Turn the Tables On an Interviewer

by | March 31, 2009

Anticipating questions you'll be asked during an interview -- and preparing thoughtful answers -- takes lots of practice. Yet there's another, more subtle aspect of interviewing that also deserves practice: asking strategic questions.

These are questions that can help you decide whether an employer will help advance your career and be a good place to work. Posing one or two good questions also can convey your knowledge of a company and position you as an applicant who's seriously interested.

While you may not love every employer you meet with or learn everything you need to know about a position before you accept it, your efforts can make your interviews more worthwhile. Here are some do's and don'ts to follow when formulating your approach:

  • Do your research.

The more you know about a prospective employer, the easier it will be to ask meaningful questions. Since the onus is on you during interviews to prove yourself to the employer -- not the other way around -- concentrate initially on showing that you prepared for the meeting and have more than a superficial knowledge of the company.

"The single most often-heard criticism from employers is that students don't know enough about their company before the interview," says Kathy L. Sims, director of the UCLA Career Center in Los Angeles.

Set a goal to be the most well-informed candidate the recruiter meets. Your objective is not to spout company trivia, but to ask questions that demonstrate your understanding of the organization. For example, if you're applying for a marketing job, find out about the company's marketing strategies and competitive advantages.

"A candidate who demonstrates an understanding of our industry and our products is very impressive," says Vicki Harris, a recruitment specialist for Zondervan, a 350-employee Christian communications company and a division of HarperCollins, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. "I have had several candidates who asked about the growth of our industry, and I think this is a very wise way of asking, 'How's the business doing?' "

Harris also recommends asking about an employer's mission, which job hunters often can find on its Web site, and how the available opening fits into that mission. "The more candidates know about our company, the better," she says.

Once you've done your Web research, sample the company's products or services. Read product reviews or talk to others who are familiar with the company (this may require some creative networking). At the very least, read up on company news or annual reports at your college career center, library or the public library.

If you mention something you learned from this research, employers will realize that you've done more to prepare than most other candidates. "If [candidates] mention that they researched us only on the Web, it just doesn't seem like they have a real affinity with our company or our books," Harris adds.

  • Know what to ask.

During his interviews for a sales position at Stryker Endoscopy, Matt Mileskiewicz asked about the size of his sales territory and opportunities to advance into management -- questions that demonstrated his desire to succeed and then grow with the company. The answers he received helped persuade him to accept Stryker's offer for a position in Columbus, Ohio, which he started two months after graduating from John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, in May.

"I tried to ask at least two questions in any interview I had," says Mileskiewicz. "[If] you walk away not asking any questions, you're dealing your own spade."

Megan Almond, a human-resources generalist for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in New York, agrees. "It's worse to ask no questions than to ask a bad question," she says. Fortunately, those aren't your only options.

At the end of a first interview, when the employer asks if you have any questions, stick to the two or three most important ones on your list. For example, consider asking for a job description so you know what will be expected of you. (Having this information can also help you to sell yourself in follow-up interviews.)

Other good questions include:

  • How would you describe your company culture?
  • How would your employees describe your company as a place to work?
  • What is the hiring process?
  • What is the typical career path for someone in this position?
  • And know what not to ask.

The above questions can help you gather valuable information, without implying a "gimme" attitude. Save your discussions about compensation or other benefits for follow-up interviews. Asking them any sooner, before the employer has shown continued interest in your candidacy, can be seen as a breach of interviewing etiquette.

If nothing has been said about compensation by the end of the second interview, Sims suggests broaching the subject tactfully by saying, "We've had our second interview, and I'd like to think I'll continue to be a candidate after I walk out of here. It would be very helpful to me to know a little about your compensation structure." Such an approach communicates respect while allowing you to get the information you're seeking.

Once you receive an offer, any question is fair game, says Almond. For example, you may want to know about such things as travel requirements, training opportunities, performance reviews, vacation time, benefits, and your workspace. (If you're going to be working in a basement closet, now's the time to find out and perhaps negotiate for something better.)

  • Pay attention to answers.

Merely asking the right questions doesn't guarantee you'll like what you hear. Just ask Jason Pulis, who graduated in May with a degree in information-systems management from Wayne State University in Detroit. Though he now works about 32 hours a week as a computer-support specialist for an automotive supplier, he expects to lose his job due to company layoffs.

So Pulis has been searching for a full-time position. During one interview, he asked, "What's it like to work here?" The interviewer replied, "People don't really stay here that long because they don't like it."

"I was speechless," Pulis says. "I could not believe they would admit to something like that." He was equally appalled when the same question, at another company, elicited the response: "It's all right. Some people like it, some don't." Pulis has chosen to continue his search, rather than take a job at a company where he doesn't expect to be happy.

Responses to your questions may help talk you into a position, as they did for Mileskiewicz, or talk you out of a position, as they did for Pulis. Either way, consider yourself fortunate. When you walk away from an unappealing prospect, you leave the door open for a better opportunity.

Filed Under: Interviewing


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