Interview advice questions answered

11 minutes
Tracey George

By Tracey George

We loved hosting another well-attended Career Workshop this week, sharing interview advice and top tips suited to the current market.

This session has once again prompted us to share answers to some excellent questions asked during the workshop.

How do you prepare for competency-based questions with the STAR technique when the job description doesn’t have a thorough person specification, only a list of responsibilities and a shortlist of essential experience?

A: Firstly, here is a link to more information about the STAR technique, which is a commonly used formula for preparing the best answers to competency-based interview questions.

S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result

In the absence of a person specification, you could do the following:

  • Review the essential criteria and try to apply the STAR technique to some of those elements.
  • Review the duties and responsibilities and assume, based on those, what personal attributes would typically be associated with that. For example, if the role was a Student Records Manager where you were going to be managing a large team, prioritising work, and overseeing the student records system, you would need to evidence strong management skills, past experience of student records systems/databases, and having worked in a busy environment where you were able to prioritise accordingly.
  • Look at past, similar job descriptions you may have access to.
  • Google the role and you might find some example job descriptions online that you could pull the person specification from to draft some preparation answers.
  • Ask your Consultant or the recruitment team if they could provide you with a person specification for the role.
I find the ‘what is your management or leadership style?’ question hard to answer without sounding like a textbook. Any tips?

A: The internal language used in organisations can vary. You might get a sense of this from the website or the job description itself. For example, do they use quite formal, academic language? If they do, it might be okay to sound a little ‘textbook’. If, however, the tone is fairly informal, you might want to avoid using too many theoretical phrases. Saying that, the answer is probably somewhere in between. You want to give the impression that you are experienced at a leadership level and have had the relevant training, but you also want to use examples and language that speak more to a real-life approach to management. Use language that most authentically reflects you and your style. You could even use quotes from current/past colleagues or appraisals that evidence your leadership and management style.

I often get responses like ‘You have a good educational background, but what really interests you in this role?' (The inference being that you may potentially be ‘over-qualified’)

A: With this question, it is really important to personalise the answer to the specific role or organisation. Pick out 2 or 3 aspects of the role/organisation that really appeal to you. This feedback often comes up if the organisation is worried about you becoming bored too quickly and then moving on, so try to demonstrate what it is that would keep you engaged and interested in the role and/or organisation. Consider whether there is something in the job description that you haven’t done before and are keen to learn/improve on. Alternatively, you could explain that the organisation is larger than your current one or that you will be challenged by learning and getting exposure to new projects, for example.

I've had feedback that my answers need to be more strategic and less tactical. How do I do this without missing out the actions I actually took?

A: This is not very helpful feedback, unfortunately. For this feedback to be more constructive, you would ideally want examples of answers that lacked the strategic element. We would, however, suggest that if you are applying for a role where strategy will be a focus (usually a more senior role), then cover off both the strategic and practical elements of what you did. Ensure that you put some emphasis on the vision and your ability to plan forward strategically. You can do this by explaining how you put the strategy together, how you implemented it, monitored and measured outcomes, and the role you played. You may need to focus a little more on the strategy element by talking through exactly how you developed the strategy. It is, however, impossible to do this without covering actions, process, and tactics, so it is very likely a blend of both.

What tips do you have if you start off calm and confident and get thrown by a question you may find difficult to answer? How can you get yourself back on track?

A: Take some time to gather your thoughts, allow some uncomfortable silence (it feels worse than it is in reality). Re-focus by controlling your inner voice, which is likely to be negative, and bring yourself back into the moment by noticing something visible on the interviewer’s face, the color of their eyes or hair, for example. Have a glass of water with you, so that you can break for a sip and gather your thoughts. You could also ask the interviewer to repeat the question, which might be all it takes for you to come up with a suitable answer. If you really find the question difficult and do not have an answer, then we would suggest you are open about this, rather than attempt to give an answer under pressure that you might regret later.

How do you visualize an organization if you have an online interview?

A: This is a great question, and certainly a new challenge in the remote working world we find ourselves in now. The best way to do this is through research online, trying to find anyone you could talk to who may already work there or has in the past. You can also ask your Consultant for any information they might have on the organisation. If this aspect is very important to you, you could opt for, or request, a face-to-face interview. Unless a role is geographically always going to require remote working due to the location, it is quite likely that the organisation will have a face-to-face element as part of the process. Commonly, this face-to-face stage is usually the second interview or a ‘meet the team’ stage.

If you have had a career break (e.g., maternity leave/redundancy), is it best to discuss this as part of the interview?

A: The likelihood is that they would have seen the maternity leave noted on your CV already. If you just leave it out and there is a gap that they ask you about, then yes, we would always encourage candidates to be open and confident about maternity/paternity/adoption, etc. leave. We do, however, suggest that candidates include this on their CV, as raising a family or caring for a loved one accounts for a constructive and important part of your life and overall experience. In relation to redundancy, this usually comes up when an employer explores your reasons for leaving a role, and again, we would suggest being open about any redundancy situations.

It is worth noting, however, that you are under no obligation to share any information you are not comfortable with (obviously, there are certain roles that will require certain disclosures based on legislation).

Have there been any instances where an interviewee has asked for adjustments for an interview and this has put the candidate in a bad light (the organisation thinks the person cannot do the job)? E.g., asking for interview questions in advance.

A: We haven’t come across this issue and don’t have any examples of situations where a request for an adjustment has led to a negative outcome. Usually, we find that organisations are happy to make adjustments and offer the required support, particularly in the context of a disability or health condition, which is a legal requirement anyway.

If an organisation in any way demonstrates a concerning attitude towards a request for an adjustment or support, then it would certainly highlight the need to consider whether the organisation is inclusive and one that you could see yourself working for.

How do you get proper feedback from a panel when they haven't told the recruitment consultant anything tangible?

A: This is a real challenge for both the candidates and the agency. Most agencies try very hard to get feedback for candidates, and good organisations are usually forthcoming with this because they understand the importance for both the candidate and the reputation of their organisation. Occasionally, however, this feedback is simply not forthcoming, and agencies are then not able to pass on information they do not have. If you have applied directly, you could contact the hiring manager or recruitment team directly for feedback or draft a request for feedback that the agency could pass on for you. Rest assured, however, that it is in the agency's best interest to get and pass on this feedback. At TPP, we really do believe that if a candidate has taken the time to interview for an organisation, they deserve some feedback on why they didn’t get the role.

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