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Clever and Intelligent Questions to Ask on your Interview


Chapter 1


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 job 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’s going, its culture, 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 farther 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) 0 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 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 ask 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 f an interviewer:

  • Lack of eye contact or shifting eyes are usually seen as: “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 distain, 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 have 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 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 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 particular 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 seemed to suddenly 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 them to.
Interviewers, whether men or women, will react in 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 unconsciously sent them a 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. Nut 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 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.
I think you should always try to make a selling point while asking a question, but in this case, it’s virtually an imperative: “I tried to make my cover letter and resume memorable. I’m glad you appreciated their creativity. Will that same ‘out of the box’ thinking be valued in this position?”


Interview Killers

I’m going to assume that you have already been on enough interviews (or, if you’re a recent graduate, read enough interviewing books) to know that there are rules to follow during interviews. So I’m not going to discuss most of them here.
But there is a list of “no – no’s” that are so important, failing to avoid them can virtually doom any chance you have of securing the job – before the interview even starts. Given their seriousness, I thought it prudent to remind you of them.
For many interviewers, your showing up late is immediate cause for canceling the interview. It doesn’t matter that traffic backed up, your cat threw up a hairball, or you just got lost in the elevator.
Being on time is not racing down the final corridor with moments to spare. Some interviewers agree with New York Giants football coach Tom Coughlin – being late is not being fifteen minutes early.
Poor grooming is a basic turn – off. Wearing so much perfume or cologne that a gasping interviewer has to lunge for the window makes a poor first impression. So does wearing more makeup than a runway model, clanking along with a pocketful of change or an armload of bangles and bells, or trying out a blond-streaked Mohawk haircut.
Do I really have to tell you, ladies that a dark suit, pearls, and pumps is appropriate dress for every interview? Given the tube tops, sneakers, short skirts, and patterned stockings I’ve seen waltz through my door (and all on one candidate!), maybe I do.
Men should wear a white or light blue shirt, conservative suit, silk tie and shined dress shoes.
No one should think of wearing ties that glow in the dark, t-shirts advertising anything (but especially not X-rated!), or any clothes deemed “relaxed and comfortable” (unless you are relaxed and comfortable in a double-breasted suit).
In case you haven’t gotten the message (where have you been?). Smoking is no longer acceptable behavior ... anywhere, at any time. And don’t kid yourselves – just because you don’t light up during an interview doesn’t mean that everyone in the room doesn’t know you smoke.
Of course, if you decide to smoke during the interview itself (and some people have in my office), you can go down to that front door right away to finish up. Just don’t plan on coming back upstairs.
Do not smoke even if the interviewer lights up and encourages you to do likewise.
There should be a new reality series featuring the bizarre behavior of some interviewers as they chew, burp, scratch, swear, cry, laugh, and scream their way into our hearts. Interviewees have shown up drunk or stoned, brought their mothers with them, fallen asleep, and even gone to the bathroom and never returned.
Keeping your cell phone on during the interview qualifies as inappropriate behavior. Actually receiving or making a call qualifies as bizarre.
Remember what the interviewer is undoubtedly thinking: If this is your best behavior, what (gasp!) do I have to look forward to?
If you lie about anything, especially where and when you worked, what you did, or where and when (or even if) you attended college, you will be caught. No matter how lowly the job, there are significant expenses involved with hiring someone to perform it. So companies will take the time to check out references. And the higher up the food chain, the more intensive their scrutiny.
Even if the lie is inconsequential, the very fact that you lied will, in virtually all instances, be immediate grounds for dismissal. Lacking a particular skill or experience may not automatically exclude you from getting the job. Lying about it will.
While honesty may be the best (and only) policy, it is not necessary to share anything and everything with your interviewer. He is not your priest, and you are not in a confessional. Anything you do in the privacy of your own home is not something you need to share.
So do be smart enough, when asked what interests you about the job, not to answer, “Heck, I just need a job with benefits. I owe way too much on my Visa.”
Don’t underestimate the effect of your body language on the interviewer. While many people don’t mean what they say or say what they mean, their nonverbal actions reveal exactly what they’re feeling. According to studies, more than half of what we are trying to communicate is being received nonverbally.
To many interviewers, your failure to look them in the eye indicate you have something to hide. So does being overly fidgety or nervous. Greet the interviewer with a firm hand – shake, face him or her, sit straight up and, of course, look ‘em in the eye. Breaking eye contact occasionally is also a good idea. Staring at someone without pause for more than a few seconds will make them nervous.
Likewise, interviewers are looking for people who are enthusiastic about what they do, so sighing, looking out the window, or checking your watch during a question is not creating the right impression. If you don’t seem interested in the job, why should they be interested in hiring you?
A candidate once said to me, barely five minutes into our interview, “I’ve got three other offers right now. What can you do for me?”
I showed him where the exit was.
Yes, you need to be confident, enthusiastic, and cheerful (and brave and clean and reverent …) but there can be, as this example clearly illustrates, too much of a good thing.
The interviewer asks what she thinks is a simple question and act as if she has accused you of a crime. You start to sweat, hem and haw, and try to change the subject.
What are you hiding? That’s what the interviewer will be wondering. And if you aren’t actually hiding anything. Why are you acting so defensively?
Interviewing over lunch is a situation fraught with potential dangers. Slurping spaghetti or wiping barbecue sauce off your tie is simply not attractive, even if you are. Ordering the most (or least) expensive item on the menu sends an unwelcome message. And what happens when the French dish you didn’t understand but ordered anyway turns out to be sautéed brains?
If you can’t avoid a lunch interview (and I would certainly try), use your common sense. Order something light and reasonably priced – you’re not really there for the food, are you? Remember what Mon told you: Keep your elbows off the table, don’t talk with your mouth full, and put your napkin on your lap. Don’t drink alcohol (even wine), don’t smoke (even if your host does), don’t complain about the food (even if it was lousy), and don’t forget that this is still an interview!
Although many interviewers will not consider inappropriate dress, poor grooming, or a bit too much candor an automatic reason for dismissal, an accumulation of two or more such actions may force even the most empathetic to question your suitability. (Some items, of course, such as dishonesty, may well lead to an immediate and heartfelt, “Thank you …. Please don’t stay in touch.”)


