This job-interview question about breaking the rules at work can be tricky -- here's how to answer it

Savvy hiring managers know exactly what to ask to figure out the type of person you really are.

One telling question you might hear in a job interview is: “Can you tell me about a time you went against company policy?”

This may seem like a trick question, but according to James Reed, author of “Why You?: 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again,” and chairman of Reed, a top job site in the UK and Europe, most hiring managers who ask this are simply trying to determine whether you’re an independent thinker.

Of course, some ask it to find out whether you’re a troublemaker or a liar (we all break or bend the rules from time to time, so don’t act like you never have!) — but most aren’t.

“It’s OK to present yourself as an occasional rebel,” Reed writes, “but make sure you’re a rebel with a cause who goes through proper channels.”

He warns that while things may be changing in the corporate world, most companies are “still far from democracies.”

“While many tout their commitment to innovation and limited bureaucracy, most continue to value consistency and the ability to conform to ‘how things are done around here.’ For this reason, you need to handle this question with care,” Reed explains.

He says in his book that in order to impress the hiring manager, you’ll need to “walk the line separating a company yes-man from a disruptive rebel who is difficult to manage,” as they may be asking this question to “sniff out and eliminate both extremes.”

“The key to getting the balance right is to choose a time you disagreed with a company policy not for personal reasons, but because you felt the rule wasn’t serving the company’s or client’s interests.”

Reed suggests you then share the steps you took for making a compelling business case to change the rule or policy to your manager. “That way you can demonstrate your independence of thought, good grasp of business principles, and your healthy regard for going through proper channels.”

Finally, Reed writes, this question is a great opportunity to find out more about this company’s culture and whether it would be a good fit for you.

“If you are a bit of a free spirit, questions like this should send up a red flag for you,” he writes. It may indicate that this employer is “very keen on structure and compliance,” so if you get the sense that they are, you’ll want to think about whether this is the right place for you.

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