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Questions You Should Ask Your Interviewer

Are recruiters just being polite when they ask if you have any questions for them? NO.

Are there questions you can ask that don't sound totally canned? YES.

Asking questions is a key part of the interview process. It shows the company how interested in it and its industry you really are. But there's an artistry to not asking too many questions, or annoying ones, or those that make you seem unprepared or not thoughtful.

The best approach to developing the good questions for recruiters comes out of thinking through four dimensions:

  1. Consider what stage you're at in the process. If you're early in the process -- say, at a company's on-campus information session -- you'll want to ask questions that are different from those you'd ask in a later-round interview in which you're discussing the specifics of your job description or your compensation package. Earlier in the process, you'll want to ask more general questions about the company's strategy and priorities and how you'll fit into them, company culture, career development opportunities, and so on. Later, you'll want to drill down to more specific details in these areas.
  2. Know yourself, the company, and the industry. By doing an assessment of yourself -- what you want in a job in terms of title, responsibilities, career development, company culture, and so on -- you'll understand what your deal breaker issues are when choosing a job.

    For example, you may want to work at a small company with little hierarchy, and the company you're currently interviewing with has assured you that that's exactly what it is. However, it may be worth it to ask questions about the details of the company's reporting structure and decision making processes -- because the small company you're interviewing with may turn out to make decisions from on high despite having a flat formal structure.

    Other areas in which you might want to dig deeper, as the interviews progress, include: company culture; the effects of an upcoming layoff, merger, acquisition, or expansion; and how others in your position have developed in their careers -- broadly or more vertically, etc. As you ask questions, try to get at what you cannot find in the company's published recruiting materials or elsewhere in your company and industry research.

  3. Develop a core list of questions. You'll want to create at least three general questions you can use with all the companies with which you are interviewing. Beyond those, you should tailor questions to each company based on what you know about the company or have experienced with the company to date. Of course, based on the natural conversational flow of your interviews and what, specifically, you've been discussing with the recruiter, there will be some unscripted questions that will come to mind.
  4. Come up with questions that help you "self leverage." Where possible, ask questions that shine a light on your knowledge, insights, and thoughtfulness about the industry, the company, its people, its culture, and/or specific ways you will be able to add value in the job.

    Following are some of the kinds of questions you might want to ask as you interview.

    For Any Time in the Process

    What do you see as the priority challenges for the company/group? What are its key objectives? What is its reason for being?

    What are the metrics the company/group uses to measure performance?

    How do you define success?

    What exciting or challenging directions do you anticipate over the next few years?

    Prior to the Interviews

    What's your background? What do you like most or least about working with X?

    How is your recruiting going this year?

    What are your plans for recruiting?

    What do you think gets lost about your company in the recruiting hubbub that I should know?

    I heard about X - what do you think about it? (An industry or company event -- something that's been in the news or that you discovered in your networking and research.)

    During the Preliminary Interviews

    Are there any issues or concerns about my candidacy that you have? I'd like to address them. (Yes, be bold.)

    What are next steps in general? (If the interviewer has not outlined these.)

    What are your deciding factors for callbacks? Timing?

    How have you liked or disliked working with X?

    When you look back on your experience with your company, what would you be proudest about? Do you have any regrets?

    How do you measure an individual's success in your organization?

    I get the sense that your culture is very x, y, z (for example, team oriented, quick, and open/flexible). Is this an accurate assessment? What more can you tell me about the culture and its values, and how culture impacts how people work together?

    After You've Received an Offer

    For the Person Making the Offer

    Have you made other offers at my school? Gotten back to the no's? (This will help you ascertain if you should keep quiet about your offer out of sensitivity to your co-horts.)

    What's the timeframe for getting back to you?

    What is your ideal timeline for start date -- earliest/latest?

    When will you be sending the formal offer letter?

    If I have follow-up questions or requests, are you the best person to contact?

    How do the options work (vesting schedule)? What kinds of intangibles and other perquisites are part of the offer? (For example, flexibility in title, cell phone, palmtop, continuing education, career development, etc.)

    For Your Hiring Manager or Someone Senior

    What's your management style? How do you make decisions? Like to communicate? Lead people?

    What do you see as the group's top priorities?

    What's important to know if I come aboard - what will make or break if I'm effective and acclimate well?

    How do you measure success for yourself?

    How do you reward your people?

    What's your view on developing people? Any examples you are particularly proud of?

    What's the worst thing that someone new could do coming into the group?

    What do you see as the top three goals/objectives for my job? What are the metrics you use to evaluate them/my performance?

    How will my job performance be measured? How is the bonus structured -- what percentage is based on individual performance, what percentage on group and/or company performance? What have been general payout ranges over the past few years?

    What are your ideas for how my role could evolve? What other opportunities would be logical or creative next moves?

    After You've Accepted the Job or Are Close

    I'd still like more information on x, y, z -- are there alumni from my school or other people within the company you could put me in touch with?

    Are there any upcoming company events that I could participate in to get a deeper understanding of the company? (For example, an all-hands meeting, a company happy hour or social gathering, a town hall with the CEO.)

    Among who have joined you and done really, really well, what was their entry strategy? What did they particularly pay attention to that helped them transition into the organization well and be effective quickly? Are there things I could be doing before I start to be better prepared?

    I'd like to volunteer to help in recruiting for my school. Is this possible? How can I go about it?

    Sherrie Gong Taguchi is a leading career management and recruiting expert. Her experience and insight come from 15 years in industry and academia, as VP of Recruiting for Bank of America, Director of Corporate HR for Dole Packaged Foods, and Assistant Dean/Director at Stanford's MBA Career Management Center. Sherrie has advised thousands of managers and candidates. She is author of "Hiring the Best and the Brightest," a book for companies to find and keep great talent and for managers of people who recruit, develop, and lead.

    For job seekers, the book provides valuable insights on the recruiting process and company practices, which are competitive preparation for job searches as well as managerial success for future.

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