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How to Answer Job Interview Questions About Your Former Colleagues

Updated on May 8, 2014

“What do your work colleagues think of you?”

A fully loaded question, perhaps? This is usually asked to assess your self awareness, integrity and intelligence.

It can be really easy to either fall into the trap of being self-deprecating or the other end of the scale; arrogant. So how do you strike a balance?

The simplest and most effective way of answering this question is to talk of your strengths and how these have in the past related to or contributed to solid, positive team work. Talk to your current or past colleagues and ask them directly. Can they give you any specific examples?

You may prefer to provide an example of how you were the “go to” person such as you have a calming influence on irate customers which could in turn demonstrate that you have excellent communication skills.

Are you a great coach or have good leadership qualities? Can colleagues that you have perhaps supervised or mentored give an example of how you are always ready to listen or help others realise their goals?

Think about your last appraisal. Did your boss mention anything about how well you work with others?

Avoid stating general terms such as hard working or reliable as let’s face it; you should display these attributes anyway in any work environment.

Be confident when answering this question. Avoid saying “I think my colleagues…” You don’t think; you know. Be 100% truthful as this question may be asked to referees.

“Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a co-worker who wasn't doing his/her fair share of the work. What did you do and what was the outcome?”

This can be another tricky question to answer as it can be easy to slide down the negativity slope and speak less than highly about a co-worker.

A tip for this one is to find an example when the outcome was positive.

Did you have a co-worker who had personal problems that you didn’t know about which affected their performance? If this is the case then how did you find out and what did you do to support and guide them at work?

Did the co-worker appear to be slacking but in actual fact they didn’t fully understand the task(s)? How were you involved in ensuring that they received training or coaching and what impact did that have?

“In the staff room, it was often highlighted that James wasn’t doing his fair share of unloading the delivery van and he always made excuses to avoid this task by either disappearing to the toilet or taking a phone call. I felt uncomfortable that my colleagues were discussing this without James present and I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right; he wasn’t just being lazy.

I scheduled my lunch breaks for the next week to coincide with James’ and for the first few, just had general chit chat with him. On the fourth day, James opened up to me that he had injured his shoulder playing football and was frustrated that he couldn’t play this season. I quickly realised that this was why he was avoiding doing any heavy lifting at work.

James confessed that he was terrified about losing his job due to his injury because it has happened out of work.

It took some gentle coaxing but later that day, James spoke with our supervisor who worked with him to change the schedule of tasks so that he wouldn’t have to lift any heavy objects and replaced this with lighter duties until his injury was healed.

I am pleased to say that James didn’t lose his job and his confidence increased so much that he was promoted to team leader later that year.”

By giving an answer such as this, you are showing the interviewer that you can look at a situation, remove any assumptions then provide guidance or support to lead to a positive outcome.

If you don’t have a real life example of this then you could turn the above into a statement:

“Fortunately I haven’t encountered a co-worker not doing their fair share of work but if I did I would try to help. There’s a good chance that there is an underlying reason for the lack of contribution so I would avoid any assumptions and aim to listen, support and guide my co-worker to resolve any potential problems.”

“Have you worked with someone you didn't like? If so, how did you handle it?”

I bet you have! Once again it is vital that your answer is professional and avoids running a colleagues’ character into the ground.

Admitting you have is absolutely fine and shows honesty so when you speak of this aim to discuss how you found them difficult to like as a person but when you focussed on their skills and how their contribution was valuable to the business, your attitude towards them changed.

You don’t have to provide an example of how you became the best of friends and life at work was peachy! It’s okay to say that you weren’t best buddies outside of work and that your relationship was strictly professional.

“How do you get along with older/ younger colleagues?”

Oh! Cringe! This question really shouldn’t be asked during an interview as age should be irrelevant and it’s teetering on the edge of potential age discrimination but I have chosen to include it as I have been asked this before and have had some of my recruitment candidates in a pickle about it!

Keep your answer brief and positive is the golden rule of thumb and if you can, change the subject quickly or move your answer on a tangent.

You may like to add that in the past you have worked well with older workers and gained additional knowledge from their experience.

For younger workers it’s all about their enthusiasm, fresh ideas and energy.

Finish off with you work well with colleagues regardless of their age and that different levels of experience or tenure can contribute effectively to the overall team.

What does the interviewer really want to know?

So, really the interviewer is trying to assess whether or not you get along with others in the work place and answering in a positive light can allow them to begin to visualise you working within the current team.

Don't worry if you have had any conflicts in the past; it's how you have dealt with them and moved on that's important.

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