Job Interviews–Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Job interviews can be stressful enough without having them go sour because you didn’t ask the right questions–resulting either in no job offer or in being offered and accepting a job that turns out to be a serious miss-fit. You owe it to yourself to go in prepared to ask questions and make them the “right” questions. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, so I’d like to share a few thoughts about how you can do it.

Questions to Ask in a Job Interview

Questions can touch on a variety of areas, including things you need or want to know that you didn’t uncover in your pre-interview research online or elsewhere. Sometimes, for instance, a company’s future plans aren’t yet widely known outside the company, but they could well have a direct bearing on what your job would be and on the potential for reasonably long-term employment with the company. Asking questions to elicit information on such a topic is a valid approach in a job interview. How else can you make an informed decision if they offer you the position?

Another good question involves why the position is open in the first place. Is it new? If not, why is it open now? How long ago did the previous incumbent leave? You might also want to know why the person left (was it involuntarily, for instance?), although that information can be hard to pry out of the interviewer.

Ask questions that will give you insight into the most critical job requirements or expectations–what your performance would need to be in order for the company to consider you a valuable addition to their team. This could give you an edge in completing a successful interview (that is, one that leads to a satisfying job offer and subsequent period of employment).

Be sure you don’t shy away from asking questions that will help you find out about present or upcoming challenges the company (and/or your potential new department) is facing. If the interviewer doesn’t volunteer this kind of information, ask respectfully, but ask. You have a right to know before you make a decision about working there.

What Questions Should You Not Ask?

It’s okay to be a realist and know that you can’t expect the company to look out for your best interests ahead of its own goals. At the same time, you need to temper your eagerness to get that kind of information with a sense of balance between your interests and theirs. Any question that focuses (or seems to focus) mainly on what the company can do for you–if you haven’t already made a compelling case for what you can do for them–is fraught with potential for disaster.

Really, it comes down to the concept of timing as well as appropriate ways to ask a question. When you inquire about salary and benefits is at least as important as the words you use when asking.

Questions to Use to Assess an Employer

An article titled, “6 questions for assessing a prospective employer,” by Michael Lee Stallard and Katie Russell, poses the following questions:

  • Do employees feel respected?
  • Is recognition a key component of the culture?
  • Can I belong here?
  • Are employees given autonomy?
  • Can I grow here?
  • Is this work important to me?

You might want to ask the prospective employer some of those directly. Others might be questions you’ll want to ask yourself and use as a guide for the questions to ask the interviewer. Above all, you don’t want to end up saying to yourself, “I should have asked that before I took the job!”

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Turn Down A Job Interview? Are You Crazy?

If someone told you that you should turn down the opportunity for a job interview–especially if you’ve been out of work for a while–would you think they were crazy?

After all, the whole point is to get interviews so you can land a new job sooner rather than later, right?

Bad Job Interview Prospects

There are times, though, when a potential job interview stands to do more harm than good for your overall job search success. These are just a few of the “bad job interview” situations:

  • Makes you take time off from your current job (if you’re employed) or postpone other job search activities (if you’re not working), without resulting in a meaningful dialogue with the employer because they didn’t give you enough relevant information up front (in other words, holding their cards too close to their vest).
  • Forces you to prematurely reveal information (about salary, etc.)–that is, before the employer offers any solid information to help you evaluate the job opportunity in terms of probable mutual fit.
  • Puts you through the full interview process (possibly with multiple interviewers) for a position that sometimes ends up going to an insider (a candidate the hiring manager has had in mind from the start).

When to Turn Down a Job Interview

Having a bad feeling about a company would be a good starting point for rejecting an interview, although you probably wouldn’t have applied in the first place if you got such a feeling initially.

If a prospective employer demands a lot of information from you before scheduling an interview and it’s information you don’t want to reveal that soon–such as providing your references or (heaven forbid!) Social Security number before an interview–you will probably want to pull back from that one.

In fact, whenever the preliminary exchange of information is heavily lopsided in favor of the employer, you could find that an interview would be not only a big waste of time but also a source of aggravation and frustration. Do you really need that?

Similarly, you might be asked (maybe even required) to jump through multiple hoops before scheduling an interview, including agreeing to travel to a distant location on your own dollar. In such situations, you should be evaluating whether the interview and the job (if it gets that far) are worth the risk and the effort you are expected to make.

Job Interview Turn-Down Advice

Ask The Headhunter’s Nick Corcodillos never minces words, and here’s what he had to say in response to an inquiry from a reader:

“If you don’t get the information you need, I wouldn’t go to the interview. Every job seeker needs to draw a line somewhere. Just bear in mind that the company may put a big X on your file and never consider you again. On the other hand, you may not want to reconsider them any time soon yourself.” [Note: The reader opted to turn down the interview request.]

Ultimately, you’re the one who has to make the decision about whether or not to pursue the interview: weigh the pros and cons as objectively as you can and make the wisest choice for your situation.


What’s Your Career Success Record?

It would be great if you could answer the question, “What’s your career success record?” by rattling off a long list of major contributions you had made to employer after employer during an illustrious executive career. Right. Maybe a few of you actually could do that in all sincerity, but what about the rest of us?

