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Clever and Intelligent Questions to Ask on your Interview


Chapter 4


Questions to ask “pre-interviewers”

The questions in this chapter are those to ask of anyone who lacks the final authority to hire you. If you’re relatively young and inexperienced, you may do a series of informational interviews to learn about an industry, company, or job you think you’d like. Depending on your level of experience, you may utilize an employment agency, recruiting firm, or headhunter. And even if you know you should do everything to avoid them, you may find yourself interviewing, on the phone or in person, with a Human Resources staffer.
None of these people can offer you a job. But all of them can offer you something almost as valuable: the information about the company, position, and hiring manager you do need to land that job.
This chapter will show you how to utilize each of these “pre-interviewers” and the questions to ask them.


Information please

An informational interview should be utilized by someone either new to the job market (i.e., a recent high school or college graduate) or an experienced worker seeking a career change.
There is a huge difference between a job interview and an informational interview. In an informational interview, you goal is to learn as much as possible about the industry, company, and job you’ve targeted (although such an interview may come very early in the job-search process, long before you’ve begun to pursue specific companies or even a specific industry). If you are actively seeking a job at a specific company, such an interview is rarely one you would schedule at that company; rather, you should seek out a similar company in the same industry.
If you are more concerned with learning about a particular job description, not as picky about the industry, and not ready to hone in on specific companies, then you could seek an informational interview with someone in the same position at virtually any company in any industry.
A meeting with someone already doing what you soon hope to be doing is by far the best way to find out what you need to know before a formal job interview. You’ll find that most people are happy to talk about their jobs. I know I often sit down with “friends of friends” and share what I’ve learned about book publishing. Because there is no immediate pressure on me to evaluate that “friend” as a candidate, I can be more informal, forthcoming, and relaxed.
You may learn of a specific job opening during an informal interview. If so, you are in an enviable position to unearth many important details about it. You may learn the identity of the actual interviewer (or, more important, the decision maker) and, if you’re lucky, something about her experience, values, and personality. With your contact’s permission, you may even be able to use his name as a referral.
As you prepare to conduct informational interview, there are, ideally six individual goals you hope to fulfill during each:

  1. To unearth current information about the industry, company, and pertinent job functions. Remember: Gaining knowledge and understanding of broad industry trends, the financial health of the industry and its key players, hiring opportunities, and the competitive picture are key components in your search for the right job.
  2. To investigate each company’s hiring policies: Who makes the decisions? Who are the key players? Is there a hiring season?
  3. To sell yourself and leave a calling card, your resume.
  4. To seek out advice to help you refine your job search.
  5. To obtain referrals to expand your network of contacts.
  6. To develop a list of follow-up activities that will heighten your visibility among your key contacts.

Of course, the line between the people who can give you information about a certain field you’ve targeted and potential employers in that field can sometimes blur. Don’t be concerned – you’ll soon learn when (and how) to shift the focus from interviewer to interviewee.
To simplify this process, follow a single rule: Show interest in the industry or job area under discussion, but never aggressively seek out information about particular openings; wait until the interviewer raises the possibility of your working there. You may be surprised at how often the person you’re interviewing turns to you and asks, “Would you be interested in – [a current job opening]?” if you would be interested in the position under discussion, by all means make your feelings known.


Smart questions during an informational interview

In addition to any questions your research failed to answer (which, of course, you should now ask), here are some other smart questions to ask during any informational interview:
What are your duties and responsibilities?
How do you spend your day?
How did you get started at this company (for in your profession)?
What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
What kind of person do you think is right for this kind of work?
What skills are in short supply here? (careful: this is bordering on the aggressive!)
How can I learn more about this field? Are there specific trade journals I should be reading or associations I can join?
How can I meet others in this field?
What is the best way to get started (in this field or at this company)? This is a question for recent graduate to ask.
I’m trying to get in to see people at some other organizations. Do you know anyone at these companies? May I use your name?
Given my credentials, where would you see me fitting in at a company like yours?
This is probably as close to a “closing” question as you want in an informational interview. At worst, you’ll get some valuable advice. At best, you may just get yourself a real interview.
Can you direct me to others in your department/organization/division/company with whom you think it would be appropriate for me to talk or meet? Now, it’s possible that the interviewer will direct you to another person or two for the express purpose of educating you. After all, that is what you said you were there for. But there is another positive possibility: you may have impressed him. In fact, despite your assertion that you’re “just seeking information,” he may be thinking, “Hmmm, this guy is good. He may be right for that opening in Josh’s department.” In which case you have just transformed an informational interview into a job interview...with this single question. That’s why I like it!


