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February 1, 2007
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How to ask good questions in an interview

Here’s the structure of an interview: The interviewer asks you a lot of questions about you, figures out what you like, what you’re good at, and customizes as he pitches the company and the job to you.

This structure works fine if you are not all that interested in the job. But if you go into the interview knowing that you want the job, this structure will not benefit you. This is because if you really want the job, you will be trying very hard during the interview to convince the person that you’re a good match. But the structure of the interview doesn’t give you the chance to find out a lot about what they’re looking for in a match, until the very end.

You will get to the end of the interview, and the person will say, “Do you have any questions for me?” The questions that everyone recommends you ask are questions that would help you know what the company is looking for in a new hire: Questions about the goals and philosophies of the company, about the parameters of the position you’re interviewing for, about the expectations for the person they hire.

The answers to these questions would help you to explain why you are the ideal candidate for the job. So why ask these questions at the end? Ask them as close to the beginning as you can.

The first time I saw this in action was when I was interviewing a candidate. I started with, “So, why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself.”

She said, “Well, first why don’t you tell me a bit about the job so that I can tailor my answer to your particular needs right now?”

I was surprised, but it made a lot of sense to me. I told her about the job. And I ended up making her an offer.

So don’t hijack the interview, but try to ask a bit about the position at the begining of the inteview and then you, too, can tailor your answers to the requirements of the job. With this strategy, coming up with questions will be easy because you will naturally want to know what the hiring manager is looking for so you can be that person:

What would the first three goals be for the person who takes this job?

What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in this position?

What type of person do you think will be most successful in this position?

If you ask a variation of these questions toward the beginning of the interview — even if you ask only one or two — you’ll be in a much better position to ace the rest of the interview.

While it is bucking convention to ask questions toward the beginning and not the end, consider that you will look more authentic doing this. After spending the whole interview convincing the person that you are a good fit for the job, why would you ask questions about the job at the end? Presumably, you already talked about why you are a good fit.

So when you get to the end of the interview, and the person says, “Do you have an questions for me?” You can feel free to say, “No, I think I asked enough questions at the beginning of the interview to understand how I will fit in well in this position. I’m very excited about working with you. I think we’re a good match. Do you have any reservations?”

 


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Posted to: Interviewing


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Comments

» Nine ways to ace an interview and get the job at Google Stop Blog

[…] Don’t wait until the end to ask good questions. What’s the point? You just spent the whole interview telling the person you’re right for the job — it’s a little late to be asking questions about the job, right? So ask your questions at the beginning. And then use the answers to better position yourself for the job during the interview. […]

» Five ways to do better in phone interview » Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk

[…] At any rate, I have done tons of phone interviews — on both sides of the hiring equation — so when Sia asked me to write a post on how to do a phone interview, I was surprised that I hadn’t written one already. (Although I have written a bunch about interviews.) […]

» Nine Steps to Acing a Job Interview « HYBRID THEORY

[…] Don’t wait until the end to ask good questions. What’s the point? You just spent the whole interview telling the person you’re right for the job — it’s a little late to be asking questions about the job, right? So ask your questions at the beginning. And then use the answers to better position yourself for the job during the interview. […]

» Absolut 360° » How to ask Good Questions in an Interview

[…] How to ask Good Questions in an Interview Here’s the structure of an interview: The interviewer asks you a lot of questions about you, figures out what you like, what you’re good at, and customizes as he pitches the company and the job to you.  […]

20 Comments »

Penelope -

Fantastic post! I agree with asking questions upfront and through the entire interview. It’s a great way to ascertain what the hiring manager wants. It also lessens interviewee stress.

Tom

I have an interview on Tuesday for a job I really, really want and for which I diligently preparing. I appreciate this post - very timely and sounds like great advice. I’ll definitely be visiting again to read it as the meeting draws closer and I try to quell my rising panic (hey, there’s a great topic for a post- interview panic and how to control it).

Thanks…

Great post, I really enjoy reading this and the other posts about interviews you wrote because I´m looking for a job in another company and all tips and tricks you mention are very useful. I really appreciate it!

Marcelo from Argentina, SouthAmerica

I always hate the final question period in an interview — much like you said, it makes no sense to ask about a role in a company you told them you’d be good for.

I think I’m going to sneak this onto the bulletin board when nobody is looking.

