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Tricky situations

Tricky situations

Awkward situations may occur during an interview, and it is up to you to be prepared to confidently handle whatever happens. To increase your confidence and preparation for an interview, practice. Check for quality of information in your answers, and the positive, non-verbal reinforcement of your words. By practising responses out loud, you can hear your answers and assess their effectiveness. But don’t practice so much that you lose your spontaneity and your answers sound rehearsed.

The key to tricky situations is to remember that barriers to employment can often be overcome by focusing on the positive. Circumstances that you may find problematic are:


If applying for short-term work (e.g., co-op or summer), you will likely have only one interview, so it is acceptable to discuss salary. If you need to know the salary and it has not been discussed, ask about it as your final question.

Employers hiring full-time or contract staff may inquire about salary during a first interview to see if your expectations are compatible with what they are offering and to see how much value you place on your experience, skills, and educational background. Always try to defer the subject until you have been offered the job, but if the employer insists, offer a salary range that you know is realistic based on your research.


If you answer a question and there is no prompt response or follow-up question try to remain calm and collected. Silence may not be a negative sign; the employer could be taking time to process and record your answer and/or be considering the next question. A few employers create periods of silence during an interview to see how candidates handle stressful and awkward situations.

In response to uncomfortable silence, ask the interviewers if they require any further details regarding your last response, shifting the responsibility to them.


Making brief notes is acceptable when you need to record information that may be easily forgotten, such as a key word, phone number, or contact information. If you fear you may not recall other pertinent details, document the information immediately after the interview.

It is very common for interviewers to take notes during an interview.

Unable to provide a response

You may have difficulty communicating your thoughts clearly and concisely, especially when you are not sure how to respond to a question. The key is to remain calm and positive, focus on the question, and continue to remind yourself that you are doing well. You may request clarification if you are not sure what the interviewer is asking or pause and politely ask for a few moments to consider your response; however, don’t take too much time because employers want to see that you can think well under pressure.

After a brief pause, if you still cannot respond to the interviewer’s question, you may ask to defer your answer to the end of the interview. The risk is that interviews usually follow a certain structure and the question might be missed entirely, leaving the interviewer with an unanswered question. Of course, if you simply do not know the answer, be honest with the interviewer and demonstrate your enthusiasm and willingness to learn.

When asked a question about a skill that you don’t have, demonstrate that you have the transferable skills necessary to succeed in the position. For example, “I have excellent computer skills but I do not have knowledge of that specific software. However, I did learn FrontPage, a similar program, on my own and quickly applied the concepts by independently creating a website for a project for which I received a grade of 90%.”

Negative questions

Interviewers will often ask negatively phrased questions to assess your perceived weaknesses and strengths. The following are a few examples:

  • What are your weaknesses as an employee?
  • Recall a time from your work experience when you made a bad decision or mistake. How did you get beyond it?
  • Give me an example of a time you did not meet a project deadline. How did you handle the situation?

Be honest and discuss a real work-related weakness or past event that would not negatively impact performance for the job you are applying for. Avoid the popular advice to turn a weakness into a strength (e.g., “I’m a perfectionist...”) because this kind of response is often not genuine. Be sure to end your “weakness” response on a positive note by indicating what steps you are taking to overcome the weakness.

It is important to keep your answers short and to be as positive as possible, even when answering a negatively framed question.

Many short-term jobs and/or gaps in employment history

It is becoming more common to work for shorter periods for a variety of employers, so employers may not place as much emphasis on dates worked as they might have in the past. However, if asked, be prepared to provide reasons that the employer will understand for your frequent job changes or gaps in employment history.

Gaps in your employment history can occur for many reasons, some within and some beyond your control: short-term positions, lay-offs, health or personal concerns, raising a family, extensive travelling, completing a degree, unemployment, or time for career planning. In creating a tailored résumé, you may also have chosen to omit some experiences.

Although you should truthfully explain in a few words the reasons for your job changes or gaps in employment, focus on what you did during the gaps that was related to the position.

Having never worked or no recent work experience

Tell the interviewer about any relevant courses/workshops, volunteer/internship experiences, and/or extracurricular activities. Indicate if you have researched and joined associations/societies in your field to learn and/or stay knowledgeable about industry trends and connect with other professionals. Convey your interest in the position and indicate that you look forward to a long-term association with the company.

