A reader writes:
I’m a recent college graduate and last week I had my first job interview that wasn’t for a retail or food service position. I found some of the interviewer’s questions odd and I wanted to get the opinion of someone more experienced. If it matters, I’m a young woman looking to enter a pink collar field.
After initial pleasantries, the interviewer opened with, “Who is your best friend?”
I was taken aback because I wasn’t expecting something that personal. I tend to be a pretty private person and I don’t like sharing my personal life with my coworkers. It took me a moment to even think of how to answer the question. I finally told him my roommate.
He then asked, “How would she describe you?” Again, I struggled because my persona at home is not what I bring to work. My roommate sees me at my best and worst, but a more “real” version than the professional person I bring to work. I tried to offer him some positive traits that I think she’d agree I have.
He then asked, “What would she tell me is your worst habit?”
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Leaving my dishes in the sink too long,” because I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the line of questioning. At this point he brought in the manager who would be my direct supervisor and the questions took on a more professional tone.
I liked the manager I’d be working with, and the first interviewer seemed pretty pleased with my answers (he laughed about my dish answer and said his wife would say the same of him) but the questions were just so odd.
Are these typical questions to expect? How would you respond to someone asking you about your friends and what they’d say about you?
No, these aren’t typical interview questions. Moreover, they’re bad questions and the mark of an interviewer who doesn’t know how to interview.
If I squint, I can kind of see how “how would your best friend describe you?” could be an attempt to just get a better sense of who you are (something that’s not totally off-limits for a job interview, although this particular question is still a bad one), but “what would your best friend say is your worst habit?” is just a ridiculous thing to ask. The vast majority of people’s answers wouldn’t be relevant to work — it’s wildly irrelevant if your best friend thinks you should eat out less or initiate plans more or be less picky about guys or any of the other possible answers here. Plus, it’s going to make people uncomfortable, just as it did you.
Obviously it’s an attempt to get you talking about your weaknesses, but why the hell didn’t he make it relevant to work by asking, “What would your manager say your worst habit is?” Or better, “What kind of feedback have managers given you in the past, both things they saw as strengths and areas they encouraged you to grow in?” (I have learned a ton of interesting stuff by asking candidates that!)
Anyway, while these aren’t typical interview questions, it’s not uncommon to encounter an interviewer who doesn’t know how to interview well and uses questions that seem off-base or just throw you. You can’t prepare for those because there are so many possibilities for weird, off-base things a bad interviewer could land on.
What you can have are general strategies. For example, if someone asks you a non-work-related question that you’d rather not answer, you could (a) make up an answer that highlights something you want to reinforce in your candidacy, without sounding obviously disingenuous or over the top, (b) give a light-hearted response that highlights that the question isn’t suited for the context, like your answer about leaving dishes in the sink, (c) explicitly redirect it to something relevant to work (“I’m not sure my best friend would say anything relevant to work, but I’ll tell you what a close colleague would say…”), or (d) in particularly egregious situations, calmly say, “I wasn’t expecting that question. Why do you ask?” That last one is especially suited for interviewers who are treading on problematic legal territory — like asking if you have kids or what church you go to.
You can also expect you might be asked something about your life outside of work — whether it’s interests, hobbies, reading tastes, or who knows what — and have a couple of topics prepared that you’re comfortable talking about and which you can adapt for different questions.
It also helps to get really clear in your head about the power dynamics in interviews — specifically, that you’re there to assess them just as much as they’re assessing you, and you don’t give up all your own power once you sit down in the interview chair. I’m not saying that’s what happened to you — there’s nothing to indicate that — but it’s really common for candidates, especially early-career candidates, to feel like they’re just there to be judged and the interviewer holds all the power. Getting clear in your head that interviews are two-way streets and you get to decide whether you are interested in working with them can sometimes make weird interview questions easier to handle .