Questions are a actually a great way to relax an interviewer. People who like their jobs and organization really enjoy talking about them. Questions take the interviewer away from any formal interview script, and make it a conversational exchange. Remember, you want to find out if you want to work for this person. A conversation is a much better way to learn this.

My interviewing experience has shown that many people are clueless about how to conduct an effective interview. (Which isn’t surprising, it’s hard thing to do.) I learned to assume that the interviewer would be bad, and created my own self-interview that I could follow when the interviewer didn’t know how to do it. (Obviously I don’t actually ask myself questions during the interview!) I figure out what my sound bites are and stay on target. It’s like if a politician is asked a question she doesn’t like, she answers it with something that may have little to do with what was asked, but it sounds great and inspiring. My success rate with interviews demonstrates this is a good technique. The interviewer (for non-tech people) usually only wants to know a few things: you’d be easy and great to work with, you’ll do the job and more very well, you have confidence, and you are not a psycho.

Good luck everyone who’s interviewing!

* * * * * *

Mary - thanks for chiming in here.Everyone - Mary is my friend, so I happen to know she is one of those people who always gets a job offer when she interviews. She is great at taking  control of an interview. If you can do that, you end up making the interviewer feel like he is a genius for orchestrating such a good interview. And if you can make someone feel like a genius, they’ll enjoy their time with you more.

–Penelope

Here’s another take on asking questions right away and taking charge of the interview…

A friend once hired someone (right out of school)who came to the interview with a prepared, typed agenda.

She politely asked initially whether the interviewer had a plan / agenda for the interview. When my friend said no, she then told him she had prepared an agenda and pulled it out and asked in a confident and friendly way if they could use it. He agreed.

This agenda impressed him. My friend didn’t have much interviewing experience of this type, so I’m sure the agenda helped him too. As I said, she got the job.

Another funny thing about this interview: this young woman showed up 30 minutes early because she knew a classmate of hers had the prior interview and that he was always late. So, when he didn’t show up on time, she was there, grabbed his interview slot and was able to mention that he’s always late and demonstrate that she had the foresight and initiative to take an appropriate action (showing up early).

* * * * *

Wendy,

I love this story. I am a big fan of initiative. I am not sure what I think of the agenda. Not sure how many circumstances it would work in. But my instinct tells me that intiative impresses everyone, even if it’s a little off. A manager can always redirect initiative, but a manager cannot instill initiative.

-Penelope

When I interviewed with Google recently, I recognized that the process with each person was going to be short (short interview time slots) so I realized that it wouldn’t be fruitful to burn time that they could use to evaluate my as a candidate with what are generally cursory questions from me (as the candidate at the beginning of the process). Instead, my response was, “I have a lot of questions but I want to respect your process to evaluate me, and I’m comfortable waiting until a suitable time arrives for me to ask my questions. It might be most efficient to wait, and at the end of the process, if Google decides that I am someone they wish to hire, then I can ask my questions…” By saying I had a lot of questions, it positions as me astute and ’smart’ (smart people ask lots of questions) which is better than being a pushover and saying that you don’t have any questions.

This accomplishes many things:

1.) It shows deference to the company process, which positions you in a humble position during the evaluation process (beginning of the process), before the negotiation starts. This is a good thing.

2.) It doesn’t allow the company to evaluate you based on what they perceive the quality of your questions are. In reality, a company should do a good job of explaining job scope and job details, and all those components as part of a sophisticated sales cycle with candidates (most companies don’t do this). That said, most interviewers will subjectively rate the quality of a candidate’s questions as part of their evaluation, which isn’t a valid selection criteria most of the time (if you have any question, you should be able to ask it).

3.) It sets the stage for a stronger negotiation position at the end. If the company says, “yes, we want to hire you…” then you can say, “would it be okay for me to ask my questions” and everyone will remember that you deferred your questions to the end. This is important, as now it puts you (the candidate) in a stronger position of power during the negotiation, because now you are asking the questions, but they’ve already committed that they want to hire you. There is a subtle ‘turning of the tables’ as the candidate begins to interview the company. This can be used to an advantage in negotiation.

As a recruiting guy on the company side, I want to query candidates for questions throughout the process as part of the pre-closing and objection handling process, so my ultimate offer-hire ratio stays super high and I remain in the driver’s seat during negotiation. Many recruiters miss this.

