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Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 11:36 UK

Five job interview bear traps

Claire faces up to one of Sir Alan's rottweilers
Claire faces up to one of Sir Alan's attack dogs

In a tough job interview even the smoothest candidate can come unstuck. And the interview episode of The Apprentice showcases tactics to test the mettle of prospective employees. How to respond if you find yourself in a job interview from hell?

For many it's the most nerve-wracking thing they ever undergo. An occasion characterised by sweat maps of Africa under the arms, flushed faces, racing hearts and feelings of mortal dread.

The job interview is a tough institution and these five bear traps are among the most painful any candidate can face:


Ever since the ancient Lydians first minted coins and used them to pay shop staff, prospective employees have been embellishing their records in order to get themselves the job.

Bordan Tkachuk
Bordan Tkachuk picks holes in CVs

Bordan Tkachuk, chief executive of Sir Alan Sugar's technology firm Viglen, and one of the interview rottweilers on The Apprentice, is not entirely sure this is a bad idea.

"To a large degree honesty is a good foundation and you are not going to go wrong. But it is a competitive situation - if you stretch the truth and it's within reasonable boundaries it is a chance you take. But it is a chance that pays dividends."

Of course, if you are found out, it can get very hairy. The Apprentice's Lee was caught out by Tkachuk as his CV claimed a two-year stint at Thames Valley University when in fact he had dropped out after four months.

"I asked him several times about his academic qualifications and I gave him more than one opportunity to tell me whether he had in fact completed the course. I was trying to ascertain his integrity. The dates didn't seem to stack up. I had a suspicion. I left the question, spoke to him again, he again confirmed. When I asked him a third time he broke down and said he hadn't."

Watch the interview episode on the BBC iPlayer
The final is broadcast Wednesday 11 June at 2100 BST

The end result is the appearance that perhaps this is a person who cannot be trusted.

"The most important thing in an interview is to be authentic, to say the truth," says Simon Mitchell, of leadership consultants DDI. "The worst thing you can have happen to you is to be asked a question where you have to cover up - that's very stressful."


It's not very nice, but it's certainly not unknown for interviews to start with a deliberate attempt to unsettle you by causing you to lose your temper.

Lucinda was put on the back foot

The interviewer is armed with your CV and even a quick glance may provide a pressure point that will cause you to react. A candidate who realises he has raised his voice, when his interviewer has not, may struggle to regain his composure.

"The interviewer will put you under pressure to see how you react. Once you see that it is what they are driving at, try to keep calm," says Mr Mitchell.

For some interviewers, the choice of weapons may be something mildly insulting.

Apprentice Lucinda's grilling started with "frankly, you are unemployable". And Alex was nonplussed to be told early on that he was boring. But some interviewers in the real world may use something a little bit stronger to really spice up the start of proceedings. It is frowned upon in the world of recruitment.

"It is absolutely not the way they should go," says Mr Mitchell. "It is offensive to the candidate, it is bordering on illegal.

"It is legitimate to put people under a certain amount of pressure. There is a line over which it is difficult to see the validity and usefulness of crossing. No badgering and bullying."

While it may be tempting to make a principled stand and stop the interview, the best course of action is to stay clear, calm, realise what your tormentor is trying to do - and no matter how strange it may seem, answer the question as best you can.


A similar tactic is the googly. If inducing sheer rage to test the candidate isn't an option, then confusion, bewilderment and embarrassment may suffice.

Lee does his reverse pterodactyl
In the midst of a dinosaur impression

Upon entry to one of his interviews, the Apprentice's Lee was asked to do a dinosaur impression. After initially demurring, he commenced flapping and squawking.

His interviewer, property developer Paul Kemsley, told him that he shouldn't have agreed to the demonstration. This forced the explanation from Lee: "I wouldn't do a reverse pterodactyl in front of Sir Alan."

Away from the arena of the job market, tales abound of bizarre techniques in Oxbridge interviews. Can one truly concentrate when the interviewer is conducting the questioning sitting cross-legged underneath the table?

Dr Rob Yeung
Don't let yourself be put on the spot
Dr Rob Yeung

But there can be entirely non-surreal tactics and questions that can flummox the unprepared. "When did you last truly fail?" is a tricky one. As is "imagine that tomorrow the UK changed from driving on the left to driving on the right and you are the change co-ordinator, what would you do?"