Is It Okay To Take Notes?

I suspect I could find equal numbers of recruiters, executives, and interviewers to come down on either side of this question. Of course, it’s okay for the interviewer to take notes, which is why I believe it is okay for the interviewee too, not just okay, but encouraged.
Why? There are a few good reasons:
First, you can’t possibly remember everything, no matter how good your memory. And yet you certainly want to remember what you said, what he said, what seemed right, what felt wrong, titles, numbers...all the myriad things that went on during the interview. As long as you ask permission first, I believe taking notes is an absolute requirement.
Second, it is essential for your follow up. I encourage you to write brief individual notes to every person you meet on an interview, from the receptionist to the person who got your coffee, and even more targeted and longer letters to all the people with whom you actually interviewed. How can you be sure of the spelling of that many names, titles, and the like, without good notes? How can you make sure to answer (again) the objection you know may be the key thing obstructing your hiring? How can you schmooze the colleague who seemed a little cold to your candidacy, perhaps jealous because he wanted (or expected) your job?
Third, you may need to use your notes during the interview itself, jotting down a question you don’t want to forget (while the interviewer drones on), a point you want to raise, or an example you want to emphasize. This will allow you to interject something at just the right time, which may be quite a while down the road, even at the very end of the interview.
I believe many if not most interviewers will interpret your note taking as a sign of professionalism and seriousness, as long as you don’t lug in an iBook or Palm Pilot and keep your nose buried in it the entire time.
You should walk in with notes – the questions you intend to ask, detailed notes on financials, specific points you want to remember, and research data you want to incorporate in an answer or question. Getting the interviewer used to your “consulting my notes” makes it a lot easier to ask permission to take notes during the interview itself. But be careful. You don’t want to appear to be constantly “referring to your notes” every time the interviewer asks a question: “Where did you go to college, Jim?” “Uh, just a minute, let me consult my notes.”
Personally, I wouldn’t want anything but an attractive notebook that is extracted from an equally professional – looking attaché case, along with a quality pen (not a disposable!). I find the use of a notebook computer much too distracting (as an interviewer), but it may be acceptable in high – tech industries where the interviewer could consider such technology a given (even a plus).
I’d never recommend a tape recorder, unless you plan to arrest the interviewer immediately after the interview. I see no positive value and a host of potentially negative reactions to it.
Whatever you use, remember the point of the interview is to listen, then talk. Write as little as you need to. And if you aren’t very good at note taking and listening at the same time (or taking notes while retaining eye contact), practice. No one wants to talk to your forehead.


Don’t Run Away...Yet

We’ve all been there – an interview that is obviously not working. Maybe it’s the interviewer, maybe it’s you, maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s a cruel joke by God. Whatever. The interview is not going well, and you are sorely tempted to get up, thank the interviewer, and run, not walk, to the safety of your bedroom.
Don’t leave. Excuse yourself, perhaps for a bathroom break. (Hey, I know it’s not usually done, but right now we’re trying to salvage an interview that’s going down in flames.) Compose yourself. Give yourself a pep talk. Then go back in there and sell yourself.
You may actually be completely unqualified for the job, which is why the interview is not going well. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other jobs at that company or jobs at other companies the interviewer know. Make the sale.

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