Saturday, April 24, 2010

All the Right Questions

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig

There’s an old adage that says “no question is a stupid question.” Now, usually I’m the person grumbling in the back of the room when this particular axiom is trotted out at meetings or workshops, because I believe that there are, in fact, stupid questions. Personal feelings aside, however, I realized recently that this saying is very applicable to interview situations—albeit, in a slightly different incarnation. When you get the opportunity for an interview, it’s important to make the most of your time with an employer. One way to make yourself stand out is by asking questions—and asking good questions. Because as they (should) say, in an interview, asking no questions is stupid!

But what is a good question? To answer this, first think about the objective of a job interview. You want to show the employer that you are intelligent, interested, and well-qualified. You also want to show that you have thought about why you would like to be doing this job, beyond the monetary gratification of a paycheck. Finally, you want to demonstrate what makes you special—i.e. why an employer should choose you over another applicant. This is a lot to accomplish in a 20 to 30 minute interview. But if you utilize your time and ask good questions, you can put yourself head and shoulders above other candidates.

The first step is to do your homework. Before you go to an interview, research the company. Read their website. Find out what news they’ve been making lately. If you know someone who works in the company, talk to them. By the time you walk into the interview, you should have a good grasp of the organization’s mission and focus. If you’ve taken the time to do your research well, you can really impress the interviewer. One hiring manager told me that a candidate she’d interviewed recently had been so well-prepared that the candidate knew more about the company’s website than the interviewer! “It really gave her an edge in the process,” the hiring manger said. “I knew she was interested in the position because she’d taken the time to read through the entire website, and asked really insightful questions about the information on it.”

The second step is to consider what you need to know before you accept a job offer from the company. I know that nowadays it seems like any job is better than no job, but as someone who has suffered through some pretty awful jobs in the past, I think it’s important to be honest with yourself about whether a position—and a company—would be a good fit for you. Thus, in an interview, a good question to ask is “What is the corporate culture like?” You can usually get a sense of this from the company literature and by paying attention in the waiting area, but it’s still good to hear what the interviewer thinks. Another great question to ask is “If you could change one thing about the culture, what would it be?” This is a nice way of asking if there’s something you should know ahead of time—like that everyone is always expected to stay late. If you turn into a pumpkin at 5:00 PM, that may not be the position for you.

The third, and perhaps most important step, is to find out what the interviewer is looking for in a successful applicant. Somewhere beyond the dry language of a job description is a live person who will want you to meet their expectations. Therefore, you need to know what those expectations are. Ask, “What qualities do you look for in a successful applicant?” This question is great because it accomplishes three tasks: it tells you what you need to know, it gives you the opportunity to further address experiences you’ve had that would fit well with the qualities the employer lists, and it shows the interviewer that your priorities are in line with their expectations. A good follow-up to this question is, "How are candidates evaluated and what's the measure of success?" This will help you make sure that you know how to excel in the position if you get it.

At the end of an interview, the last question you should always ask is “What are the next steps in the process?” This will give you an idea of when you can expect a response, what the hiring time frame is, and if you will be expected to meet with anyone else before a decision is made. It will also let you know when you should follow-up if you haven’t heard anything, so that you aren’t left waiting and wondering indefinitely.

To help you get started on your own list of interview questions, see my sample list below. And remember, if you ever have questions or want to set up a mock-interview appointment, CAPS is here to help!

Great Interview Questions:
  • What is the corporate culture like?
  • If you could change one thing about the culture, what would it be?
  • What qualities do you look for in a successful applicant?
  • How are candidates evaluated and what’s the measure of success?
  • Why is this position available?
  • Is this a new position? How long has this position existed?
  • How many people have held this position in the last two years?
  • Who would be my supervisor?
  • How would you describe the supervisor’s management style?
  • With whom will I be working most closely?
  • What kind of turnover rate does the company have?
  • What projects and assignments will I be working on?
  • What are the current problems facing the company (or my department)?
  • What attracted you (the interviewer) to this organization?
  • Why do you enjoy working for this company?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of this position?
  • **My personal favorite: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?

What’s your favorite question to ask in an interview? Leave a comment below!