The “Hidden Agenda” Interview

Ah, vague interview questions.  It’s hard to know whether interviewers are being purposely abstruse (is it a trap??) or if clarity just isn’t their strong suit.  Taunee Besson, career transitions expert and President and Principal Consultant at Dallas-based Career Dimensions, offers tips today on how to navigate ambiguous questions and come out on top. — Maurice Gilbert

confusedQ: “I recently went on an interview for a school paraprofessional position. The head of the school board asked me if I was a team player, and what I would do to become one.

I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know exactly what he was referring to. Is it OK to be direct and ask for specifics? What happens when interviewers lead a person on in a guessing game of, “Do I know what kind of school population I am dealing with?” In both these cases, is it alright to be direct and ask questions, point blank? Or, do I assume I know what they’re talking about?”

A: How do you deal with someone whose questions are unclear at best and, more likely, contain a hidden agenda? Here are two approaches you might consider, using your team player issue as an example.

Given that most people have a common, straight-forward idea of what it means to be a team player, you might answer his question by saying, “my definition of a team player includes pursuing a common mission and goals with my colleagues, recognizing the sum of our experience and talent is greater than mine alone, covering my responsibilities and pitching in to help others as needed and presenting a united front on important issues. By my definition, I am a team player.” Listing the specifics of your teaming behavior not only shows you know how to work on a team, it also explains how you would slip easily into an existing one.

You can also follow up on your answer by asking if your interviewer’s definition differs from yours. If it does, find out how, then respond to those differences.

A second approach might be, “I think I’m a team player. However, it would be helpful to hear your description of one, so I can answer your question more fully.” Listen to his description and respond point by point.

The school population issue sounds like a political mine field. Put yourself squarely behind the man with the map, and only go where he leads you. To keep your answer from blowing up in your face, you might say something like, “While I am familiar with the demographics of the school population, I’m not sure that is the question you are asking. From your perspective, what kind of population will I be dealing with?” Then answer accordingly.

I hope you won’t be working directly with the school board chair. He sounds like he enjoys playing with people’s heads while they twist in the wind.


Taunee Besson headshotTaunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.

“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com  and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions  of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.

Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.

In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997.  
In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

PLEASE follow us!