When, Where, Why, and How to Ask Smart Questions
Before we start delving into specific questions to ask yourself, let's agree on some overarching rules, if you will, that will govern them.
Shape Your Questions to the Position
Learn as much as you can about the position for which you're interviewing—before you show up for any interview. When you ask questions about any aspect of the industry, company, department, or job, make sure they are couched in terms of the requirements of the specific job you're seeking and the goals of the particular company at which you hope to be hired.
Don't Ask About Time Off
Or vacations or sick days or anything other than the job at hand ... at least not until you're offered the job.
Don't Ask About Salary or Benefits
Again, wait until you are offered the job. (See Chapter 7 to understand why.) You don't want money to be a factor if the interviewer is still wondering whether you're the best person for the job ... or even worthy of a callback.
Know What to Ask When of Whom
Questions differ depending on both where you are in the interviewing process (screening, hiring, first, second, or third interview, etc.) and, during a particular interview, where you are in the interviewer's script.
The earlier you are in the process, the more likely you'll be asking general questions about where the company is going, what the culture is like, and what it deems important or valuable. Your questions are an attempt to get an initial feel for how you'd fit in, where you'd fit in, whether and how you could grow, and so on.
The more time you devote to a particular company, the more targeted and probing the questions should become, both those the interviewer asks you and those you ask the interviewer. You'll really want to start honing in on the particular information you need to decide whether this is the right company, position, and boss for you. So the further along in the process, the more individualized the questions become (since what's most important to you may be something I wouldn't even ask about, like the availability of on-site daycare, reimbursement of moving expenses, or tuition).
Get the Interviewer Talking
Ask open-ended questions—those that begin with "Who," "What," "When," "Where," or "How." Your purpose is to establish a conversation, to get the interviewer talking so he volunteers the information you want (and, just maybe, to elicit some information you don't even know you want). These kinds of questions do that. Closed-ended questions—those that can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no" (and undoubtedly will be)—are useful near the end of an interview, when you want to close the sale or when you do want specific answers to specific questions. "Do I have to wait 90 days for medical coverage?" A simple "yes" or "no" will suffice.
"Why" questions can be a little tricky, since if you're not sensitive (or aware), they can make you come off as overly aggressive: "I noticed you put a lot of books out of print last year. Why did you do that?"
You can extract the same information in a gentler way: "It seems from your annual report that more books than usual were remaindered last year. Was that mainly the effect of 9/11?"
Ask probing, open-ended questions to extract more details and to follow up after general questions.
Consider asking questions that aren't questions. Making a statement rather than asking pointed queries is a way to put a nervous interviewer at ease. It takes some practice, but it's very effective in getting reluctant interviewers to open up: "What would help me most would be to get a better feel for the culture I'd be walking into and the styles of the people with whom I'd be working. Could you take a couple of minutes to give me a better understanding of those issues?"
Match Your Style to the Interviewer's Style
This doesn't mean you have to become a total milquetoast when interviewing with a passive interviewer, but, when facing such a person, it may behoove you to tone down the "sales killer" personality a bit.
That's why you have to be a little careful about a one-size-fits-all interview approach. Yes, employers want confident candidates and hard workers. But take the time to look around whatever office you're visiting. Is everyone pretty laid back? Then don't come on like a house afire! You can crow about the results you achieved without scaring everyone.
Likewise, if you're inherently reluctant to blow your own horn anyway and a little passive and laid back yourself, an atmosphere akin to a penny stock boiler room might not be your cup of tea, even if they are looking for a "detail-oriented accountant type."
Watch the Interviewer's Body Language
You also need to gauge the interviewer's response to what you're saying, not just the answers you've given but the questions you've asked. Listen for verbal clues and watch for body language that will often tell you how you're really doing. If it's obvious you've hit a wrong note, you may even want to say something like, "I'm sorry. That question seemed to make you uncomfortable. Is that an area you're not yet prepared to talk about?" Again, you don't want to kill a potential job because you were overly aggressive during the interview.
If you know what to look for, you'll get extra clues from the body language of an interviewer:
* Lack of eye contact or shifting eyes are usually seen as a sign of dishonesty or, at best, discomfort: "Mr. Interviewer, are you planning any more layoffs?" [squint, shift, shift, shift ...] "Uh, no, Jim. So, how about dem Bears?"
