Tricky interview questions and how to answer them


“When did you last lose your temper?” Tricky interview questions like this one are often asked as a way of establishing whether a candidate is the right “fit” for a company or not. They’re about discovering behavioural traits and personality types – and they’re difficult to answer if you aren’t prepared!

To get a better idea of what to say and what not to say, we interviewed top HR professional Sharon Clews…

Tricky interview question 1: Tell me about a time when you’ve had to communicate an unpopular management decision to your team. How did you deliver this information?

Sharon: “I think the most important part about this question – and most of the others – is that they’re behavioural questions, so we want to see examples of where they’ve done it before. You can’t just fluff it – you need to give an example.

“So in this scenario, I’m interested in hearing how the information was delivered. What did you take into consideration first? Did you collect all the facts and have all the necessary information? What conflicts were there, if any? And how did you deal with those conflicts? Finally, what was the outcome?

“There are two ways to give bad news. You can do it while considering those around you, or you just deliver it not thinking about the outcome.”

14 tricky interview questions and how to answer them

Q2: Tell me about the most difficult customer you have ever had to deal with. What was the problem, what did you do and what was the outcome?

S: “This is about customer service skills. I want you to tell me how you went the extra mile. I want to hear how you responded to the problem by doing something so positive it converted the customer, so the problem was resolved and the customer continued to work with you and recommend you.

“I’m interested in hearing whether or not you lost your cool, how you felt about the situation – were you able to step outside of what makes you angry in order to solve the issue?”

Jobsite: What if you can’t think of an example?

S: “Then apply it to a problem you’ve had with somebody you’ve worked with, or to someone in your family.”

Q3: Can you describe any projects or tasks that were primarily undertaken because of your efforts? How successful were they?

S: “This is about initiative. We want to identify whether or not you’re a self-starter. Can you see something beyond the initial problem? Are you prepared to do something beyond what you’ve been employed for? Are you prepared to step up?

“It’s about getting to the core of the person.”

Q4: Give me an example of when you were successful in identifying and developing business opportunities outside existing business.

“This is about your networking ability and your pride in your employers. It’s what we call the ‘engagement bit’ – it’s about not being afraid to recommend or refer people to the business, and how connected you are.

“When I ask this question, I’m really asking: ‘Are you thinking across the business?’ A lot of people think in a silo mentality: they’ll think they’re in working solely in the call centre or the accounts department. Your example should show that you understand the overall strategy of a business, not just your area.”

Q5: Tell me about a time when you had to take charge of a group of people to achieve a particularly important outcome.

S: “This question is about leadership qualities, so it’s easier if you’re in a management role, but you can still be a leader without managing. You can be a leader simply by the way you act and the way you are.

“I want to know if the person is willing to step outside their role to show leadership if necessary.”

Q6: What management style do you find works best for you?

S: “This question is designed to identify whether you know your own management style – a lot of people don’t. They don’t know how they like to be managed, or how they manage.

“I want to know if you work best alone, or in a team. Are you somebody who gets up and talks to your colleagues, or do you prefer to send an email? Are you easily distracted? You need to understand how you liked to be managed, and if you’re going for a management position, what your own management style is.”

Q7: When scheduling your time, how do you determine what constitutes a priority?

S: “We all have a list of things to do. This question is about how you look at that list and determine a process to decide where the priorities are. I want you to give examples of what the priorities are for the business, for example, as well as those for the team – that way, you can demonstrate how you weigh up tasks and add balance to them.”

Q8: Describe your most satisfying experience in attempting to gain management’s support of an idea or proposal. What was the situation and how did it turn out?

S: “This one is about managing up. Are you prepared to challenge an idea you don’t agree with? Are you prepared to present new ideas to follow them through – unprovoked. Have you got a good relationship with your manager, or your manager’s manager? It’s about having some presence and visibility.

“This might seem difficult to answer if you’ve worked for a larger organisation, but you can scale it down to your team.”

Q9: When did you last lose your temper? Why? What was the result?

S: “This is my favourite question, some people are so honest! Some people enjoy losing their temper – which might be fine in your living room but not in the office.

“Everybody gets ticked off, but it’s about how you relate to people and how you let – or don’t let – people push your buttons.”

Jobsite: So should you use a personal example or a work one?

“This question is deliberately left open, you can answer it how you like. Both types of example give employers an insight into how you might be in the workplace. If you’re losing your cool and shouting at people at home, then you’ll probably do it at work. And if you admit to it, then you’ll think it’s okay. Which it’s not.”

Q10: Tell me about a time when a process or operation was being done poorly. What did you do? How did it work out?

S: “This one is about proactivity. The big thing here, particularly for leadership and management roles, is whether you determine if it’s the person or the process that was the issue. Was it that somebody wasn’t doing the job properly or is it the process that’s poorly designed?”

Q11: Give us three examples of the types of problems you like to solve.

S: “Really, I’m looking for a variety of approaches to problems here. I want to hear whether you’re consultative? Or do you race ahead and do your own thing? Are you collaborative? Do you engage other people?

“I’m looking for fact finding, too. Do you look for all the facts in order to back up your approach?”

Q12: Do you set performance standards for yourself, and if so, what?

S: “With this question, I want to know: have you got ambitions, drive, initiative – do you want to improve yourself?

“It’s also important to remember that not all employers are looking for people who are overly ambitious! Sometimes an employer is looking for somebody who just wants to do his or her job very, very well. Being ambitious is not the be-all and end-all.”

Q13: Describe the most positive team you have ever worked in. What made it this way?

S: “With this question, the first thing to do is explain what the team skills were, and how you fitted into the team. What made it work? What lessons did you learn and what did you take away from it? If you can, identify the different components that made your colleagues work well in the team, too.

“All of this gives employers an insight into how you’re going to work.”

Q14: Give an example of a time when your ideas were strongly opposed in a discussion. How did you react?

S: “This question is about conflict. How did you react to being strongly opposed – did you get upset? In many situations ego is involved and people react rather than respond. This isn’t about whether you ‘won’ the argument – I want to hear how you got over the fight to get to the end result.

“I’m also interested in whether you listened to suggestions, if you’re able to think: ‘Yes, I was challenged and I love being challenged.’ That’s a really good indicator of how open-minded somebody is.”