Interview Question: Why Do You Work?


Manhole covers are used to hide sewage. Manhole cover questions do the same thing.

In a discussion with a hiring manager about her decision to choose tricky interview questions not even remotely related to job specs I was told that one question was not negotiable. “I always ask a candidate why they go to work every day.” I agreed with her that this one was probably OK even though I didn’t immediately see how it would be measurable or allow candidates to be compared to each other for evaluation.  It was more of a weak compromise move on my part to keep peace and at least be able to get some yardstick questions into her interviews that would differentiate between candidates. I later thought about that conversation and realized that even though I had never asked that question it was exactly the type of information I wanted to hear. Different people are motivated by different things. The answer to that question reveals how well someone will fit into the culture of a company. Even though it is highly subjective and there is no wrong answer, it would be wrong to hire someone who is looking for something entirely different.

Interviewing is an imperfect practice but it is the best way we have found to dialog with applicants and make a decision on which one is the best fit for a particular role. The way some companies do this is clearly random based on non-work related impressions. These are not exactly an “eeny meeny miney moe” system of selection, but the outcome is just about the same. To make matters worse for the job seeker, no two companies use exactly the same method of selection and even if they did the variables of having multiple interviewers with different ideas complicate things further. How can anyone know how to prepare for this? A key is to understand these variables and prepare for anything.

The Problem:

Bad interviewers – Loose dialog that rambles incessantly is a sign of an unprepared interviewer. It is not supposed to be the job of the interviewee to take charge, but in these situations that might be the only way to tell your story. The unprepared or nervous candidate may be breathing a silent sigh of relief that they are not being challenged to tough questions while the real focus should be on how to plant a positive image in someone who has a vote in the selection process. Just because the interviewer is not good at interviewing does not indicate that they are a useless clown in the organization. This may be the top engineer or a leader in another technical area where strained dialog with someone is not a strong suit. The rambler will pause occasionally to take a breath and that is the time to strike. If you have been listening and not lulled into a daze by this time, it is a perfect time to insert relevant personal bits of your story. If the hazy topic seems to be around a particular problem area, then offer an example of how you have solved a similar problem. If there is no consistent thought stream for a logical “story break” then ask a question. You never have to wait until the end to ask something. This shows that you are interested and listening…even if you are bored to tears.

Bad questions – Even in the middle of a great dialog an interviewer may ask a question that is totally irrelevant or off topic. In the interviewer’s mind this question has meaning, so look for it. Dismissing a pet question because it seems to be stupid is a stupid thing for a candidate to do. Unless it is one of the marginally illegal or inappropriate questions that nobody is supposed to ask, do your best to give an answer and at the same time steer the answer toward something that is work related. My somewhat irreverent answer to the classic “manhole” question is that “they are round because somebody made that decision for a good reason and now everybody assumes they have to be round because we have always done it that way.” Now I can segue into telling about a situation where I rocked everybody’s world by an innovative idea that moved beyond the status quo. In most cases the overall impression given by your body of answers is more important than the accuracy of an answer to a trick question. Remember to relate examples of your tremendous work ethic to everybody you meet even if they haven’t asked the “Why do you go to work every day” question.

Bad data exchange – An interview must be a dialog. Interviewers want to know the stuff between the lines on the resume and how a candidate fits into the culture. Many times they forget the part about the candidates’ need to fill in the blanks between the lines on the job description. More important than the details of this particular role, it is important to know how it dovetails into other jobs in the company and what organizational structures exist. This may be a dream job in a nightmarish environment. Do you really want to work in a company where your personal goals and values are diametrically opposed to the values of the organization? If the reason that you go to work every day is to make money to take care of basic needs then any job may suffice. If there are secondary reasons then you must not settle for less than something that matches your abilities. Tell your story and ask questions that will give both you and the interviewer a good feeling about the experience. If you walk away with the impression that you had a bad experience, you probably won’t get the job. Now the post mortem is not to discover what YOU did wrong but what would have made the situation better for everybody.

The Solution:

There is no substitute for being prepared. Beginning with a total self analysis of accomplishments that demonstrate the skills that are in your body of work, build your story. I recommend writing each accomplishment and related skill in a journal, spreadsheet or some other form of memory enhancing trick so that it is memorable. If you are not a list-maker then use whatever works for you, but the skills inventory will always be the starting point. This work-life script then becomes the basis for the answer to any question. Since there are no standards for interviewing, this is not a stage where you can expect to follow your script to the letter. It is more like improvisational theater where you are prepared for the answers regardless of the order in which they are needed. Rehearse in front of a mirror, with other people, on video or any other way that you need to become totally conversant in your story. This is the only way you will be ready to answer any question including the unasked ones.

I am aware that job seekers hate those “tell me about a time…” questions, but honestly the behavioral line of questioning can reveal much about the underlying motivation to do work if crafted correctly. I will never ask “What are your strengths?” because if I hear an answer to a behavioral question that describes measurable accomplishments demonstrating the desired skills for the job I have the answer to that question without asking it. Similarly, I don’t have to ask the “Why do you work?” question if the body of answers to other questions paint that picture. So here is the big interviewing secret: Create and rehearse your answer to that question. It probably won’t be asked in those words, but include something about your positive work ethic in every answer. You know your story better than anyone else, so here is your chance to offer proof that you are best for the job. The decision to hire is easier when every interviewer knows your story.


Image credit: manhole cover CarolinaSmit /123RF Stock Photo


1 comment

  1. Great post and one that is very useful for job seekers! Job seekers preparing themselves for an interview, whether in person or through online video, should have quantifiable examples of their past work experience. Just listing off skills and qualifications won’t impress most interviewers. After all, they already know all about a job seeker’s history from their resume, whether it’s a paper resume or a video resume. In the interview, you need to bring something new to the table. Telling a behavioral story displaying your value to future employers is a great way to more clearly tell your story.

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