Saturday, July 01, 2006

Questions You Should Ask During the Interview... and some good answers

But first, some words of wisdom: ‘One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.’

One guaranteed way to tower head and shoulders over the competition during a job interview is to pose questions; as questions are the best way for an individual to reveal they understand a firm’s challenges, in addition to highlighting how they can assist the organisation overcome such challenges.

Today’s interviewers (and maybe even those of yesterday) seek to observe that you are achievement-oriented, committed to the long-term, enthusiastic… and curious (think Barney the Dinosaur). Coupled with your skills and experience, these are the characteristics that will secure you the position. If you come across as unreceptive, detached, short-term, self-interested, and indifferent (think Dick Cheney the Dinosaur), you’ll miss out. Therefore, a capacity - or incapacity - to pose intelligent questions will quickly confirm to the interviewer in which group you belong.

Of all questions asked by an interviewer, the final question is quite often the essential one. That’s when the interviewer inquires if you have any questions, and… dependent on your reply, you will either continue with your job search or move up to the next level in their interview chain. In our experience, one of the most neglected parts of the job interview is the time spent by candidates on preparing for their chance to ask questions of the interviewer.

Reality Check (Part I)
Most, if not all job applicants believe that when the interviewer says, ‘do you have any questions?’ it’s a subtle indication the interview is drawing to a close. Of course, they couldn’t be more wrong. Believe it when we write: the ‘do you have any questions?’ question really signals the start of the interview’s second half.

Why? Because candidates who fail to ask intelligent questions during a job interview are guaranteed to maintain their job hunting status over the short-term. Given a lack of candidate questions, most interviewers will conclude a candidate: believes the job is unimportant; is not easy in asserting themselves, or; lacks intelligence. Naturally, it goes without saying that none of these assumptions will get you closer to the job.

Reality Check (Part II)
Human resource, recruitment and line managers all expect applicants to ask adequate enough questions to shape a judgment on whether or not they want the position. If an applicant doesn’t ask enough questions, managers who may have been prepared to make an offer on the strength of skills and experience may reject a candidate (in comparison to others) because they’re not convinced the applicant is totally sure of what they’re getting into. Contrary to popular belief, hiring managers are human and, as such, need to be convinced a candidate has enough information with which to make a decision… in case they decide to make an offer.

Of course, questions have to be relevant; asking an interviewers opinion on England’s chances of winning the World Cup are great for when you’re walking to the elevator, but during the interview, intelligent questions are in order.

Good questions show interest in the job; great questions indicates to interviewers that you are someone not be ignored.

May I Take Notes During the Interview / Our Meeting?
Obviously… a question you should ask at the beginning of the interview. Of course, some interviewers become uneasy when a candidate has their note pad at the ready; while others are impressed by the professionalism and interest demonstrated.

Therefore, before justifying asking this question; a ground rule - always ask permission before opening the notebook and beginning to write. Gaining consent makes a difference: it’s courteous and it negates any surprise on the interviewer’s part by your not asking… as surprises rarely fall in a candidate’s favor.

Consequently, what to do?

The downside: some interviewers feel it is inappropriate to take notes during an interview because it is impolite. Some feel that during conversation; it is polite to pay attention. Others feel taking notes puts interviewers on the defensive - as if you were collecting evidence for a lawsuit to be used at a later date. And, finally, some believe that candidate note-taking indicates short-term memory or a problem with thinking on ones feet.

However, consider this: most interviewers take notes, why shouldn’t you? A job interview is not a social occasion; a forty minute exchange on the best bar to visit for your next round of Coronas - it is a business meeting; and one that, potentially, impacts the next several years of your life. In a corporate business environment, taking notes in support of a meeting is considered not only appropriate, but highly professional.

In addition, note taking need not be distracting. Unlike Richard Nixon, the point is not to record the conversation word-for-word - which would, indeed, be disturbing - but to remind oneself of salient points made with a view to questions or comments you may wish to initiate on your turn to speak.

In closing, most experienced interviewers welcome candidates note taking. It shows you are serious about the matter at hand... just don’t forget to ask permission.

What are the Major Responsibilities / Objectives of this Position?
Certainly, this question will have been addressed in the twenty or so lines of advertisement you read or, perhaps, the interviewer may have been through the job description during the interview… but, as anyone will tell you - job descriptions rarely stick precisely to script and, in our experience, most companies tend to hire on immediate needs, not longer-term needs. Those, they plan for.

