Job hunt etiquette: How to handle 6 tricky situations

What is the polite response when a company goes dark, or tells you that you're the runner-up, not the winner, for example? Use these tips from job hunt experts
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Job hunting can cause sleepless nights. Sure, it’s exciting to think about the end result of job hunting – career growth, a chance to work with new technology, perhaps even landing your dream job. But getting there means sitting through quite a few awkward conversations and navigating tricky situations that come up during the interview and hiring process.

We asked career experts for their tips on six common scenarios that job seekers must navigate on the way to their next role. If you are on the hunt or thinking about looking for a new job soon, familiarize yourself with the best practices below so you can go into your next interview cool, calm, and prepared to handle these situations with grace and professionalism.

[ Which certifications make you stand out? Read our related story: 15 IT certifications worth watching. ]

1. When your resume has holes or a gap

As long as companies treat job descriptions like wish lists, most job seekers will have to apply to positions that seem slightly out of reach. Even if they only have some of the listed requirements, job seekers must be prepared to explain why they are a perfect fit for the role.

“It is rare that a candidate will match 100 percent of the requirements listed on a job description,” says Jenna Spathis, senior project manager, technology services at LaSalle Network, a national staffing and recruiting firm. “If you do not have experience with a software or technology listed, conduct research on the technology before your interview. This shows a demonstrated interest and a strong sense of initiative. Try to draw parallels between similar software/technologies with the same function that you have worked with and explain the similarities and differences between the two.”

Employers want to know that you are willing and able to learn on the job.

Employers want to know that you are willing and able to learn on the job, Spathis points out. “If there was a situation in your last role that you learned a specific software on the job, make that a point of conversation and highlight your willingness to learn,” she says.

[ Frustrated with job requirements? Read also: The trouble with IT job descriptions. ]

A gap in work history is another issue job seekers should be prepared to address. “Explain what you were doing during that time. Hopefully, it was something meaningful,” says Brett Ellis, career coach and executive director of Brett Ellis Career Marketing Services.

If you are currently in the midst of a gap, filling your time with volunteer work and online courses will make it easier to discuss when you are in an interview, says Ellis.

2. When they ask about your weaknesses

"Be real! Talk about a mess-up you had, how you resolved the mishap, and what was learned."

Hiring managers typically like to get creative with their interview questions, but some classics will never go out of style. What will, however, are the canned responses to those classics that hiring managers have heard time and time again. Instead of saying your greatest weaknesses are working too hard and caring too much, try being real instead, experts say.

“The question ‘What are your weaknesses?’ is an interview favorite, so definitely prepare an answer,” says LaCinda Clem, executive director of technology staffing services for Robert Half. “The hiring manager is trying to gauge how you evaluate yourself and overcome challenges. Mention something that you know needs improvement but that you’re working on.”

Clem offers this example that demonstrates how to turn a weakness into a strength: “I used to procrastinate often, but I always made my deadlines. However, I realized this trait made my job more difficult, so I took a time management class to learn how to better organize and put a plan together. I’ve been working on it since and notice how much more productive I am.”

No matter how you answer this question, it’s important to keep your emotions in check, says Spathis.

“People tend to become defensive when talking about their weaknesses, but we are all human; no one is perfect,” says Spathis. “Interviewers see it as humble when you can admit to a weakness and failure. Be real! Talk about a mess-up you had, how you resolved the mishap, and what was learned. Come prepared with specific examples, explain what you learned from each situation, and how you have applied those learnings to future projects. Don’t bash others when explaining a failure; take ownership and don’t make excuses. Interviewers want to see humility and vulnerability.”

3. When they ask why you are leaving your job

Your friends and closest confidants may hear that the reason you are job hunting – or why you lost your last job – is because of your tyrannical boss or crazy co-workers. But when a hiring manager asks this question, tread carefully. They aren’t trying to get dirt on your last company, and they don’t want to play the blame game. What they are really interested in is your motivation, says Katie Ross, managing director at Heller Search Associates, a retained recruiting firm that specializes in CIOs and other senior technology executives.

"Motivations are good indicators of your personality, emotional intelligence, ambition, and interests.”

When recruiters ask about your last job, “Don’t panic,” says Ross. “Good recruiters ask this for several reasons, not just to see if you are afraid of getting fired or laid off. This question probes for your motivation. Is the commute too long? Are your projects boring? Did you hit a ceiling and doubt you’ll get promoted anytime soon? Was the company going under? Motivations are good indicators of your personality, emotional intelligence, ambition, and interests,” she says.

Thinking about your motivation will also help you avoid a big interview no-no: badmouthing your current employer. “If you go into an interview complaining about or bad-talking your current boss, role, or company to the potential employer, this type of response is indicative of the type of professional you will be at their organization and how you’ll interact with current employees, clients, and prospective customers,” warns Spathis. “Rather, flip the vernacular from what you’re running away from to what type of opportunity you are running toward, and why the company you are interviewing for can provide that opportunity.”

Erika Stark, principal recruiter from HCM company, Paycor, agrees with this strategy and adds: “Be truthful about why you are leaving your current role but emphasize the specifics of what you’re looking for in a new career endeavor."

Now let's get into an even stickier subject: Salary.

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.