What Career Successes Have You Achieved Recently?

How do we answer our current employer’s inevitable question (either express or implied): “What have you done for us lately?” OR to put it another way, when coming from a prospective employer: “What have been your greatest successes that we should be interested in as your possible new employer?”

Often I work with clients who have trouble identifying the contributions they’ve made to employers over the years. In nearly all cases, I know it’s not that they haven’t made any worthwhile contributions. More likely, one or more of these 5 obstructive factors have come into play:

  1. They’ve completely forgotten some of the things they’ve done that benefited their employer(s).
  2. They didn’t realize at the time how important something was and didn’t make particular note of it for future reference, so they can’t recall the details.
  3. They think it would be bragging about themselves and are uncomfortable doing that.
  4. They didn’t do the whole thing alone and therefore think they can’t include it in their resumes.
  5. They completed their part of whatever it was, but the company pulled the plug on the overall project, so they think it’s not a successful contribution and isn’t worth mentioning in a professional resume.

Dispelling Those “Career Success Record” Inhibitors

If you’ve been guilty of allowing one or two of the above factors to inhibit you from claiming due credit for your valuable contributions, take heart. It’s not too late to mend your ways! To get you started on the right track, here are some suggestions for fixing the factors so they become non-issues in the future, whether during a job interview or a performance review:

  1. Understand that human memory is both a wonderful and an unreliable function. Write down anything you’ve done that you felt particularly good about, received verbal accolades from managers and/or colleagues for, etc. Keep the log where you can find it and access it when needed.
  2. Similar to #1: Make a note of things you are confident are important, but if you’re not sure, check with others who are in a position to know. Include the critical details in the log you’re keeping (just the key points–it doesn’t need to be a whole book).
  3. Recognize that employers who have a need you can fill–and fill well–have to know that in order to consider you seriously, and they won’t find it out by osmosis. You have to tell them. That’s not bragging; it’s giving them information they need in order to make an informed choice. Of course, use appropriate terms–it doesn’t have to be over-the-top, save-the-world language.
  4. Claim only the credit you are entitled to, naturally. If it was a team effort, you certainly don’t want to make it sound as if you did everything yourself. At the same time, you have every right to take credit for the value you did contribute as part of (or the leader of) the team.
  5. You did your part and did it well. That part was a success–it achieved the goal(s) set for you by management. The fact that the company ran out of money to complete the project or scuttled it for some other reason outside your control does not negate the potential value of what you did. There are legitimate ways to include this kind of information in your professional resume. Use them!

What’s Your Value Proposition?

According to Wikipedia, here is the definition of a value proposition: A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer that value will be experienced. A value proposition can apply to an entire organization, or parts thereof, or customer accounts, or products or services. However, you might not be aware that you, too, need a value proposition when you are planning a job search or fine-tuning your career management. You might not be selling a product or service as such, but in a sense YOU are the product, and the customer (prospective employer) needs to develop a belief that he/she can actually experience the value you have to offer.

Your Unique Personal Value Proposition

As the saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” When the idea for this blog topic came to me, I thought, “I’ll bet other people have already written about it in relation to job searching or career management.” Sure enough, I came across an article by Bill Barnett published in the Harvard Business Review Blog in 2011, titled “Build Your Personal Value Proposition.” In his article, Barnett sets out four steps to creating your own value proposition:

  1. Set a clear target. The PVP begins with a target, one that needs what you have to offer. You’ll prefer some directions, not others.
  2. Identify your strengths.
  3. Tie your strengths to your target position. Don’t leave it up to the employer to figure out how your strengths relate to what she needs.
  4. Provide evidence and success stories.

I would add to this the comment that your goal is not only to develop your personal value proposition but also to distinguish yourself from your competition. If, on the face of it, you do essentially the same job that many other people do and your resume (or other marketing documents) doesn’t distinguish your value from theirs, you’re missing the mark. For instance, the CEO of Apple Computer and the CEO of Chevron might do many of the same things as leaders of their respective corporations, but you can bet they’re far from being mirror images of each other. By the same token, the CEO of a boutique PR firm would perform differently and bring different value to his/her role than either of them.

Building Blocks of your Value Proposition

Barnett’s article provides some clear ideas about how to develop your value proposition. It’s up to you, of course, to pull together the building blocks of that value proposition and make it both believable and compelling to readers (employers). As an example, if you pulled off a feat that was the corporate equivalent of walking on water, you need to find a way of presenting your accomplishment that won’t make readers say, “Oh, yeah? In your dreams!” More than likely, you had help somewhere along the way–you might have built, motivated and guided the hard-working team that carried out your vision and turned it into reality, earning you the title of “miracle worker.” In your recounting of that success story, then, you want to be sure you give full credit to your team for their contribution.

Actually, your ability to inspire the record-setting achievements of others might turn out to be a core element of your value proposition, especially if the people you inspired weren’t performing at nearly such a stellar level before your arrival on the scene.

Why would employers hire you instead of other well-qualified candidates? When you finish identifying your building blocks and assembling them effectively into your unique value proposition, you’ll have a pretty good answer to that very important question.