"Don't let yourself be put on the spot," says Dr Rob Yeung, psychologist and author of Should I Tell the Truth. "Ask for a moment to think about it or if you've not understood ask for it to be repeated or rephrased. It's perfectly acceptable to take 15 or 20 seconds."


When asked the bog-standard question, "tell me what you think about the company?" it's fairly clear that something more than a one-word answer is required. And even running out of steam after 20 seconds is unlikely to impress.

Fear you might have blown it?

It's a bugbear for Mr Tkachuk, who has tripped up more than one Apprentice by asking them to explain what Sir Alan's companies do. "I'm really very interested in their understanding of the company... [I] push it to some depth. It's easy for anyone to do a search on the internet and come up with a few superficial things."

Sadly, unless you're Derren Brown, a wily interviewer is likely to see through the veneer if you really know nothing about the company. The only sure solution is to genuinely prepare.

"Contact the company, ask for some brochures," says Mr Tkachuk. "Do some research on what the company does, who are the key players, who is the competition."


For her Apprentice interview, Claire turned up in a jumper of such bilious luminescence that it was extraordinary that none of the Rottweiler interviewers mentioned it. Alex's problem was his low energy and soft speech. "Big night out?" snarled one attack dog.

Alex's low-key approach was read as hungover

As well as dress, there's body language, the way people shake hands, the way they sit, the tone and pitch of their voice - every mannerism is being scrutinised.

"You only get one time to make a first impression. Within the first 60 seconds you already make an impression," says Mr Tkachuk.

The trick again is preparation. If you're dressed smartly and thought about the way you will interact with the interviewer, this can help smooth your path.

But it's hard to guard against doing something impulsive, as Lee found when he winked at Paul Kemsley at the end of the interview.

"That's what a door-to-door salesman would do," was Mr Kemsley's verdict. Not quite the impression a go-getting entrepreneur might want to give.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My wife was once asked what has to be one of the most bizarre interview questions ever: "This job requires facial credibility. Do you think you have it?" And that was from the head of graduate recruitment at a blue chip company...
Ian, Woking

In one interview just after I had left the Air Force I was asked "What can you bring that is unique to this company?" I replied "I can shoot someone at 300 yards." The human resources person looked rather surprised at my reply. The technical interviewer giggled. What is more amazing I got the job but was never asked to shoot anyone.
Simon, Farnham

I did a typo error on a CV a few years ago. I put I left a job in 11/year instead of 01/year. It did not stick out like a sore thumb as the job was part-time and I started university that year as well. Because of this typo error, it looked like I had enough experience for the new employer concerned and they employed me.
Helen, Leicester

My wife told me that she once sat on an interview panel and the chairperson; a professor who spoke his mind said to an interviewee "I see you got a 2:1. Is that because you are stupid or is it because you did not work hard enough?"
M, Tynemouth

When I was in my final year at uni, and doing the 'milk round', I was asked the following as a first question for a HR job: 'Imagine I'm an alien from Mars who's just landed at Heathrow Airport. Briefly and succinctly describe Britain's transport system.'
John, Swansea

I was asked if I had a criminal record. My reply was 'Yes, dik-a-dum-dum by Des O'Connor'.
Jon P, Portsmouth

I was once asked in an interview for my bad points. I said, "That's easy, I'm a workaholic!"
Steve Bowen, Derby

Contrary to the comments above advising against embarrassing yourself in an interview, we used to ask candidates to do a Jimmy Saville impression (we've obviously had to update this!) to see if they would fit in with our office. The ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously is important in a creative marketing environment.
Adam Miller, Oxford

I have been insulted during interviews as a "tactic" and its fairly obvious what they are trying to do. The question is, do you as an employee who uses questionable tactics like that? Before to the end of the interview I thanked the interviewer politely, shook hands and left. I also suggested that I would not be a good "fit" for a company like hers (which is a good thing). Two days later I was hired by another reputable company at higher pay.
Gumbie, Burlington, VT

