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4 of the Toughest Interview Questions, and How to Respond

Deborah Swerdlow

4 of the Toughest Interview Questions, and How to Respond

Imagine you’re in interview preparation mode and getting ready for the big day. Wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to other social-impact professionals about the toughest interview questions they’ve faced and get advice from hiring managers about what they’re looking for in your answers?

You can—by reading this post.

Every question in this article has been posed to—and stumped—at least one of the social-impact professionals we talked to.

Next, we asked hiring managers and human resources professionals about what makes a good answer to those questions.

Tell me about a professional experience where your integrity or moral code was challenged

This question was the most common one that people submitted as the toughest interview question they’ve faced. Carla Reed, manager of human resources at Youth For Understanding USA, said she’s asked this question to get insight into how someone will behave if they’re presented with this situation.

“We know often times that past behavior is an indicator of future behavior,” Reed added.

The exact answer Reed is looking for depends on the role she’s looking to fill, she said. But as with any answer, she’s looking for job candidates who can be honest and open about past experiences while staying professional.

Pro Tip: Questions that start with “tell me about a time when…” are known as behavioral interview questions, and there are some straightforward formulas you can use to prepare an answer for any scenario you might get asked about.

Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a challenging or difficult personality at work

Here’s another behavioral question about a tricky situation you may have encountered in the past and how you handled it. Reed says that when she asks this question, she’s looking for insight into a job candidate’s communications skills.

“Of course, not all employees or colleagues are going to agree all the time,” Reed said. “But are you someone who is going to fly off the handle” and tell your colleague that they’re wrong? Or can you respectfully navigate your relationship with a difficult coworker?

Pro Tip: This is a situation where there are clear right and wrong answers for how you deal with difficult personalities at work or difficult behaviors such as passive aggression. If you haven’t always handled this situation in the best way, you can acknowledge that in the interview and explain what you would do differently today.

If you create the kind of change in the world that you want to over the next 10 years, what will that impact look like?

This question is a twist on “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” by focusing on the impact you want to create instead of the career status or other milestones you want to achieve.

Reed said she’s asked a similar question in the past because it helps her get a sense of whether her organization will be a good fit for someone’s goals and aspirations. And it usually gets her a more honest answer than if she asks directly about how the organization fits in with a job candidate’s career goals.

Becka Wall, a digital media manager at NARAL Pro-Choice America who’s helped interview members of her team from the assistant to the deputy director level, has a different way of finding out if her organization is the right fit for a job candidate. She said she asks what may sound like a simple question—”Why do you want to work at NARAL?”—and then listens closely to determine if a job candidate can articulate what it is about NARAL’s work in particular that makes them want to work there.

A lot of applicants “think about the mission but not the organization,” Wall said. For example, she wants to hear job candidates talk about how NARAL helps them advance their vision of impact in the world or talk about a recent NARAL campaign or project that moved them.

Where do you get your news from?

This question isn’t necessarily hard, but it can throw you off in an interview if you’re not expecting it. Wall said she often asks job candidates who they follow on social media since that can be the digital equivalent of where you get your news.

“It’s an interesting way to see where people are coming from and what their knowledge base is,” Wall said.

Tips for any tough interview question

No matter how much you prepare for your interview, you’ll probably still encounter a question that stumps you at first. We can’t predict the future, but Reed and Wall both offer suggestions for how to react when you’re faced with a tough interview question.

You can always take a few seconds to pause and think about your answer, Reed said. Sometimes you can repeat the question or ask the interviewer to clarify, and then use that extra time to think about your answer.

Wall add that it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re thinking about your answer. “It’s fine to want to take a second to compose your answer, to acknowledge that we’re all only human and we need a minute to collect ourselves before we answer a tough question,” she said.

“And when you do come up with your answer,” Wall added, “say it confidently.”

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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