* Raised eyebrows indicate disbelief or even mild disdain, along the lines of "Oh, really?"/"You don't mean that, do you?"/"Gee, how'd you figure that out?"/"You don't actually expect me to buy that, do you?"
* A smile at the wrong time can be a sign of discomfort or an indication of a complete lack of appropriate social skills!
* "Closed" positions of the hands and arms—clenched fists, arms folded across the body—are not positive. They may also indicate boredom or negativity.
* An interviewer who is slumping or leaning back in his chair may be showing disrespect (arrogance) or disinterest. It is surely a sign that you need to ask a question to get him back into the conversation and his head back to your candidacy.
* Doodling, chewing on a pencil, scratching, playing with one's hands, moving things around on a desk, or acting distracted are typical signs of nervousness. Don't interpret such signs as anything more than nerves unless something else tips you off. Again, ask a question to get the focus back on you or, even better, a question about them—everyone likes to talk about themselves (especially a not-too-experienced interviewer who seems to be nervous about interviewing you, believe it or not!).
Be Concise and to the Point
If your question is so long that even you don't remember the beginning by the time you finally reach the end, what do you expect the poor interviewer to do? Ask one question at a time, not a series of questions masquerading as a multi-clause construction. Then follow up with some equally pointed and specific questions to elicit more information.
Assume the Position
Even when my brother, Ken, was a relatively low-level salesperson at his previous company, he constantly talked about what "we" were doing and how "we" were doing it and what "our" prospects were. Despite the fact that he was not privy to the executive ranks until late in his tenure—what "they" knew or where "they" were headed—his use of "we" certainly gave the impression that he was more involved in those decisions than he was ... and he wasn't involved at all in any of them!
It must have worked. His last title there was President of Sales.
Learn from my bro. When appropriate, assume you already have the job and ask questions accordingly: "Mr. Baines, what's the first challenge we're going to face together?" "Ms. Lyndon, what projections do we need to hit next year?" "Mr. Johnson, what are the three most important targets you have for my department?"
Don't Ask Questions That Show Your Ignorance ...
... or your lack of good research, poor sense of taste, or strange sense of humor. And don't ask questions that are just plain wacko:
"Does it matter that I majored in religion?"
"Who named the company?"
"Do you think Puerto Rico should become the 51st state?"
"Should I tweeze my eyebrows?"
Don't Ask Questions That Reveal Your Biases
"Hmm, Rutigliano, that's Italian, isn't it?"
"Will I be working with a lot of people babbling in another language?"
"Will my boss have any trouble following my directions? After all, I did graduate first in my class at MIT, and I understand he barely made it through Jimmy Dean's School of Air Conditioning and Sausage-making."
Don't Make an Interviewer Obviously Uncomfortable ...
... by asking questions like the biased, ignorant, or just plain weird ones above, or those that are too personal ("Tell me about your children." "Are you married?"); too desperate ("I really need to pay the rent by next Friday. If you offer me this job, could I get a loan before I start?"); or too incredibly arrogant ("I have a few problems with the offer. Since you can't seem to do anything about it, may I talk to someone with the authority to give me what I want?").
And avoid any question that has little or nothing to do with the job, department, or company. These may include, but are not limited to, asking for a date, inquiring about the smoking-break policy, or asking any question that would lead even the most understanding interviewer to immediately call security and have you forcibly ejected, preferably from the state.
Don't Introduce Negativity Into an Interviewer's Mind
There is nothing inherently wrong with asking about normal work hours, as long as you don't say, "My last boss expected me to work most Saturdays. You don't, do you?" Oh, yeah, you are so committed.
As I've noted, some questions are inappropriate only when asked at the wrong time. When you have been offered a job, it is expected that you will want to know everything about your proposed compensation, vacation schedules, holidays, and all that other practical stuff. But asking about vacation days in the first five minutes of an interview is not recommended.
Don't Tell a Joke ...
... even if you think you're the next Chris Rock.
Most of us think we're a lot funnier than we actually are, and humor is, to murder a metaphor, in the ear of the beholder. Why take a chance that some lame joke may cost you a job? Be at ease, feel free to smile and even offer a humorous (or at least less than serious) comment if it seems in keeping with the rest of the conversation. But please remember that you are there to convince them to hire you and assess whether you want to be hired, not to audition for a gig at the Laff Factory.
