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posted: 11/18/2012 7:05 AM

Career Coach: Tips for answering awkward questions

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By Joyce E. A. Russell, Special to the Washington Post

I receive many questions from people who are job hunting and who really want to make a good impression in their interviews. But sometimes applicants are unsure how to handle the awkward questions. This column focuses on some of possible responses:

Why did you leave your previous employer?

There are many reasons why you may have left a firm. The company could have relocated their offices or downsized their staff; they could have fired you or not renewed your contract. Whatever the reason, you need to keep your response positive. It is amazing to me how many people reveal how much they hated their old boss or colleagues or even the work itself. The next firm does not want to hear negative information about your previous employer. They will probably assume you will talk "trash" about them as well. Think about a positive, yet truthful way of communicating why you left (i.e., you wanted greater opportunities, you needed to relocate for family reasons, etc.). You also do not need to provide a detailed account of why you left. Employers understand that there have been many economic reasons why employees may have left a job.

Why do you have so many gaps in your resume?

Employers look for continuity in your career progression. If you have periods of no employment or gaps in schooling, they will likely ask you about those holes. They want to know what you were doing and how it might be related to your career. First, make sure your resume is as thorough as possible and addresses any gaps. If possible, indicate what you were doing (if it was part-time work, schooling or international travel). Second, be honest, but you do not have to go into detail about what you were doing. Just help them see how whatever you were doing is somehow related to the career your are pursuing now.

Why have you changed jobs so frequently?

In our parents' day, people stayed in one job for most of their careers. Today, we know that people change jobs and careers more frequently. Employers are looking for some assurance of stability. Since they are making a big investment in you, they want to be sure that you are going to stay with the company for a while. If you have gone from job to job, yet without career advancement, they will be even more concerned about your stability and loyalty to a firm. You will need to explain to them why you changed jobs, and how those changes all enabled you to develop stronger knowledge and skills for the position you are pursuing.

Explaining previous health, drug and alcohol abuse, or conviction and probation experiences

If you are currently capable of working, I would not volunteer much information about past issues. The most important thing to a potential employer is whether you can perform the major duties of the job, whether that includes traveling, long hours, working weekends or whatever is required. That is what they really want to know. If an employer asks about a gap in your work performance and you tell them it was due to health problems, then be quick to point out that you can currently successfully perform the duties required. If you still need some time off for doctor's visits you can possibly use sick leave without having to give them a lot of upfront details about the reasons for your time off. Of course, I am not talking about individuals with disabilities who want employers to know about those disabilities and to make reasonable accommodations. This is a totally different issue.

These are just some of the awkward questions you may get in an interview. Consult other career sites (e.g., www.glassdoor.com, www.monster.com, www.washingtonpost.com/jobs) to identify additional questions to address in your interview preparation.

Employers are trying to piece together your background and how you might best fit within their firm. View their questions from this perspective -- as their attempt to better understand you. This will enable you to calmly and thoughtfully address their questions. Most importantly, you need to be fully prepared. Have an answer ready for these challenging questions if they pertain to you. If you really feel that they are asking something that is totally irrelevant to the job, you can always nicely (tone is important) say something like _"I'd be happy to answer your questions. I am a little puzzled as to how that question relates to this job." See what they say. Sometimes they will back off.

• Joyce E.A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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