We recently solicited readers to submit their most pressing career-related questions.
With the help of Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job,” we’ve answered the following: “During a recent job interview, a hiring manager asked about my biggest pet peeve. How should I have answered this?”
Taylor says this interview question can easily throw off even the most prepared job candidate “because it can go in so many unfavorable directions.”
“A job seeker may feel compelled to ramble, freeze, commiserate, or worse, inadvertently rant — all of which can be a virtual minefield,” she explains.
Hiring managers are not seeking to be malicious by asking this question. “But they are definitely putting you to the test — to try and get to know the real you,” says Taylor. “They want to learn about what irritates you firsthand and are hoping you’ll offer at least some insight: How do you handle minor frustrations? Are you easily rattled? Do your pet peeves arise routinely in the position? Is this a cultural fit? These are some of the questions going through the minds of hiring managers as you give your answer.”
And it’s not just your words that count. It’s also your expressions, body language, intonation, and length of time spent responding.
“Many interviewers also pride themselves on reading into your answers by observing what isn’t said,” Taylor warns. “So a little advance preparation on this question will go a long way.”
Here are some tips for handling this question:
Don’t ignore or dodge it.
Everyone has pesky little frustrations from time to time, so if your answer is, “Hmm, I can’t really think of any,” that will come across as flip.
“You’re better off planning ahead, by thinking about minor issues that arise and how you address them — with emphasis on the latter,” says Taylor.
Don’t highlight any pet peeves that come up frequently in the workplace (like, people talking loudly on the phone). You wouldn’t want the hiring manager to think you’ll always be irritated at work, should you get the job.
Keep it general.
Consider giving a relatively broad answer, otherwise it can appear as if you sweat the small stuff.
“For instance, if you place a great deal of value on common courtesy in and outside of the office and it bothers you when you don’t see it, mention it,” she advises. “You may point out that when hiring your own team, for example, you look for that trait.”
In contrast, avoid statements like, “We’re in an open office and my neighbour slams his phone down constantly. I think I counted 27 times the other day!”
“This is simply a negative question, begging for a negative answer,” explains Taylor. “But don’t take the bait.” Your best approach, she says, is to remain poised and composed.
How you respond can communicate more than the answer itself.
“For instance, ‘I can’t stand egomaniacs!’ may be a legitimate comment when with a friend, but too extreme and inappropriate for this venue,” Taylor says.
Turn it around.
While at first this question seems like a no-win, it actually affords you the chance to express how you manage stress.
“You want to demonstrate that you’re in control of the issue, and that it doesn’t control you,” says Taylor. “For example, you can explain how you operate when small issues come up: ‘When X happens, I try to pause and become neutral, giving myself a little time. That helps me think through the best course of action.'”
There are other ways to turn this lemon of a question into lemonade, she says.
“Perhaps you have issues with people who don’t pull for the team, go the extra mile, take responsibility or share key information. Maybe you dislike it when coworkers blame others for their mistakes, take undue credit, are negative, gossip, or are always late. You can address any of these — don’t address them all! — briefly, but focus instead on why you believe the opposite behaviour is so vital for camaraderie and success,” Taylor advises.
Know how your strengths align with the job description.
“Know how your skills and the job are in alignment,” she says. “If the hiring manager seeks strong communication skills and you pride yourself on that, it likely bothers you when coworkers are lax about informing the team on important updates. That’s a pet peeve that can ultimately help you put your best foot forward.”
Conversely, don’t choose an issue that raises red flags. For instance, if you’re applying for a project manager opening requiring great organizational skills, here’s a bad choice: “It drives me crazy when I can’t find things.”
If you’re in sales, and are expected to work the phones, here’s a potential deal breaker: “I can’t stand people who talk incessantly.”
It can be tempting to be thorough and precise when responding to this difficult inquiry. But if you elaborate too much, you may find yourself backed into a corner — or answering a litany of negative follow up questions.
“The job interview is not the time to expound upon everything that disappoints you about mankind,” says Taylor. “Don’t give it more airtime than it deserves and try to move the conversation forward.”
Avoid a humorous answer.
“Stand up comedians and commiserating coworkers alike are notorious for displaying their best sarcasm about pet peeves,” she says. “While clever, well-placed humour is generally a plus in job interviews, it’s a risky path with this line of questioning.”
You’re being asked, in effect, about how you handle stress — and by being lighthearted you run the risk of mocking their intent.
“Don’t let this tricky question draw you into a reckless retort, like: ‘Now that you mention it, questions like that drive me nuts!'” Taylor warns. “Your well-intended levity could jeopardize an otherwise great interview.”
Readers: Want us to answer your questions related to your career or job search? Tweet Careers editor Jacquelyn Smith @JacquelynVSmith or email her at jsmith[at]businessinsider[dot]com, and we’ll do our best to answer them.