Addressing the Uncomfortable

How to handle interview questions about your career setbacks

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With about 14 million Americans out of work, many job applicants may be lacking the confidence to impress during the crucial job interview. Candidates who have been terminated, who have lengthy employment gaps, or who lack current skill sets may be hindered by their anxiety about broaching these scary topics.

“Job interviews are some of the most critical negotiations you’ll face,” says Jim Camp, author of No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home (Crown Business; $25) and founder of the Camp Negotiation Institute, where he has coached individuals and companies on negotiation strategies. “To win you must eliminate need, renounce fear, and use the worst of your setbacks to your advantage.”

The best way to deal with these concerns is to address your “baggage” early in the interview, suggests Camp. Baggage is anything that might conceivably interfere with the quality of the interaction. Topics could include terminations, convictions, employment gaps, job hopping, or the lack of relevant experience. Explain the situation. Mention lessons learned. Emphasize any positive outcomes. Then conclude by asking: “Is there anything else you would like to know?”

“Taking this direct and up-front approach gives applicants the upper hand in exhibiting competent problem-solving behavior,” Camp says.

Here he offers more tips for navigating the job interview:

Adjust your attitude. Negativity and neediness produce anxiety and fear, which impair confident, rational decision-making, explains Camp. Substitute “needing” a job with “wanting” a job. It will help change the way you think about your employment situation and the interviewing process as a whole. “If there is any need in this negotiation, it has to be the interviewer’s, not yours,” states Camp.

Focus on behavior; forget results. “Stop obsessing about getting hired and make the most of the interview.” Concentrate on the aspects of the interview you can control: your behavior. Focus on preparation, what you’ll say, how you’ll say it, your use of time, and how you’ll present yourself as a solution to the company’s problems.

Respond to “push back” politely. Camp admits negotiating is emotional, but resist displays of aggression with your words, tone, or body language. Calmly reiterate responses you prepared for the difficult questions. Drown out negative overtones by repeating positive key points three or more times throughout the discussion.

Build their vision for what you can offer. Show how you will add value to the company. Ask questions, such as “What are the most pressing challenges the company is facing?” or “What type of employee performs best in this role?” Follow up with examples that describe how your specific knowledge, experience, and expertise can solve those problems and outperform the stated goals.

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