It's interview question day. Here's mine.
June 26, 2013 3:30 AM   Subscribe

I have an interview in a few weeks for a Project Administrator post. But a question about prioritising work has stumped me before. Can you help me be better prepared this time?

I've seen this already today and there are some helpful answers, but not specific to mine (I don't think). The job is for a busy part-time administration role and the person spec requires an ability to prioritise work at short notice. In my last interview before the role I'm in now, I was asked about this. It was an advice role and having done advice work before I answered generally, that if I were doing a piece of work but a client arrived without an appointment, for example, I would have to balance the work I was doing with the immediate needs of the client. They asked me to elaborate, so I was more specific, and talked about strategies such as informing other colleagues of the situation, delegating work that had a pressing deadline if need be, rescheduling work that could be left til later, then dealing with the work that had now presented itself (ie the new client). I could see them waiting for more, and I said "I feel I'm not really answering in the way you want." They agreed, and again asked for more detail. So this time I made it a specific example of when an actual client had arrived, and talked through what I had literally done to set aside the work I was doing and then what I had done for her. But when I finished speaking I knew it still wasn't what they wanted. Sure enough I didn't get the job, and when I asked for feedback the answer was that while the rest of the interview was very good, on this particular question I hadn't given enough information. I let it go at that point, and it's a couple of years ago now so I can't go back for more information now. But I know the same question will come up again so I'd like to know where I went wrong.

As far as I can see I gave general and then very specific examples of handling the demands of a constant workload being balanced by a task that presents itself and needs to be addressed then and there, and I can't really see what more I could add. I don't know if I was just totally off-track the whole time, and there is actually some really obvious or standard way of answering this question that I'm just not getting. So can you point me in the right direction, either having successfully answered this or from an interviewer's perspective? Thanks.
posted by billiebee to Work & Money (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The issue here seems to be that you've given a competent answer to your mind but something hasn't chimed with them.

I'd suggest one tactic: turn the question back onto them - ask them to elaborate on the question to help you answer more specifically. It's a good interview technique as the interviewer to let the interviewee do all the running because it gives you a stream of information to probe and explore. But by the same token find a way of asking the question back at them so they can do a bit more talking.

For example: "how do you prioritise work?"

You. Take some time to think. "My approach depends on the context. Could you elaborate on a scenario you have in mind to help me answer more clearly for you?"

At this point, you can ask one or two follow up questions. In their response they should give clues as to what kind of an answer they are looking for.

Don't be afraid of silence and don't be afraid to take some time to explore the question with them. Treat the interview as a two way process.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:51 AM on June 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

I agree with MuffinMan, it's not a guessing game, find out as much information as you can before answering.

I'd start of generally, "It would depend on the context as well as my workload at that time, generally, I do X, Y and Z." That should satisfy 99.99% of interviewers. For the nightmare you describe above, you could probe deeper, "What particular scenario did you envision?"

Frankly, there wasn't anything you did wrong in the interview you described, those people were weird. You're well out of that position, can you imagine what hell working for nit-picky people like that would be?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:56 AM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe they weren't asking about dealing with a client interruption kind of situation? Maybe they didn't really know what they were asking?
posted by mskyle at 8:21 AM on June 26, 2013

Two options:

First, perhaps the example you elaborated on wasn't the one they were thinking of. Discussing prioritizing work on short notice might not just mean that someone walking in without an appointment--it could mean how you deal with having a junior and senior colleague come to you with simultaneous emergencies, or how you organize your own workflow, or other examples of two "high-priority" needs coming to you at once. The fact that they were looking for more detail sounds like they were asking for more examples of minor office emergencies, and maybe they weren't asking for more elaboration of that particular scenario. I agree with the above posters that you could have brought it back around to them by asking for a recent example of rapidly-shifting priorities in their office after giving the general answer, so that at least you could address their particular concerns. They should have given that to you anyhow if that's what they were looking for.

Secondly, the idea of giving your work to a coworker or manager so that you could help someone who didn't even have an appointment is a total red flag to me, although that will vary a LOT depending on the nature of the work and culture of the office. Maybe they were looking for someone who can skillfully deflect walk-ins, and if you made it clear in your interview that you would give walk-ins a lot of attention, it might have been a poor match.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:48 AM on June 26, 2013

If we're going to guess, here's one thing that I see missing in your answer:
Who is it that defines the priority in the work? In my office, the Business Leader defines the priority along with the IT Product Owner. If someone came to me asking my to do different work, my reply would be very sympathetic, but I can't do that - newguy needs to take it to the BL and PO and have them contact me if the priority changes. I don't set my own priority.
posted by CathyG at 1:24 PM on June 26, 2013

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