Every professional has an uncomfortable job interview question they must be ready for, writes executive resume writer Lisa Rangel.

Even IT leaders with impressive, upwardly linear backgrounds stress about answering this one job interview question. And most certainly, leaders with employment gaps, or with complex reasons around why they left their last job, certainly worry about this one interview question.

But it is the single question that you must be 100 percent prepared for if you want to make a favorable impression at your next interview, and succeed at getting to the next round, or better yet, an offer.

So what is the most important interview question to be prepared for? It is that question you hope and pray the interviewer doesn’t ask. 

The exact question will vary by person. The way to discover yours is to be brutally honest with yourself about what question you fear the most, consciously or subconsciously, and pray the hiring manager doesn’t ask during your interview. What question makes your stomach plummet and your palms sweat when you even think about it? Bingo! That’s the question you need to be laser focused on when preparing for your next job interview.

Scary Interview Questions

Here are three examples of interview questions that can rattle even the most confident of interviewees if they aren’t prepared. There are many such questions, but these are the most common ones:  

“Why was your tenure at XYZ Company only 9 months?”

When you are asked about a short stint on your resume that wasn’t a consulting assignment, it can cause butterflies in your stomach. The short tenure could have been due to a mistake you made that cost you the position, or you chose not to move when the job was relocated unexpectedly, or you quit because you were unhappy in the job. The key is to own the scenario and use the steps outlined below to speak to it as a learning experience in a diplomatic manner.

“On your resume, why does it appear that you weren’t working for all of 2017?”

An employment gap can be caused by various factors: caring for a sick parent, the birth of a baby, long-term unemployment, sabbatical leave and so on. In the age of COVID-19, these gaps on resumes raise fewer red flags, even gaps that occurred before the pandemic. However, it is still important to own your reason for the gap with dignity and diplomatic vulnerability, so that answering the question doesn’t derail your confidence. 

“Why did you leave your last job?” 

If the honest answer is that you were fired, then this question will make your stomach sink. Of course, the reason you were fired could vary, from a costly project failure, to a massive mistake, or an unresolvable conflict with your boss

But good, experienced recruiters and hiring managers know that being fired isn’t an automatic deal breaker. They know to assess the conditions surrounding your termination, and whether you would have succeeded under different conditions. Companies respect leaders who own their errors, learn from them and move on with resiliency. An episode where you handled failure well can be more attractive to the expert eye than a background with the appearance of no failures. 


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Why Preparing for this Interview Question is Crucial

If you aren’t prepared for the one interview question you hope you aren’t asked, and then it is asked, your confidence will be shaken. Just hearing it will be a trigger that will negatively affect your body language, your voice and the confidence you exude during the interview. 

By being prepared for your toughest interview question, answering it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate your confidence, your humanity and your vulnerability in a positive way. You can turn this trigger moment into a triumphant moment by being prepared. 

Second, by preparing for the question you most dread, you can impress the interviewer by telling the honest truth. This Harvard Business Review article features CEOs who were fired and handled their firing well, then went on to bigger and better things in their careers.

Everyone has something in their professional background they aren’t proud of or don’t want to be asked about. Everyone has an interview question that they fear. Those who can discuss these experiences diplomatically and with grace often leave the most favorable impression with hiring managers due to their humanity. Adversity is human. When interviewing candidates, especially for leadership roles, employers want to hear how you have faced adversity and learned from it. 

How to Prepare for Your Most Dreaded Job Interview Question

The key to preparing for this interview question is to be painfully honest with yourself about what that question is, and face it anyway. 

You may be self-conscious about your employment gap, regardless of the reason for it. You may feel embarrassed that you were caught up in a massive layoff, even though it was beyond your control. But, the key is to state your fear clearly and own it. 

Finding Your Next CIO Job portrait cover 3D_358Next, outline what you learned from the situation. If given a redo, what would you do differently? What sort of conditions would have led to a better outcome? What are you most proud of with the way you handled a challenging situation? How has the experience strengthened you as a leader?

Take some time to get comfortable talking through what happened so you can speak about it freely and confidently during your interview. Write it down and practice saying it. Test it out on a friendly colleague or your significant other, and listen to their feedback.

And finally, recognize that everyone has career baggage that they are bringing into an interview. Every single applicant. They all have a question they hope they are never asked. But in the end, those candidates who can speak vulnerably about their challenges in a diplomatic, honest way, will win when all other things are equal. Good employers want emotionally resilient leaders, so preparing for the question you hope you are never asked will help you make the most positive impression with your prospective new employer. 

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