Never Let Them See You Sweat
Don't ask questions that make you appear desperate ... even if you've been terminated from your previous job!
I noticed something truly bizarre during my dating days. When I was young and single and HUNGRY, I seemed to give off vibes that screamed, "Warning! Warning! Women beware. Desperate bachelor on the prowl." Not long after I got married, I was out with friends and suddenly seemed to be a rock star. Virtually every single woman in the bar was smiling at me, sending over a drink, making it obvious that she was interested.
What the heck was happening? I was never a lady-killer, and my (okay, not great) looks hadn't suddenly changed. George Clooney didn't need to worry about me scarfing up all the available women. Well, my totally unscientific, amateur, unsupported premise is that the same vibes that had cried desperation were now sending out soothing, happy, contented signals ... and people were responding the way you would expect them to.
Interviewers, whether men or women, will react the same way. Be desperate, think desperate, and you might as well walk in carrying a sign saying, "Will work for anyone, do anything, require nothing." That is not the message employers want to hear and, I suspect, not the one you want to be sending them.
This is also a factor when you are trying to find a job, any job, and are clearly overqualified for the ones you're pursuing. It's hard to feign interest in a job you don't really care about. Did you pick a "safety" college when you were a high school senior, one you figured you'd have no problem getting into if the places you really wanted to go turned you down? Did any of you get rejected by your safety schools? Maybe when you interviewed there, you subconsciously sent them the message that they were your safety schools! No employer wants someone who "just wants a job, any job."
Remember It's a Two-Way Street
It's impossible to lead you by the hand through a whole series of potential questions—smart or not—for the simple reason that the specific questions you choose to ask should be an attempt to redefine the job so it more closely fits your qualifications. Let me explain.
In very large companies, job titles and descriptions seem to be etched in stone. But the smaller the company, the more likely there are a plethora of possible duties, not all of which any single person can do. Or not all of which any single person is qualified to do. So, especially at the smaller company (but even at many of the larger ones), you'll want to attempt to customize the job the employer thinks he is offering you so it more closely matches the qualifications you have.
Let me give you an example of how this can work. My publishing company, Career Press, has seven editors. One is exclusively acquisitions, meaning he finds the books that the company is going to publish each season (or, at least, develops a solid list from which to choose). The other six are involved in production, everything from working with authors on their manuscripts in a general way (suggesting they move a chapter, kill an example, add a checklist, and so on) to detailed line editing, proofreading, designing the interior "look," to then executing that format and getting the book off to the printer.
Not long ago, we needed to hire a new editor. My editor-in-chief wanted another "word" person who could do initial editing on every manuscript that came in, then pass each off to an editor who would work with the author on the more detailed, line-by-line edits.
But then Jinny walked in and declared, "Look, I can't really edit in a general way. In fact, I'm not really that kind of editor at all. But I am the best darn formatter you ever saw. Instead of hiring a general editor, why don't you let the rest of the editors spend more time editing and I'll spend all my time designing their books, laying them out, and getting them off to the printer?"
If this happened anywhere else, especially a large publishing house like Random House or Simon & Schuster, the editor-in-chief probably would have said, "Thanks, but no thanks." But some smaller houses (like Career Press) probably would have taken the time to consider such a change in plans.
Jinny, who was not remotely qualified for the opening as it was described and advertised, gave herself a chance to actually get a job by encouraging the editor to redefine the job so that it fit her qualifications.
In actual fact, it worked. She is a great employee!
It's Okay to Be a Copycat
Feel free to take some of the typical interview questions you should expect to be asked and ask them of the interviewer instead:
What are the company's (department's) strengths and weaknesses?
What was the last great challenge faced by the department? How did you and your team handle it?
Can you tell me about a successful project and how you managed it?
Can you tell me about some recent problems you've faced and how you (as a team) overcame them?
What's your definition of success? What's your definition of failure?
If you could change one thing about the way this department works (or is structured or is managed or is compensated), what would it be?
How often do you and your team socialize outside of work? Is such extracurricular activity actively promoted? Tolerated? Discouraged?
Ask for the Job If You Want It
The more sales-oriented the job—the more Type A the interviewer or the observed company culture—the more aggressively you need to close the sale. In fact, lack of real aggression in these situations will probably be reason enough to not offer you the job at all.