Interviewing with recruiters, headhunters, employment agencies

Of the many outside counselors who can help with your job search or arm you with leads, employment agencies are on the bottom rung of the ladder. Dozens of them may get the same job openings from the same companies at the same time.
Candidates are a bit like fast-food customers: first come, first served. Recruiters are a decided step up, although not all of them work on an exclusive basis. So, again, there may be more than one or two of them seeking similar candidates for the same openings.
Headhunters are the top of the ladder, generally working in specific fields (mining, engineering, media, etc.) for companies seeking professional, even executive, employees at decidedly higher pay scales.
The higher up the food chain you go, the more the counselor is likely to know about the company, the job, and the interviewer.
Once an agency, recruiter, or headhunter believes you to be a qualified and serious candidate for a position (i.e., you’re going after a job for which you’re qualifies and, in her opinion, have a reasonable chance of getting hired), you can use them as great initial sources of information. In fact, questions that would be inappropriate or uncomfortable to ask on a “real” interview may be fine to ask a recruiter or headhunter.
Just remember that these counselors are working for the company – that’s who’s paying their fees and probably giving them dozens of medium – to high – level jobs to fill every year. So, ultimately, that’s where their loyalties lie. Nevertheless, if they can supply a key client with its newest superstar – you – their stock will rise accordingly. (We won’t mention what happens if you embarrass them on the job or, worse, on the interview, will we?)


Here are some key questions to ask agencies and recruiters:

Of the many outside counselors who can help with your job search or arm you with leads, employment agencies are on the bottom rung of the ladder. Dozens of them may get the same job openings from the same companies at the same time.
Candidates are a bit like fast-food customers: first come, first served. Recruiters are a decided step up, although not all of them work on an exclusive basis. So, again, there may be more than one or two of them seeking similar candidates for the same openings.
Headhunters are the top of the ladder, generally working in specific fields (mining, engineering, media, etc.) for companies seeking professional, even executive, employees at decidedly higher pay scales.
The higher up the food chain you go, the more the counselor is likely to know about the company, the job, and the interviewer.
Once an agency, recruiter, or headhunter believes you to be a qualified and serious candidate for a position (i.e., you’re going after a job for which you’re qualifies and, in her opinion, have a reasonable chance of getting hired), you can use them as great initial sources of information. In fact, questions that would be inappropriate or uncomfortable to ask on a “real” interview may be fine to ask a recruiter or headhunter.
Just remember that these counselors are working for the company – that’s who’s paying their fees and probably giving them dozens of medium – to high – level jobs to fill every year. So, ultimately, that’s where their loyalties lie. Nevertheless, if they can supply a key client with its newest superstar – you – their stock will rise accordingly. (We won’t mention what happens if you embarrass them on the job or, worse, on the interview, will we?)
What is the company?
How long have you been working with this company?
The longer they’ve been on retainer, the more they’ll likely know about the company and the more they can tell you. And are they on retainer? Or are they just one of many firms that get paid only if they place someone?
Who is your contact at the company?
Is it the person who is actually doing the hiring or just someone in the Human Resources department?
How many people have you placed available?
Is a written, detailed job description available?
Why is this job available? Is this a new position?
Was it created as part of a new project, division, or strategy?
New positions imply growth. Any company growing now may well be one you want to work for!
If it’s not a new position, what happened to the person who previously held it?
If they were fired, can you tell me why? If they were promoted, where did they end up?
To whom would I be reporting? What can you tell me about him or her?
How many people would be reporting to me?
What can you tell me about them?
What kind of a maelstrom are you diving into? It may be hard to get a truthful answer to this question from the headhunter, and harder still from the hiring manager, but don’t walk blindly into a department that’s heading for a meltdown.
How long has this job been open?
How many candidates has the interviewer already seen?
If the job has been open for months, and the interviewer has already seen dozens of candidates, no explanation is positive: the interviewer is fishing for someone who doesn’t exist, can’t make up his mind, or keeps changing the description of what he’s seeking. Or else the job, company, or people are so scary that candidates wind up running for the hills. Whichever the case, the longer the job has been open, the more suspicious you should be … and the more probing questions you should ask.
How long do you think the interview process for this job will take?
You know what I’m making and what I’d like to make. You know the kind of overall package I’m seeking. Do you foresee any problems with the company meeting my needs?
Would the recruiter send you on an interview with a company offering significantly less than he knows you require? Doubtful. But there’s no reason for you to wait to ask this question until after you’ve already gone through a series of interviews at the company … only to discover that, whoops!, he did just that.
Is the person with whom I’m interviewing the decision maker? If she isn’t, who is?
Is the interviewer my potential boss?
If so, you won’t necessarily approach the interview itself any differently, but you will certainly spend more time gauging the chemistry between you and him.
What can you tell me about the culture of the company? Is there anything specific I should avoid doing or discussing?
This is information that is invaluable – a “heads up” that may put you head and shoulders above the candidates who inadvertently say or do the wrong thing.
Before you set up an interview for me, could I meet with some of the other people you’ve already placed at this company? Not all recruiters will welcome this question or respond positively to it. It delays their ability to get you in the door, a delay that may conceivably cost you the job (and them a commission). So I would consider asking this question only if other answers have caused you to wonder whether you want to interview there at all.
How integral to the success of the company is the department I’d be joining?
A positive answer is especially important to the more ambitious among you. If the department is the vital hub of the whole operation, getting hired may thrust you into the middle of the action and greatly increase your chances to be seen, evaluated, appreciated, and promoted. Om the other hand, a support department may be less pressured and less hectic...but less rewarding, too.
Is there anything else I need to know that would either doom my chances or help me ace the interview?
It’s the last question you should ask them. Give them one more chance to offer that magic elixir that will turn your interview experience into gold.


