‘success,’ how are you looking to measure that in this role?”
Usually the segue isn’t the tough part, it’s finding a sharp follow-up that lets you turn the tables, gather more intel on the opportunity, and launch into something you’re better prepared to discuss. If you need a few ideas, these are some great questions to keep in your back pocket:
- How would you describe the team I’d be working with?
- What do you like most about working here?
- How do you handle with disagreements or conflicts within the organization?
And, finally, here are a few questions to avoid asking.
You may not have the pleasure of an expertly run job interview, but don’t let that keep you from landing the job.