At his Oxford interview, my friend had a book thrown at him and was told he was incapable of learning! He got a first and is finishing his DPhil so it shows that staying cool pays off.
Andy H, London

Most interviewers decide whether or not they like you in the first 10 seconds. While it's easy to ruin a job interview after a great start, it's much harder to win over an interviewer after a bad one. The key is to turn up slightly early, look smart and smile warmly. Remember, the interview isn't over until you're out of sight.
DS, Croydon, England

So companies are looking for conforming robots are they, brain-washed individuals who act and in the right way and say the right thing at the right time. This is just another example of why this country is going to the dogs and The Apprentice series is a shining example of the situation. I would much rather employ someone with a bit of flair and individual character, someone not afraid to question norms and throw comments back at me, it shows passion and spirit. Obviously qualifications and experience should count first, but presumably the candidates are all at the interview stage because they have satisfied those criteria. At the interview show me a bit of individuality and originality - be yourself.
Lee Abraham, Southampton

Golden rule? Always prepare and practice if possible. Unless you have a silver tongue it's unlikely that you'll be able to bluff your way through. Always try and think of something to make you stand apart from the other candidates by using whatever tools are available. If a whiteboard is available try and use it to walk through an idea or concept through diagrams or mind maps.
Matt, Northampton

When leaving my last job a new manager had just been brought in from out of the region, she hadn't heard of the company I was going to, so asked who they were and what they did. I gave her the brief potted history of the company from its foundation in 1914 through its major mergers to date. Her response: "If you came into an interview of mine, knowing that much about my company I'd hire you on the spot. If you research that well for an interview I'd want you on my side and nobody else's. If ever you want to come back, just get in touch." It's not hard to find information on any company these days and being able to talk freely is always a's certainly helped me get all of the jobs I've gone for.
James B, Sheffield, UK

I went for a job interview once as a trainee computer programmer and was asked the question about changing from driving on the left to the right. Previously I had been studying civil engineering and had happened to have recently read an article in New Civil Engineer about the Swedish switchover from left to right hand drive. Best interview answer I ever gave. Got the job.
Neil Walls, Shotley, Suffolk

There is no amount of money or inducement that would make me tolerate a rude or aggressive interviewer, whether he/she says it's a test or not. If anyone tries that with me (and it has happened) I simply get up and leave. No job anywhere is worth belittling yourself for.
John Brittles, Salford

During an interview at a local college, I was told that most staff in the department were in their early 20s to early 30s - and asked if I would be able to manage to work with younger people? I was 35 at the time. My response that as I had been that young once, albeit a long time ago, I thought I'd be ok didn't go down too well and needless to say, I didn't get the job.
Pam, Blackburn

In one interview I was shown around by a lab tech. I believe he had a speech impediment as he talked rather slowly and in a dull voice. Of course I didn't say anything, until I was at the front gates where the interviewer showed me out, at which point my sarcasm got loose and I made a comment about the lab tech. Ah well, obviously I didn't get the job.
A. Omar, Bradford

I was once asked at an interview if I had any weaknesses. I said "Kryptonite".
Brian, Huntingdon

At a bank job interview in 1975, aged 20, I was asked "do you have a boyfriend?". A few moments later the interviewer said "your fiance - oh, he's not your fiance yet, is he?" I was so incensed that I deliberately ploughed the rest of the interview. I got the rejection letter the next morning! Hopefully that sort of sexist question doesn't get asked any more.
Charlotte, London

When asked where I see myself in five years I said: "owning my own business stealing all your customers." The interviewer laughed and said "you probably would as well" and hired me. Ooooh yeah.
Teigan, South West

I've managed to be successful in all job interviews conducted by women. Charm goes a long way when it comes to interviews! Try it.
Raf, London

The strangest question I was ever asked in an interview was "If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?" After I get the job, I asked the interviewer for an explanation. Apparently the answer they are are looking for is "A frut salad so that you are an all-round intervidual."
Mandy, Wigan

My brother went for an interview a few years ago was asked by the interviewer "So what do you want to be when you grow up, a train driver?" He was 34 years old at the time and had been working for nearly 10 years since graduating. It is amazing what an interviewer can get away with.
Liisa Worrall, Oxford

