Dealing with Dodgy Interview Questions

Frank Newberryin Consultancy

FrankNewberry2011"In the turfcare sector, the vast majority of interviewers are not only untrained, but most of them are not even turfcare professionals"

At a recent supervisory skills workshop, I got some good news and some bad news. The good news was that a turfcare professional I had been helping to prepare for a job interview succeeded at the interview and was offered a position at a higher level. The bad news came when I asked him 'if the interview questions were any good'. I like to know the questions interviewers are asking so that I can help other candidates to do well at interviews.

The reply came "Frank - the questions were cr?p". I then immediately asked the other people on the workshop what the questions had been like at their most recent job interviews. One person immediately said - "Yeh, the questions I got were cr?p too". This remark was followed by loud murmurs of agreement around the room, with not one of the twelve people present having a good word to say about their turfcare sector job interviewers.

I have been checking out turfcare sector interviewer performance and job interview questions now for over ten years. Most candidates I have spoken with over the years rate their interview questions as "too easy" and "superficial in nature". Most candidates rate their interviewers/selectors' performance as poor and unprofessional.

I have been training interviewers for over thirty years and, in my experience, it is only the untrained who think they are good interviewers. The trained ones know their limitations!

I have seen research results that support this view. Untrained interviewers achieve a success rate of just 31% (success being measured as the 'right person in the right job'). However, with some training, and the use of structured interviews and selection tests, trained interviewers almost doubled their success rate (61%).

In the turfcare sector, the vast majority of interviewers are not only untrained but most of them are not even turfcare professionals. It is often volunteers and department managers who do the interviewing. Some may bring in an agronomist on the day, but these too are usually untrained as interviewers and selection testers. It is sad, but hardly surprising, that this situation continues to prevail in the sector. But, what can you personally do about it?

Well, you can do the usual in-depth preparation and present yourself at interview in a positive way. When I typed the words 'How to do well at interviews' into an internet search engine, I got 116 million results! To this we can add (1) the good advice recently on the Pitchcare website message board and (2) a piece I have written called 'Doing Well at Your Interview' which you can read online on the 'Help for Job Seekers' page of the BIGGA website.

One thing I always encourage people to do is to have a practice interview or rehearsal, so that you can perfect a smooth and flowing response to all the questions you have predicted you will be asked.

For one important interview I wrote out, memorised and rehearsed the answers to over thirty questions. Eleven questions were asked at the interview and I had rehearsed smooth and confident answers for ten of them. I was a bit floppy on the one I had not predicted, but I still got through comfortably.

Your research will help you to prepare for questions good and bad and, right now, I want to focus on the most common type of bad question - the hypothetical question. Untrained interviewers tend to use hypothetical questions a lot. Trained interviewers avoid them nowadays. Examples of hypothetical questions include "What would you do if 'this' happened?" or "How would you deal with a difficult team member?" or "How would you handle an angry customer?"

Hypothetical questions invite you to share your knowledge, but your answers will not give the interviewer any evidence that you have successfully dealt with (say) difficult team members or angry customers.

The knowledge you actually share at the interview might just be what you read in a book or researched on the internet the night before. Good interviewers are after people with proven ability and experience - not people who have just done some research.

The correct way interviewers can ask these questions, so that they yield evidence of ability, might be to say "What have you done in the past when 'this' happened?" or "Please give me an example of how you have dealt with a difficult team member in the past" or "What experience do you have of handling angry customers?"
A trained interviewer then listens carefully and calibrates both the content and calibre of your response. S/he will then either move onto another question or probe an unconvincing or untrue response until s/he is convinced that you (the candidate) have had a fair opportunity to prove your suitability.

You can differentiate yourself from those candidates - who answer hypothetical questions with hypothetical answers - by giving 'evidence of ability' responses to all questions.

For example, if you are asked 'How would you deal with an angry customer? Rather than say "I would do this….." (hypothetical answer), politely ask the interviewer "May I give you and example?" The interviewer will then signal you to continue and you can then give a meaningful and true answer.

As you prepare for what most people would describe as an ordeal, you might consider reminding yourself that what the interviewer wants is evidence of your ability, and not knowledge or reassurance.

On those occasions when you have no experience or evidence of ability to offer as an answer, you can, at least, choose a strategy that has worked well for somebody else. Again, you could ask the interviewer "May I give you an example?" When given the go ahead, you can say 'What worked for my previous employer was taking the person to one side and having a quiet word about …'

Although you may not have personally had that experience you will, at least, have given an answer that is real. It will then be up to the interviewer to probe your response or move on. A trained interviewer would ask "So, you personally, did that did you?"

That said, the majority of interviewers are untrained, so you might well get away with it.

Good luck, then, with your next job interview. Do your research, rehearse until you are word perfect and try always to give 'evidence of ability' answers - especially to the hypothetical questions so favoured by those confident, but 'cr?p', interviewers!

If you or your boss, or members of the management team where you work, would like to be trained to do interviews that will help you to get the best people for the job, please contact Christine Johnson, the Pitchcare training co-ordinator at or call her on 01902 440251.

Frank Newberry has been helping people to develop their careers and get better results in the turfcare sector for over twenty years.
If you are having problems preparing for an interview, and you think it might help to talk about it, you can contact Frank directly via the contact tab of his personal website

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