The #1 Interview Trap Question

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shutterstock_129405947Sure, job interviews are full of awkward questions. There is that one about salary requirements. Naming your strengths and weaknesses is a tried and true one on the questions we dread list. Then there is that one that lurks toward the end of the interview. It might pop up after we think we have nailed all the questions that came before it. Although it sounds casual and friendly, it is the question to watch out for. The question is, “What are your hobbies?” Also known as, “How do you spend your spare time?”

It is a question that requires a thoughtful response because all the good things you did up to now in the interview might disappear right before your eyes. It is a question that pops up regardless of where one is in the career journey. Typical responses might include activities that you believe will propel you into the executive suite. These “hobbies” include sailing or golf (country club access potential); competing in triathlons or mountaineering (competitive spirit and fearless traits); or leading a volunteer organization (compassion and organization shown). All to the good if these are in fact the activities in which you spend your spare time.

The truth is often a little more complex.

For the new college graduate, spare time activities could include hanging around with friends drinking beer, playing video games and catching up on sleep based on all the time spent on the first two hobbies named. Or the hobby could be twelve hours a day on Facebook or Instagram. Although truthful, these are hobbies best not described in detail.

For someone more advanced in a career, hobbies could include dropping kids off at school and trying to keep a household together. Or it could be working on that startup idea so that you can build a company and never have to sit through a stupid interview again. Or hobbies could include taking care of sick or elderly parents. Or, for many, a hobby is spending hours every day in a bus, car or train commuting to work. All of these “hobbies” take so much time that they preclude hobbies that you would like to pursue like sailing or golf.

Chances are the interviewer doesn’t have time for much in the way of hobbies either so be alert to the believability of your response.

A middle ground between sailing in the America’s Cup and drinking beer does exist for most of us. The answer to the question does need to be believable and could engender a follow up question by the interviewer. If you claim you spend your spare time volunteering with the local Scout Troop, be prepared that the interviewer may do the same and ask about more details. If you say you compete in 10K road races, be prepared you may be asked about your times or your training methods. Running or jogging is often cited as a free time activity since it can be done on your own and at pretty much any time.

How you spend your spare time is not a test question. It is only a means to try to get you to open up a little more, to show enthusiasm for a non-work activity. The interviewer is trying to get to know you a little, but play it safe. What seems like an interesting hobby to you could be a little weird to the interviewer.

So what is the best answer for such a seemingly simple and benign question? The best answer for all interview questions is to tell the truth. How you describe and embellish that truth is up to you.

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