"And tell me: do you have any skeletons in your cupboard of which we should be aware?" was the final question. "No more than you have in yours", I heard myself saying. I didn't get the post - but then, after that question, I didn't want it!
Warrior Princess, London

Be yourself, dress smart, and take your time answering question. it'll all fall in to place.
Cat MClelland, Glasgow

I ask potential employees what their favourite Arnold Schwarzenegger film is. If they name any of the mid-80s classics (Predator and Terminator are top) they have a good chance of getting the job. If they answer "Junior" or "Jingle All the Way" I call for security.
Mike N, Reigate

An interviewer asked me the dreaded "what does your husband think about you going out to work?" It was 1987). Fortunately he was blind so couldn't see my expression!
Jenny, Brighton

Arrive early, but not too early. I once had a candidate who arrived for a 9:15 interview… at 8:30 and was waiting for me (to arrive at work)! Also, the weirdest interview question I was asked: "If you were an animal, what would you be and why?? Uh!?"
Gary, Buckingham

I once went to an interview and, upon entering the interview room, realised I was being interviewed by a girl I'd met in a nightclub a few weeks before and promised to phone but (as she predicted at the time) never did! Needless to say I didn't get the job. Very funny though!
Steven Johnston, Bristol, UK

My boyfriend was asked in a recent interview "If you were a biscuit what would you be?". His answer? A ginger nut! (He doesn't even like them!) When asked why he said it was because he was an acquired taste. I have no idea why they hired him after that.
Chloe, Uxbridge

The strangest interview I ever had was by my current employer. Being a financial adviser firm I was expecting the usual questions on motivation, sales experience etc. In fact we met in a pub, had a pint and a chat and the job was mine. Spot on.
Chris, Southampton

The strangest question I have ever been asked at any interview was "Which two people would you most like to be stuck in the London Eye with?"
Lesley Madigan, London

At my Cambridge interview, the interviewer would ask me a question and then walk out of the room and shut the door while I was in the midst of my answer. At 17, it was pretty unsettling, and I had no idea how to handle it. Needless to say, I didn't get in!
Ally, London

Interviewed a candidate who, in his hobbies and interests, put that he was fluent in French. Turned up for the interview and I was accompanied by my French-born colleague who proceeded to talk to him in her native tongue by way of introduction. He could not reply and the interview was over after about two minutes.
Andrew, Manchester

I once showed up for an interview at an office only to be met by the chap's driver. I was driven to his home and let into his house whereupon the interview was conducted with me at the foot of the stairs and the MD taking a bath. I was offered the job but the interview was just too surreal an experience to ever consider taking it, when I explained that I was informed that the MD was eccentric and regularly took meetings whilst in a domestic situation. The mind boggles.
Matt S, London

Once I went to an interview that I got through a recruitment consultant. The interviewer asked me why I would use an agency and why I didn't contact them directly if I wanted to work for them so much. I was very tempted to ask her why she didn't contact me directly if she wanted me so much, or why she used agencies at all. Needless to say I didn't get the job!
Catherine, Berkhamsted

I was once asked in interview whether I would mind undergoing a drugs test. I replied, "Not at all, I'm happy to test any drugs you like".
H, London

Another thing to remember is that the way you treat the secretary counts. I think at some places, the interviewer is deliberately late to see how the interviewee treats the secretary when s/he delivers the bad news. OK, I know some places do this, because I use this tactic.
Mary, Exeter NH USA

A friend was once asked what his biggest fault was. He replied that he had great difficulty getting into work on time. Needless to say he didn't get the job. A better answer would be to say that you're something of a perfectionist...
Steve, Nottingham

I was once asked: "Do you ever lie, cheat or steal?" Since the question was a mine-field, I responded with: "No sir, but I can learn!"
Scott, Halifax, NS, CAN

A friend of mine once had an interview (in the UK) where the interviewer started talking to her in German. There was nothing on the job spec to say she would be expected to speak it and nothing on her CV to suggest she could. Weird.
Alan, London

I once got asked in an interview when I was 23 why I thought that they should give me the job over a man when I was likely to leave in a few years to have babies. A totally illegal question... and from a law firm too! Although maybe the reason that I didn't get the job was because I failed to pull them up on it.
Helen, London