* * * * * * * * *

Jason,You’re such a gem for taking the time to write this. Great information. I read it twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

-Penelope

I love your take on this, Penelope, and I’d even go a step further: A month ago, I interviewed for a new position. I took the same behavioral interview approach I use when I’m interviewing potential candidates, and used it on my potential employer (he wasn’t a terribly skilled interviewer, which made this easier). By describing scenarios and asking him how he’d handled those situations in the past, I was able to get a good picture of his management style and therefore make a determination of whether we’d work well together.

I won’t be taking the job (although I did get an offer) because we couldn’t come to an agreement on compensation; however, because we established a good rapport, we’ve agreed to stay in touch and take advantage of any future opportunities to collaborate. A definite win-win, in my opinion.

* * * * * *

Kathleen,

Thanks for sharing this story. Good reminder to everyone that interviewing is about networking. Whether you want the job or not, you’re spending a half-hour with a person getting to know them. So keep them in mind, as Kathleen is, as a future collaborator.

-Penelope

This last part sounds a little over the top: “I’m very excited about working with you. I think we’re a good match.”

* * * * * *

Drake,

That’s why I wrote it. Becuase I thought some people might not know to say this. If you think it, say it. Everyone wants to hire someone who’s totally excited about the job. You make yourself more desireable by telling the hiring manger that you really want the job.

–Penelope

The above link can also be interesting

Great post! I’ve been on several interviews where there didn’t seem to be any agenda. One interviewer just wanted to ‘get to know me better as a person’ and asked about my hobbies!

I wonder if Penelope could post some techniques for redirecting an aimless interview towards a self-interview, as Mary had suggested.

Otherwise, thank you for blogging, Penelope. I’ve been motivating myself by reading your blog these past few months while job hunting, and I’ll be starting a new job Monday. Of course, I’ll be managing my new career through your tips :)

 * * * * *

Bettina,Thank you for the good topic suggestion. Until I get to that post…. Mary, in this comment string, gives some good advice for redirecting an interview.

-Penelope

GREAT post! From my perspective doing HR/Recruiting work, this is one of the most important skills candidates need to learn because the questions you ask in an interview are a representation of what you will be like as an employee. It seems like so many folks are so nervous about what to say about themselves, that they forget to be curious about the job they are applying for! I recently decided not to hire a strong candidate because he didn’t have any questions throughout the interview process. See Eric’s story here: http://careerencouragement.typepad.com/the_career_encouragement_/2007/02/job_search_rule.html

* * * * * *

Hello, Everyone. Look at this comment. One of the most important ways to build your own community, and be part of a larger community, is to comment on blogs and link back to yours. This is a great example of a comment done right.

It’s tricky to comment and link back to your own blog. You can’t just write, “Nice post. Here’s a link to my post..” Becuase then you are like the porn sites that do comment spam.

This comment does three things well:

1. Relates directly to the post. 

2. Provides a new idea for the discussion.

3. Links to a new blog for something that really adds value to the point being made.

I wish all my comments on other peoples’ blogs were as well done as this one.

Thanks, Peggy.

-Penelope

 

I agree with many of the comments posted. It is very important to ask questions. One reason is it shows your interest in the position and the company. Second reason - you learn if this company and/or position is the right fit. It is critical to research the company and its peers so that you can ask questions that permit you to shine. I suggest writing/reviewing your questions to make sure you can properly respond if the interviewer ask similar question(s). Also reviewing questions will help you to think about what you are looking for in a position and/or a company. Lastly, please remember that although you are being interviewed, you need to ask questions to ensure this company and your potential managers compliment your skills and objectives.

I think it is also important to ask questions at the beginning of the interview because these questions give you the opportunity to add to the conversation with additional information about yourself and your qualifications and expertise.

Some of the easiest questions to ask have to do directly with your potential position with the company. These would include such things as what your major areas of responsibility would be, if you would be supervising a staff and what types of projects would be typical.

At the same time I think it’s important to make sure that you prepare questions that are not easily answered by looking on the company website. This is a true giveaway that you have not properly prepared for the interview.

Sorry :(

ohhh what a million dollar advice—this will definately portray assertiveness—-but i feel it has to be said in a very respectful way–or it may sound rude

* * * * * *
Yes, good advice for any conversation - to be respectful.

-Penelope

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