5 Key Questions to Ask (or Avoid Asking) During a Job Interview

by paulfalconehr.com on February 7, 2015

Ever wonder how many questions or what specific questions you should be asking an employer towards the end of your interview?   In this article we look at five smart questions that will not only help you gain important additional information–they’ll help impress the employer as well.

Here’s a major hint: Asking no questions typically leaves a hiring manager feeling unimpressed, too many questions can feel inappropriate or intruding, and “filler” questions that reveal little insight about your candidacy or credentials could not only waste time—they could damage an otherwise successful interview.

questions1Job candidates typically focus so much on how to respond to interviewing questions that they give very little forethought to asking the right questions when invited to do so by the employer. Nothing ends an interview on a worse note than when the employer asks the candidate, “Are there any questions I could answer for you?” and the candidate responds, “No, I think you covered everything.” Really? “You mean you want to work here for the next five or ten years, and you can’t even think of one question to ask me as your prospective employer?” reasons the wise interviewer.

Yet it’s not just a matter of asking questions—it’s really all about asking intelligent, well thought out questions that will help you stand out among your peers. Simply put, the questions posed by candidates should reveal critical insights into their values, goals, and aspirations as well as their analytical abilities and research knowledge. So let’s look at some general rules for what to ask and, more importantly, what not to ask when the interviewer turns the controls over to you by asking what questions you have.

Rule 1: Don’t Ask “Filler” Questions

Filler questions add very little value to the information exchange. Think of this as “questions for questions’ sake.” Anyone with Internet access shouldn’t ask the following questions because the answers could be researched in less than five minutes:

  • “How large is your company in terms of employees and annual revenue?”
  • “How long has your company been in business?”
  • “What stock exchange trades your stock, and what has the recent price been?”
  • “What is your primary product line and who is your primary target consumer?”

I know what you’re thinking: “I’d never ask those questions during an interview. It would make me look foolish to do that.” Yes, you’re right—but not having prepared questions in advance could lead to embarrassing moments because candidates sometimes freeze due to nervousness (which goes up exponentially if they’re really interested in the job). So always do your homework in advance and have your questions written out based on your research before you arrive.

Rule 2: Don’t Ask “Selfish” or “What’s-in-It-for-Me” Types of Questions

Selfishly perceived questions typically focus on the benefits that the candidate will receive by joining the organization rather than how that individual can make a unique contribution. Asking about what the job could develop into, whether executives have their own assistant or fly first class, or if a pension is available after five years of service will likely come across as selfish and me-oriented. Instead, candidates will do to remember President Kennedy’s (slightly modified) axiom, “Ask not what your company could do for you; ask what you could do for your company.”

Bottom Line: Go easy on any questions that focus on what you’ll be getting out of the relationship rather than putting into it, especially during the early rounds of the interview. You’ll have an opportunity to ask these questions and more once the company is seriously pursuing you during the final rounds of the offer. That’s when they’ll likely put you in touch with someone from the benefits department to answer your questions about medical plans, monthly premium costs, and the like. Jump to these types of questions too early in the process, however, and you’ll likely come across as naïve at best or selfish and entitled at worst.

Rule 3: Do Ask Intelligent, Well-Thought-Out Questions Prepared in Advance

questions2With initial intelligence that you can garner from the company website, Google, and LinkedIn, you’ll be prepared to ask thoughtful, insightful, and intelligent questions as follows:

  1. “I’ve had an opportunity to research your organization on the web and via your company website before coming in today, and I was wondering what you believe makes your organization unique. What are two or three things that help you differentiate yourself from your competition?”
  2. “What do you believe would really make someone successful in this role? In other words, what two or three things would you want to add to a candidate’s background experience or personal style to make that individual an ideal fit for the position?”
  3. “I understand the primary aspects of the role as you’ve described them and that I’ve read online in the recruitment ad. Can you give me some additional background in terms of the secondary duties involved—maybe things that occur once a quarter or twice a year but that will still be an important part of this position?”
  4. “I saw in your online profile that you’ve been here for four years. What initially attracted you to join the company, if you wouldn’t mind my asking, and what do you like most about working here?”
  5. “How would you define the organization’s overall culture or at least the personality of your department? What do you think would work well in terms of making someone successful from a personality and personal style type of viewpoint?”

You’ll see that what these “Big 5” questions have in common is that they focus on the positive and invite the interviewer to share personal stories and engage in more of a one-on-one conversation. Everyone likes to talk, especially about themselves and what makes them or the organizations where they work successful and unique. Extending that invitation as a candidate is usually a wise move because it strengthens the personal bond and looks for common interests.

How Many Questions are Appropriate?

How many questions should you ask an interviewer at the conclusion of your meeting? That’s always the magic question, and as with many things in life, it depends on how things are progressing during your interview . . . As a general rule, ask two to three well thought out questions, and save the rest for another day (especially if this is a first interview). After all, too many questions—even if they’re well thought add and valuable—could weigh down a first meeting. Remember, you always want to end on an up-note, so if things are going well, don’t overburden the interviewer with too many questions at the very end.

Further, understand that your goal is to use the questions in your arsenal to impress the employer, not just to gain additional data. That’s the key strategy underlying the questions you’re asking. Be sure and have five or six questions listed and ready to go in advance. This way you’ll never be stumped when asked to pose questions about the role, the company, or the people you’ll be working with and supporting. Remember that questions make the candidate, and you’ll stand a much stronger chance of impressing a hiring manager and ending the interview on a positive note if your questions are well thought out, researched, and delivered.