Ellis Chase has been in the career and staffing business for 35 years, first in the human resources department at what was then Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, then as a managing director at staffing firm Right Management and now as an independent career and executive coach. He does workshops for Columbia Business School’s MBA career office and he’s just published a book, In Search of the Fun-Forever Job: Career Strategies That Work.
Over the years he’s conducted numerous job interviews and he’s coached hundreds of clients on how to prepare and succeed in interviews, and debriefed them after the fact. Along the way he’s formed some strong opinions about questions he deems stupid. “Any negative questions are trap questions,” he insists. “If you answer them in a straightforward way you can dig a deep hole for yourself.” Beyond negative questions, he’s also compiled a list of queries that he calls “flat out dumb, stupid questions, or what I call ‘college entrance questions.’” The problem is that interviewers ask them of 42-year-old midcareer professionals.
For the negative questions, like “where have you had trouble at work,” he recommends telling a story about a challenge you’ve had in the past and how you overcame it. For silly questions, he says chuckling and then saying you don’t have an immediate answer, is often the best way to go.
I asked Chase to lay out a list of stupid questions and to share his wisdom about how job candidates can best answer them. Here are 10 questions that interviewers have asked and the answers he recommends. Three of them are negative questions and the rest are questions he calls just plain stupid.
1. What don’t you like about your work?
Try saying, “I don’t love it when I’m hit with a lot of unexpected assignments when I’m already feeling deluged.” Then talk about how you’ve developed time-management and prioritization skills and how that’s helped you handle assignment overload. You’ve learned how to keep yourself from panicking and how to prevent multiple deadlines from distracting you. You’ve also learned that it’s important to get on top of new work as quickly as possible before it’s had a chance to stymie you.
2. What do you dread about work?
The long, boring weekly staff meeting that will take you away from getting work done. But you’ve learned to grin and bear it and also to accept that this is the price you pay to work for a great organization. When it’s your turn to speak, you’ve learned to describe in concise detail the project you’re working on. You’ve found that when you make your presentation compelling and quick, others in the meeting follow suit. You’ve also learned that if you perform well in the meeting, it can help your department become more visible. And even though other people can be long-winded, you’ve discovered that you can glean valuable information about what’s going on in the rest of the company.
3. Describe a tough period in your career.
Talk about a time you were hit with a brand new technology at the office shortly after mastering the old one. At first you balked but then you realized that there was no going back and you’d better get up to speed quickly. You’ve learned whom to talk to, what to read and what resources to tap.
4. If you had the opportunity, what historical figure would you invite to dinner?
Name legendary figures from your industry. If it’s financial services or anything related to investing, you can say, you know he’s still alive but you’d love to have dinner with Warren Buffett and talk to him about value investing. You could also say you wish you could have dined with David Rockefeller or Walter Wriston, the former CEO of Citicorp who helped save New York City from financial collapse in the 1970s. If you work in tech, say Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. These may seem like obvious answers but do stick to your field to show that’s where your passion lies. Don’t pick a historical figure from left field even if you really would be interested in meeting that person. Stay focused on the job you want.
5. What was your first love?
Chase swears this was a question one of his C-level clients fielded in a recent interview. She worked in consumer packaged goods so she talked about how, when she was in her 20s, she had a junior job on a marketing campaign and she realized she was absolutely thrilled with the challenge of coming up with a marketing concept and trying to make the product more appealing. She framed her first love as falling in love with her profession.
6. Do you think size really matters?
Again, Chase insists an interviewer asked this question. The context was a project where three universities of different sizes were working together and the job was on the joint project. Chase says his client handled the question beautifully, first laughing and then saying she would need to know more about the dynamics of the three people representing the universities, whether they were already working together well and how they were communicating. The consulting firm McKinsey is famed for asking what are known as “case study” questions like, “how many tennis balls can fit in a plane?” The best way to answer is by talking about what you would need to know in order to find the answer.
7. Are you planning to have children?
Employers should know better than to ask a question like this because it skates close to a federal law prohibiting job discrimination against pregnant women. But they still ask. Correct answer: “Not at the moment.” If you already have kids, make it clear that you have child care, including backup arrangements. If you are pregnant but not showing, Chase recommends being honest in a pre-emptive way by saying you plan to work until the very last second, you are in excellent health, you will take the minimum amount of time off and that you have already started to set up several layers of child care. (I wish the American workplace were set up in a more humane way for new parents, with extended paid leave and subsidized on-site childcare, but I concede Chase’s wisdom.)
8. Are you going to get married?
Yes, employers ask this question too, and they seem only to ask women. Correct answer: “If the right guy comes along.”
9. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Like the negative questions about what you hate about your job, Chase says that honestly eanswering this question can be a trap. Do not say you want to do this for two or three years and then become a consultant or that you’d like the interviewer’s job. Instead, says Chase, say “this job combines all the skills I’ve learned to date and I want to grow in it. I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life.”
10. What’s the color of success?
This is another hard-to-believe-they-ask-this question, but Ellis swears it has come up repeatedly. Correct answers: Green, the color of money, because it would mean our business is highly profitable. Or if you’re interviewing at a nonprofit or marketing firm you could say, red, because we want to make an impact.
Read Susan Adams's article on Forbes
Get a copy of Ellis's new book. Networking: How to Make the Connections You Need