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What Do Hiring Managers' Interview Questions Really Mean?

We’ve compiled a few of the most common interview questions, along with the information hiring managers are really looking for in your answers.

April 22, 2010
from Accountemps

The interview is one of the most critical steps in any job search. Much rests on your ability to demonstrate that you are capable and qualified — in other words, the best person for the position. If you’ve been on a few interviews in the course of your career, you know that hiring managers tend to ask many of the same questions. Firm size, client base and location may vary, but it’s likely that no matter where you interview, you’ll hear standards such as, “What are your strengths?” and “What interests you in our firm?”

Because these questions are so common, you probably don’t give much thought to your answers. After all, stock questions require nothing more than stock responses, right? But these seemingly basic questions are more complex than they seem.

To help you better prepare for your next meeting with a prospective employer, here are a few of the most common interview questions, along with the information hiring managers are really looking for in your answers.

Question: Why do you want to work at our firm?

Translation: “What have you learned about us and why have you applied here rather than with one of our competitors?”

In response to this question, most candidates speak in general terms about how the work appeals to them or how much they admire the firm. But hiring managers are looking for a more substantive answer that shows correspondence between your skills and the firm’s needs and objectives. For example, you might say that you have prior accounting experience in the industries represented by the firm’s client roster. A detailed response will let the interviewer know you’ve done your research and are serious about the opportunity.

Question: What are your strengths?

Translation: “How can you add value to our firm?”

Generic responses such as “I have a positive attitude” or “I’m very loyal” may be true, but they don’t go far enough to address the interviewer’s underlying concerns. At issue is how your unique mix of talent, skills and experience will benefit the firm. What will the firm gain by hiring you rather than another qualified applicant? Your answer should put your best traits in context. In this economy, many firms are trying to cut costs. They seek professionals who are multi-talented and able to perform a variety of job functions. So you might talk about how your strengths will help meet those needs, for example.

Question: What are your weaknesses?

Translation: “How have you dealt with adversity and challenges on the job and in your career?”

You may have been advised to respond to this question by listing qualities that could be seen as strengths in some instances; e.g., “I’m a perfectionist” or “I’m too detail-oriented.” These answers can come across as canned and even insincere. Show the interviewer that you have the self-awareness and maturity to recognize your real flaws and take steps to correct them. For example, you might become nervous when speaking with clients. Talk about what you’ve done to overcome this problem and how you continue to improve.

Question: How do you feel about working as part of a team?

Translation: “If you prefer working alone, are you able to function as a team member and possibly take direction from peers?”

This is almost a trick question, because being self-directed and independent should be a valuable quality. And in fact, most companies do want professionals who can work autonomously and come up with solutions on their own.

But in the increasingly collaborative, less hierarchical workplace, it’s not good to be perceived as too much of a “lone wolf.” When answering this question then, it’s best to highlight those occasions when you skillfully blended independence and cooperation. Talk about how you’ve worked in the past with individuals from different levels, departments or offices so the hiring manager will see that you have experience collaborating with others. You may want to cite instances when you led a project team as well as times when you were in a supporting role.

You stand a much better chance of making a positive impression on a hiring manager if you can anticipate the questions “behind” the most common questions. By coming to the interview prepared with substantive, meaningful answers, you’ll set yourself apart from other candidates and demonstrate the valuable workplace skills of perceptive listening and effective verbal communication.

For more career tips, follow Accountemps on Twitter at twitter.com/accountemps.

Accountemps is one of the world’s first and largest temporary staffing service specializing in the placement of accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals. The company has more than 360 offices throughout North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and offers online job search services at www.accountemps.com.