One interviewer for a language job screamed at me in French for 45 minutes. I kept my cool and was happy to turn the job down when it was offered. Another interviewer asked me if I was pregnant or intended to be, which I am sure is illegal.
Erica, Rhuddlan, North Wales

A friend of mine arrived at an interview (what for has slipped my memory) but after all the polite shaking hands etc had passed the first question by the interviewer was "what is risk?" To which my friend promptly got up and walked out whilst muttering "this is". Three days later he was offered a job (lower-paid salary than the one he was going for but a job all the same)
John G, Berkshire

I remember conducting an interview and the first thing the candidate said was that they didn't want the job they were just there for interview practice. Well I wasn't, so I told them to go. Couldn't believe the cheek.
Graeme, London

I once got asked in an interview why i was applying for such a poorly paid job in the first place. I said that i felt i should learn about the company the bottom and make my way up the ladder. I'm currently CEO.
Jed, London

Getting caught out on a lie in an interview situation is surely a sign of a lazy and badly prepared candidate. At least take the time to get your story straight! It's all about believing the lie yourself first!
Brian, London

A good friend of mine was at the end of her final interview for her first retail sales position in house wares - at the end of the interview they asked her what reasons she could give for them employing her. After giving a couple of good solid reasons she ended with - "oh, and I'm a really good dancer". They employed her...
Elaine, West Midlands

We received an employment application letter which started "I am applying for the prostitution of receptionist". I can only imagine that the applicant's original spelling of 'position' was so poor that the spell checker chose 'prostitution' as the most likely option, which was then chosen without further thought. Needless to say an interview was not offered.
Bob, London

I once turned up for an aptitude test as part of RAF interviews, 24 hours early, when I realised my error I tried to lighten the mood by asking if I should take a seat. They did not see the funny side.
Jimbo, UK

I was once asked to sing in an interview with an HR director of a leading law firm; the other director who was interviewing with her was visibly embarrassed and could barely continue the interview. Asking candidates anything which does not relate to their ability, competence or experience to do the job they are there for is a waste of your time and theirs. Interviewers….
Alex Martin, Liverpool

Offer the interviewer a cake, that'll do it!!
James, Portsmouth

You've got to give as good as you get. Some people fall into a trap of being very reverent and sycophantic. Who wants to employ someone like that?
Robert, London

Do not try to outsmart an interviewer. In my experience, many interviewers lack good quality interview skills, and often do not know what they are looking for. Best interview policy: look good, smell good, don't say too much!
Dr Robert Frew, London

I was once asked in an interview - "What drives you?" and I asked "Do you mean in my working life or my personal life?" and he replied "Both"... So I asked for a minute and then answered - "3 things 1) The quest for knowledge, 2) The need for a challenge 3) Enrich my life by meeting new people.." Bit cliche I know but it got me the job, and a pat on the back when I left the interview room!
Arun Rakhra, London

I have never had an interview where I have not been offered the job. At one stage I was doing agency work, and every job I went to they asked if I would like to become permanent. Admittedly I was in a career where my CV was easy to check. However I always tried to wear one thing that made me stand out from the power-suited masses. Once I wore a pair of red shoes, and another time I had an unusual hair ornament holding my french pleat in place.

When I was first starting out in the job world, I was at an interview on a Saturday morning where I was told I wouldn't get the job, usual lack of experience reason, but that he liked to see younger faces when he was interviewing. Needless to say I didn't get the job but my response to that now wouldn't be quite the same polite one as then
Beverley Casewell, Solihull

One interviewer talked non-stop about his company for nearly an hour and asked me four questions. One was "What did I think of unions?" an illegal question I think, another "What would you do if somebody from the shop-floor bust into the office and had an argument with you?". When he saw that my signature was not like his copperplate script he asked me if I was illiterate! Luckily, I did not get the job.
John S Dawson, Blackpool

Interviewers should remember that they are also being assessed - it's no good putting a potential candidate through hell to weed out the good ones, if the good ones decide they'd rather not work for you. The interview works both ways, and both sides have to strive to succeed.
Nona, London

Winking! WINKING! What was he thinking?
Benn Gooch, London


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