As such, this question is important as it gets to the crunch of what will need to be addressed from Day-1 and, by rights, shouldn’t pose too difficult a problem to the interviewer (you’re not exactly asking for the secret recipe to the fifty herbs and spices contained in Kentucky Fried Chicken). By posing this question, you’re asking the interviewer to identify what is most important and then to prioritise. On occasion, human resources and non-line interviewers may find this question difficult because they aren’t involved in short-term activities. But, how can you succeed without knowing what’s most important, as much of your decision to join a particular company will hinge on what you will be doing on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, it’s in your interests and only fair you’re provided with comprehensive information in regard to this question.

If an interviewer can’t answer the question or if immediate job responsibilities have not been adequately covered during the meeting, then ‘Houston, we have a problem’ and you may wish to consider what else they may not be able to answer.

However, given reasonable disclosure to your question, you can then highlight previous work history, or describe similar problems / projects you’ve faced, and then detail how you can assist.

A good way to phrase this question: ‘what are the day-to-day responsibilities I would be assigned?’ Notice how the question gently assumes you’re already on the team.

How has this position become available?
What happened to the incumbent?
How long has the position been open?

Of course, if this were Washington, this would be a non-question as the position would, most likely, have become available through either impeachment or the incumbent facing a lengthy jail sentence.

In all seriousness though, you want to know the circumstances surrounding the vacancy. Is it a new position? No… then what happened to the last person in the job? Did they resign, and if so, why? Were they promoted or were they sacked?

Asking these questions sets-off an important dialogue, as you’ll learn either that this is a new position; that the incumbent resigned or was dismissed; or, that the incumbent was promoted. If the individual was dismissed, you really need to know why; what the company learned from the incident; and, if they feel such a problem could have been avoided. By asking these questions, you want to be viewed as interested in the incident from a learning standpoint - what the company learned and what everyone can take away from the incident.

If the previous post-holder was promoted, your response is obviously ‘I’m delighted to hear that!’ Promotion within the organisation is excellent news; as this position may be a springboard for your own further career success.

Clearly, the best responses to this question are either the incumbent was promoted within the firm, or that it’s a new position, both of which generally indicate the firm is growing.

Finally, by inquiring as to how long the position has been open, you’re seeking clues on the desirability of the job on offer. If the position has been open for several months or more, something is probably not right. Therefore, try to find out what it is about the position or organisation that makes the post hard to fill.

When Do I Start?
Asking for the job is tricky. Some consider asking for the job straight out as being assertive; while others think it cheeky or smacking of desperation. Our personal preference is to err on the side of being assertive. The meek may inherit the earth... but they don’t necessarily get jobs.

As always, use your radar to measure the environment and trust your instincts. If you feel the meeting went quite well, it’s probably good to be direct and ask for the job. In all likelihood, the worst you'll be looked upon is as enthusiastic. All things being equal, the person that appears to want the job the most generally gets the offer. As such, try to find out their level of interest in you by asking them directly. However, rather than "when do I start," try something like: "do you feel that I am suitable for the position?" or "do you have any reservations about my ability to do this job?" By phrasing it this way, you may be able to overcome any objections that they may have. It may feel a bit uncomfortable, but it’s better to find out what their concerns are now, than to find out that you did not get the job.

Asking for the job can be a crucial factor in the interviewer’s decision-making process as there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. To be successful in some jobs, you need to be somewhat aggressive and demonstrate how you can sell. Sales people will, invariably, have to sell themselves to get the job, therefore, they need to be a little more forward; while in the software industry things are more laid back. As such, an I.T. Manager might be a little less comfortable with someone coming over that strong.

What are the Key Qualities Required?
This is not a follow-on to the question about what additional technical abilities you need to bring to the table. Instead, it asks about the qualities and characteristics that separate you from other candidates.

These characteristics include intangibles such as an eye for detail, entrepreneurial abilities, diligence, persuasiveness, commitment, organisation, communication and tact.

These intangibles are as important as technical skills, as they make up the set of personal characteristics you possess and have more to do with who you are than what you do. Accordingly, they reflect your attitude, work habits, ethics and the way you relate to other people.

This is a critical question as it solicits important information about the personal qualities that line managers or hiring managers look for and, importantly, often mirrors many of the qualities managers believe they possess.

This question opens the door for you to further market yourself. For instance, when a manager says he or she is looking for loyalty, dependability and initiative, you will need to introduce specific examples where you have demonstrated qualities such as reliability. Try to think of work-related examples and if you are not able to do so, non-work examples often suffice. Since these qualities are not based on skill, they are often difficult to quantify.

To express the quality of being reliable, you might say: "I'm extremely dependable. The managing director often left the operations of the company to me in his absence."

Of course, as is the case when speaking of your technical skills, it is unwise to make a claim about your personal traits without having some evidence to support it. Therefore, try to find at least one instance, fact or example that proves you possess such a trait.


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