In today’s October 27, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader has it up to here with employers who really, really want to know whether she can handle it…

I’m an administrative assistant, customer service, and office support worker and I’m very good. I have tons of experience under my belt working successfully with people of different titles, personalities and attitudes. Every interview I go on I’m asked whether I’ve ever worked with “this kind” of personality or “that level” of management. They invariably say that the people I’d have to deal with are the smartest or the rudest or the most demanding or the most temperamental. They are looking for an exact match. How do I deal with this question and say that I can handle anyone so they will believe me?

This is the sort of interview question that makes me groan. Clearly, employers are worried they might hire someone who isn’t capable of dealing with difficult people. “Uh, can you handle difficult people?”

I can hear the perfect reply. “People like you? Of course!”

How should this job candidate say it? (And what should she say?)


  1. Even though it is easy to think of people as falling into types, I have found that understanding the things that make them a unique individual is most important to dealing with them effectively. This approach has always allowed me to work well with a wide range of “types”. I am confident I will be able to work with the unique individuals here as well.

  2. Give me some specific examples of their behavior I’ll demonstrate how I would respond.

  3. I’ve no doubt the person has dealt with every type under the sun. the admin assistants and phone support folks are the business world’s filters.
    hypothetical answers and chatter won’t be convincing. if indeed the person has fielded the variety offered, then he/she has stories to tell. if the recruiter says we deal with the world’s rude, then answer with ” Not a problem..then launch into a story. c-level? launch into a real example and so on.
    also anticipate the future. if this is his/her’s chosen field, collect references and referral letters that touch on these various scenarios. an admin/support person’s crowning achievement is to satisfy the angry, neutralize the rude, impress the c-level and so on. If done, keep the name, and when job hunting time comes or before, get a reference letter. As a boss and as a recruiter, they make a difference to me. both of these technique provide objective tangible answers and evidence as opposed to a simple claim that “yes I can”

  4. One of the most important aspects of being happy at work is authenticity: being able to be true to your core without fear of being judged for it.

    You have to know beforehand whether you would be true to your core working for an organization that is not prepared to call its employees, including its management, on difficult, unacceptable behaviour.

    Then you need to determine whether the question is a hypothetical, conventional-wisdom, bs interview question, or whether you really would be working for a difficult person.

    If you know that you hate working with difficult people and the interviewer either beats around the bush, not coming clean, or confirms that you will land in a den of difficulties, then run for your life.

    If you are good at handling difficult people, and are prepared to work with them, here is your answer, but it must be authentic — second nature to you.

    The way to handle difficult people is to practice detachment; not to personalize the difficult behaviour; to establish ground rules for interactive, respectful communication. Through the interactive communication, you discover the causes of the difficult behaviour. Once you understand that the causes have nothing to do with you, it becomes very much easier to be detached — even understanding.

    Make sure you have a second interview with the difficult person before accepting the job, so that you can assess for yourself whether such ground rules would be feasible. If not, again, run for your life.

    Life is too short. You owe your career to you, not to some difficult person whose havoc negates all talents and who doesn’t give a damn about you.

  5. Personally, I wouldn’t give stories or examples of handling that kind of thing from my past. There’s too much opportunity for miscommunication. People often think that they are talking about the same thing only to find out that they aren’t. A story about how well you handled a boss who rudely swears at you all day isn’t going to allay the concerns of someone who is worried about an environment full of people who rudely ignore you when asked a question.

    I think this is an opportunity to show your confidence at how you can handle anything. Offer to show them. Offer to work for a period (I’d make sure it was a day or less) as a trial. “I can see that this is a real concern for you. I feel confident that I can handle your unique situation and that you will be impressed by my professional demeanor and ability to fit in with your staff. How about we try it and see? You can see how I work under pressure and I’ll have the opportunity to show you how valuable I can be for your organization.”

    Confidence will go a long way towards allaying the fears of your interviewer. In addition, you’ve shown that you can come up with creative solutions when presented with a dilemma. Plus, if they go for it, you’ve already have a foot in the door and the beginnings of a relationship with the people you’ll actually be working with.

  6. I would try to turn it around and say something like “it sounds like you have some specific skills in mind, can you give me an example of the kind of situation you are thinking about?” If you really are good at working with all kinds of personalities, it may be best just to be genuine and trust your instincts.

    When I interviewed for the job I have now, I was bombarded with questions about “difficult” personalities, “difficult” situations, etc. – gotta love the structural interview…

    When we were done they asked me if I had any questions so I told them I enjoyed sharing some of my old “war stories” but that I was curious, were things really all that difficult?

    They were taken aback, but they asured me that they really were a great team. I told them it showed and that I understood why they are concerned about selecting the right person, that I had been in their position in the past, etc.

    Some time after I was hired, my boss told me that she felt a collegial alliance with me that she didn’t feel with the other candidates.

  7. After reading several very good comments by everyone on this, I would add just one more thing that I think is extremely important.

    I would say that I am a pro-active listener, when someone listens carefully they can often avoid much of the confusion/conflict that could result from communication with difficult associates.

    And I don’t mean here that I am a “door mat” listener. Pro-active listening is focused on productivity, not personal inuendos.

    Of course the answer is more than this simple statement, but you all have covered it well.

  8. Suzanne makes an excellent point: If the company asks how you will handle difficult people, politely point out that it’s the manager’s job to handle them.

  9. This interview question is like the “strengths” and “weaknesses” question, it’s hard to know how to response unless you know what they value. You can say that you would defer difficult situations to a manager, but maybe they don’t want to hear that.

    Performance is always relative. One boss values initiative while another one wants to be informed; one values attention to detail while another one wants the big picture, one values ambition and another feels threatened…things like multi-tasking or satisficing or being a “people person” can conger up different meanings – positive and negative.

    Honesty to yourself is the best policy, if you don’t get a job because you didn’t give them the right answer, don’t be defeated by it. It wasn’t your fault.

  10. Nick,

    I am interested in reading what you think on this subject.

    What would you advise this applicant to say?