Working Decisions

When it comes to work making decisions is crucial.

What was the last big decision you had to make?

The Real Question: How do you think through problems? Is your approach appropriate for this role?

Top-line Tactic: Give the interviewer a window into your decision-making process, stressing the particular type of reasoning that is most important for the job at hand.

Everyone makes tough decisions at work, but not everyone makes them the same way. This question is designed to get inside your head and figure out how you reason and weigh alternatives.

Answering should be fairly straightforward: be honest, pick a recent choice you made and talk the interviewer through the decision and your thought process in a clear, succinct manner.

Much depends on the sort of role you’re applying for. Is this a management position that requires an iron nerve to balance business objectives and human concerns? Choose an example of a time you had to weigh those trade-offs.

I had to decide whether to end a relationship with one of our suppliers. We’d worked together for years but the quality of the components they supplied had been declining for quite a while. We’d warned them several times, but there had been no improvement. I had a good working relationship with my contact and I knew that terminating the contract would be a blow to the firm, but my first priority had to be our customers, so after researching the alternatives I changed suppliers. It was a hard decision to make because I knew I was affecting other people’s livelihoods, but I still think it was the right way to go.

Are they looking for a math whiz to crunch numbers? In that case your best bet is to choose a situation where you made a data-driven decision. Pick a decision that allows you to highlight your quantitative skills as well as your ability to apply them in a complex human content.

The idea here is to select a decision you made in a domain that emphasizes the key type of decision making for the role you’re applying for. That may entail stressing your empathy and strong sense of people’s quirks, your analytical chops, your stomach for tough calls, your ability to think about the bigger picture, your coolness under time pressure, or your intuitive grasp of questions of design, branding or aesthetics. As always, if you find yourself struggling to fill out a hypothetical answer, the job description will show you the way forward.

Are they looking for a math whiz to crunch numbers? In that case your best bet is to choose a situation where you made a data-driven decision. Pick a decision that allows you to highlight your quantitative skills as well as your ability to apply them in a complex human content.

The idea here is to select a decision you made in a domain that emphasizes the key type of decision making for the role you’re applying for. That may entail stressing your empathy and strong sense of people’s quirks, your analytical chops, your stomach for tough calls, your ability to think about the bigger picture, your coolness under time pressure, or your intuitive grasp of questions of design, branding or aesthetics. As always, if you find yourself struggling to fill out a hypothetical answer, the job spec will show you the way forward.

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Well, here is a dilemma that will help you with your job search.

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? Who’s more important—a client or a boss? Do you value the team or the rules? What are your standards?

Top-line Tactic: Very gently undermine the question. Say that you’ve been presented with an impossible situation and so no one should expect a perfect answer.

So, your interviewer has posed a hypothetical dilemma—unlucky you! You can’t win. On one hand, everyone knows that you ought to keep your boss happy. Equally, everyone knows you shouldn’t lie to anyone, let alone a client. So, will you snitch on your boss, on whom your career depends in part, or will you lie to the client, the person who justifies your commercial existence?

This rather loaded language ought to reveal that dilemma questions can sometimes be rather artificial, to the point of silliness. Sadly, you’ve got to say something.

So how do you answer? Before you begin, consider that dilemmas are designed to be 100 percent impossible to answer without you appearing morally dubious in some way. To know that is to know your answer. Take the sting out of the question by highlighting its impossible nature.

You might suggest that your answer will inevitably be slightly unsatisfactory, and that real life usually offers more wiggle room.

First of all, if the situation really is exactly as you describe then I’m in trouble either way, because it’s wrong to lie and it’s wrong to disobey your boss. So, the best I’d be able to do is ring the client, apologize profusely and explain that my boss had been delayed, without saying by what. I’d probably ask if the client would prefer to rearrange the meeting, which might in any case be the best outcome for my boss. Certainly, if we’re running late then we owe the client his time back, and its important the client hears us admit it. Beyond that, I’m really not sure. I’ve never been in that situation.

Bottom line: treat people as you want to be treated. No one wants to be lied to. That’s the best answer I can give here.

Competency questions, such as Tell me about a time you’ve worked to a deadline, are very popular among certain types of interviewer, notably professionalized interviewers (e.g. recruitment consultants and HR people) and among public sector organizations, which are often obliged to recruit in a more prescribed and box-checking fashion than their private sector counterparts.

Competency questions are so popular that there is no hiding from them. Instead of being asked to speculate on what they would do in a given situation, the candidate is asked to give specific examples of situations that have already occurred. That makes a world of difference. Competency questions are usually catnip to people who can do the job and kryptonite to those who just talk a good game—more or less the opposite of open-ended questions. An experienced interviewer will know this and balance out the interview with both open-ended and competency questions.

Assuming you actually have the required competencies, competency-based questions are very straightforward to answer. There are a number of acronyms for remembering how, but by far the most common is the STAR technique, where you give context to the Situation, the Task, your Actions and the Result.

In our section on competency questions, not everything you read might fit everyone’s definition of what a competency question is, but I’ve grouped these questions together because at heart they all deal with the same issue, namely: How well will you do the job in hand?

Often contrary to appearances, at the heart of what interviewers are trying to find out is whether you will be able to do the job you’re applying for. For each job there are a list of qualities that are prerequisites to do just that. These questions are used to find out if you possess these qualities.

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