Saturday, 24 April 2021 16:59

How to respond when the interviewer asks X but means Y


Those seeking jobs during a pandemic are already struggling for opportunities. It doesn’t help when interviewers ask questions but have something else in mind. Here’s how you can respond to this common curveball.

If you've made it to the interview stage, then congratulations. However, it’s already frustrating enough to seek roles during a global pandemic without interviewers rejecting you for strange reasons.

Over the years, I've certainly had my share of put-downs. Coming in as an experienced public-company executive and CIO, but as someone who worked through the ranks from systems analyst, systems administrator, and so on, I like to think I combine vision with the technical capability to execute it.

Yet, I painfully remember one interview some years back where the recruiter asked, “We can see you’re strategic, but can you also be hands-on?” - so I said yes and elaborated. Later, I received a rejection saying, “Sorry, we really wanted someone strategic.” Another time, the opposite. “We can see you’ve done a lot of really practical things, but can you be strategic?” - “why, yes, …” said I. Only to again be told, “Sorry, we really need someone hands-on.”

How exasperating is it to be asked "can you do X?" but be rejected because they want someone who does “Y” - especially when it’s been acknowledged you do “Y” anyhow?

Has this happened to you? While speaking with recruiters and headhunters about this dilemma I was told it’s commonplace. There will always be some person on the interview panel who has a specific thing they want to home in on or a bee in the bonnet, and they will go off script and try and dive into a specific facet, I was told.

What do you do? Well, the advice I received was to dove-tail your answer back into your capabilities on both sides.

For example, you may be asked in an interview, "We're only a small company, so we won’t have a large IT department, and your manager is going to frequently be busy. How well can you work alone?”

You could explain you're self-motivated, you prioritise tasks, you manage your time, you triage efficiently, you believe fully your role as internal IT is to optimise the rest of the staff to leverage technology to the best.

The recruiters will sit and nod, and possibly later reply, "sorry, we wanted a team player.” Yes, it’s unfair, and it’s also a poor reflection on the interviewer’s skills and reasoning. Nevertheless, that’s not going to change, so it’s up to us to modify our response.

Thus, in this scenario put your best foot forward and cover all bases. Explain how effective you are at working autonomously - and then come back with, “but at the same time, I’ve also been part of a team,” explaining how you work with others to manage the load, to escalate or be the escalation point, to collaborate on priorities and future goals.

In short, answer the question and finish your answer by effectively answering the opposite situation also. Leave the recruiters in no doubt you’re flexible, adaptable and capable no matter the case.

What do you think? Have you encountered situations like this in an interview? Share your experience, advice, or even your pain, in the comments below.

Image credit: "Interviews" by David Davies is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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