But how can you become good at interviews when you have no idea which questions you might be asked? As Chairman of the Reed Group of companies I have access to the many organisations that recruit through reed.co.uk - so I decided to find out. I asked thousands of recruiters, charities and direct employers which three questions they most commonly ask when they interview. One of the most surprising things I found was the inventiveness of some of the questions that came back to me. (Of course, "Tell me about yourself" is still the most common opening line you might face.)
From this raw data, I put together a list of 101 questions that are being asked by real employers right now. I took this list with me to workshops all around the country to ask people who interview day in, day out - REED's recruitment consultants - how to answer them. The majority of these experts said that such bizarre questions were a direct result of interviewers' desire to avoid so-called "canned answers". They're all reworkings of more recognisable questions, dressed up to help uncover the real job applicant sitting in front of them. Everyone I spoke to could relate to stories of the same memorised, clichéd answers - and would dismiss such answers out of hand if heard coming from a candidate's mouth.
Armed with the above knowledge, interviews can be a far simpler undertaking than they may at first appear. When next faced with a bizarre question, decide what is really being asked of you and then answer it confidently and genuinely. Below are six of the stranger questions that feature in my new book, Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again, along with some of the best advice I could find on how to answer them.
Your boss overslept and is now late for a client meeting. He calls and asks you to tell the client that he is stuck in traffic – in other words to lie for him. What do you do?
The Real Question: How do you make difficult decisions?
A hypothetical dilemma – unlucky you! Everyone knows that you ought to keep your boss happy. Equally, you shouldn't lie to anyone, let alone a client. Sadly, you've got to say something.
Dilemmas are designed to be 100% impossible to negotiate without you appearing partly morally dubious. To know that is to know your answer. Take the sting out by highlighting the question's impractical nature: your answer will inevitably be slightly unsatisfactory, and real life usually offers more wiggle-room.
Tell me about something funny that has happened to you at work
The Real Question: Can I stand to be cooped up with you forty-odd hours a week?
Humour can be serious business. Laughter has a powerful ability to fight stress and bond teams. But it can be personal as well. A joke that has someone rolling on the floor will result in eye rolls elsewhere. So while you don't want to come across as a humourless killjoy, you don't want to baffle or offend your potential new employer either.
The safest way to proceed is to skip barbed humour, mockery or the politically incorrect and simply make fun of yourself instead. It's a rare person who doesn't appreciate self-deprecation in others, so nearly all interviewers will take a joke at your own expense as a sign that you will able to help your team through tough times with your sense of humour.
Give your CV a mark out of 10
The Real Question: Have you been thoughtful about your job search?
The dangers of this question are immediately apparent. Instantly give your CV a ten and you sound cocky and disinclined to improve. Give it any less and you've just implied weakness. The point of interest here is not so much your answer as your ability to think on your feet when confronted with a truly tough question. For that reason, your approach here should be similar to other puzzle-type questions: choose a number (yes, a high one) and explain step-by-step how you arrived at it.
Our product has seriously antisocial side effects. How do you feel about that?
The Real Question: Are you a responsible person?
You might think that firms prefer to hire people who have no problem with what the firm sells - but more often employers want to know that they're hiring a well-rounded person who can see both sides. It follows that they're not just looking for hard-headed realists. It pays to have a heart. Acknowledge that every product has downsides that must be addressed. For example, don't assume that no one in the drinks industry cares about alcoholism – it's quite likely they'll want to know what you think about anti-alcoholism initiatives such as the Portman Group.
Where does your boss think you are now?
The Real Question: How easily tempted are you to lie?
Some would say that job-hunting calls for a 'white lie', where you tell your boss that you need time away to take care of a 'personal matter' when really you're interviewing for a job. But a white lie is a self-serving concept. If you lie to your boss about where you are, the interviewer won't think much of you, but if you tell your boss the truth he'll probably never look at you in the same way again.
The only logical courses of action are either to book holiday for your interview or, if you have the negotiating power, to ask that you be interviewed outside office hours. If you ask for an out-of-hours interview and point out that you're not prepared to lie to your current boss, your prospective employer ought to give you brownie points.
When can you start?
The Real Question: Are you really going to resign, and, if so, are you going to do it properly?
This question sounds like ‘We’re going to offer you the job’, but it’s really not the same thing. Indeed, it has been known for interviewers to ask this question merely to pad out the allotted time, so it is by no means always good news.
Assuming this isn't the case, the interviewer will want to see some evidence a) that you really do plan to quit and are not just attempting to squeeze a better offer out of your current employer and b) that you’re going to extricate yourself from your role with the maximum decency and consideration. Therefore there is only one appropriate strategy here: quote your contractual notice period and go easy on the sabbaticals.
You may have noticed a theme developing through these pieces of advice, as I did when conducting the research for them and the other 96 questions in my book. This is that you must be yourself - there is no point in misrepresentation, spin or lies. Being less than honest with yourself, recruiters or potential employers might enable you to bluster your way into a ‘dream gig’ - but unless it truly matches your needs and abilities, it’s not really a dream gig at all. The result over time will to be to move you further away from happiness.
All you need is 1) the desire to work hard, 2) some self-knowledge and 3) a little help in how best to present yourself to employers. You no doubt read this article with the first of those things. The point of my book is to arm you with the second two. Thus equipped, your interviewer will soon know exactly Why You.
James Reed is author of Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again from Portfolio Penguin