Being over/under qualified

Although you may be concerned about your qualifications, the interviewer liked something about your résumé or you wouldn’t have been offered an interview! Counter the interviewer’s fear that you may not be suitable by emphasizing your positive traits and describing how your experience, education, and skills will help you succeed in the position. Demonstrate to the employer your commitment by describing how the position aligns with your career goals and how your decision to apply for the position was carefully planned.

Low marks

Low marks can stem from many situations: disinterest in courses taken, study skills that didn’t match what was needed for the course, over involvement in volunteer or extracurricular activities, a part-time job with long hours, or from dealing with traumatic personal events. Whatever the cause, if you are asked about low grades, explain briefly what you’re comfortable with sharing about what happened and describe what steps you have taken to remedy the situation so that it’s no longer an issue: “I know my grades were not as strong as I would have liked them to be during first term, but I’ve really improved since then because I focused on my study skills. This made a huge impact. I also learned how to manage my time successfully, and I’m confident that I will perform well in this position.”

Interview talker

It is a pleasure to be interviewed by someone who is enthusiastic about the company and the available position, but it is not desirable if you aren’t able to market yourself because the interviewer monopolizes the discussion. Tactfully break into the conversation to help keep the interview focused on the subject you know best: you! You might say, “I had a similar experience...” or “It’s interesting that you say that because I am also skilled in...”

Is your body or verbal language contributing to the problem? Without being rude, offer less acknowledgement (e.g., nodding, “that’s interesting,” “really?”). If you are not given adequate time to market your qualifications and the interview is drawing to a close, request a few moments to summarize your qualifications for the position, highlighting key points you had planned to discuss.

Or summarize when asked “Do you have any questions?” or “Do you have anything to add?”


An interviewer is not legally allowed to ask how old an applicant is, and you should raise the topic of age only if you think that age will be a barrier in the hiring process. Whether you feel you are younger or older than the norm for the job you are applying to, you want to present yourself in the most positive light. Redirect the employer’s focus from your age to your qualifications. Stress how your age is an asset. How is your life experience of benefit? Can your energy and enthusiasm compensate for a perceived lack of experience?

Disclosure of disability

You may choose whether or not you will disclose your disability at any time in the recruitment process or in the workplace. You may prefer to disclose, especially if the organization you are applying to has a specific policy to hire people with disabilities or if you are applying to an employment agency that focuses on supporting persons with disabilities.

The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) offers assistance, for those who qualify, with things such as securing employment, specialized equipment, sign language interpreters, readers, and note takers to help you with job searching and interviewing processes.

AccessAbility Services offers support for students with any permanent, temporary or suspected disabilities. Topics for discussion can include accommodations, developing a care and support plan and/or receiving referrals to additional on-campus services. Contact AccessAbility Services to learn more.

For more information about disclosing of a disability, read the content in the Find Work in Canada section.

Reasons for leaving last job

An employer may inquire about your reasons for leaving a job to determine if concerns from a previous job might impact the organization. Employers like to gauge your attitude toward work, management, organizational change, and policies/guidelines.

Begin your response with a positive statement regarding your previous place of employment. Honestly and concisely state your reasons for leaving. If you left on good terms, offer the interviewer letters of reference that outline your relevant achievements. If the conditions under which you left were negative, focus the interviewer’s attention on what you accomplished and avoid speaking negatively about past managers, colleagues, or the organization. Emphasize that you will be able to handle the present job no matter what may have happened in the past.

Poor/no references

If you were unable to obtain a reference from your previous place of employment because you left on bad terms, you must briefly explain why. Read the section above on “Reasons for leaving last job.” Quickly follow up your statement to suggest that the interviewer contact other references from your list to obtain a more accurate picture of your previous work experiences. Stress how direct managers, supervisors, professors, and colleagues enjoyed working with you and can attest to your achievements and skills.

If references are outdated, you must decide if they are still appropriate to use. If you feel your referees can still successfully highlight your skills, follow up with them to request their permission to be contacted by potential employers. You will also want to remind them of your previous accomplishments and provide them with an updated résumé. If you do not obtain their permission, you must obtain new references by volunteering, requesting client testimonials, etc.

Proprietary information

If you are asked to provide confidential information about a past employer, it is best to refrain from giving any information that is not publicly available. Revealing information about a past employer, who may or may not be a competitor, could create a breach of confidentiality. Even though you may have worked for this employer some time ago, you are still obligated to keep confidential information private. The interviewer could be testing to see if you divulge any company information because doing so may be an indicator that you will reveal confidential information about the interviewer’s company.

If your portfolio includes performance reviews or samples of written work, ensure that no proprietary information is included, such as the names of customers or clients.

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development