Why You Should Avoid Human Resources

There aren’t many career books that will advise you to make a beeline for the Human Resources department of a company you’ve targeted. In fact, most, if not all, will tell you to avoid it like the plague if at all possible. What have these poor (formerly) personnel people done to generate such animosity?
Nothing, really. I’m sure many of them are very nice people who do their jobs very well. The problem is that their jobs have little to do with actually getting you a job. They are not seeking candidates to interview and hire; they are trying to maximize the number they can eliminate. They are the screeners, the people who sift the sands of the known employment universe to discard the unqualified, the overqualified, the under-qualified, and the “mis-qualified.” They can say no. and they do. A lot. But they can’t say yes.
In addition to not being able to actually offer you anything more than coffee or tea (and maybe an IQ or drug test), the staffers in many Human Resources departments may have (surprisingly) little idea about what hiring managers really want in job applicants. The more technical or specialized the field, the truer this statement.
I know of a Human Resources Director who recommended a candidate for who, English was a second – and not very good – language for the top editorial post on a major association magazine. Another passed along a candidate who got 55 out of 100 on a spelling test for a Vice President of Finance position whose resume was filled with rather obvious and easily discovered lies.
At many organizations, even hiring managers make it a point to go around their Human Resources departments – bringing candidates in, interviewing them, and only then passing them along so Human Resources can take care of the paperwork.
Make it easier for the hiring manager to do just that. Make every effort to get in touch with him or her directly, preferably by dropping the name of a “friend of a friend.”
If you must go through Human Resources (and sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will), you can’t ignore their power: they’re the only ones who can get you to the next level – the real interview. So it certainly would behoove you to make friends with them and use them in whatever way you can.
Staffers in the best departments can and do know more than they are sometimes given credit for. They know the company, they may know something about the job, and they probably know whom you’ll be working for, whom you’ll be working with, and whom you’ll be supervising. They can steer you in the right direction and help you appreciate the culture you’re about to confront.
The Personnel Manager at a major magazine publisher I worked for was such a veteran. She knew where all the bodies were buried … and who should join them. With her help and input, I became the first person without previous magazine experience ever hired at that company. In paid her back by not only becoming the youngest sales manager in the company’s history, but doing it more quickly than anyone had ever done it.
Nevertheless, you will probably not go wrong if you presume that the Human Resources person conducting a screening or nothing about the job you so desperately want, and knows even less about the hiring manager.
But it’s worth asking many of the same questions you would ask a recruiter or employment agency, and a few others. (As always, these are not in any order.):


What are your recruiting plans this year?
How is your recruiting going?

In other words, are they expanding? Do people want to work there? A talkative assistant might blithely confide to you that it’s been difficult for them to find qualified candidates. That failure should give you pause: What do those candidates – the ones seemingly giving this company a wide berth – know that you don’t?


What’s a key thing about your company you’d like potential new hires to know?

What are the company’s priorities? If the answer is a series of numbers – grosses, sales, profits, ratios – you’ve just discovered your place in the pecking order: the bottom line. Personally, I’d value (and survive!) at a company that talked more about teamwork, the accomplishments of its people, or its sense of social responsibility. Make sure the company values what you do, or it will be an unwieldy fit – and probably a short stay.


Tell me some of the particular skills or attributes that you want in the candidates for this position.

The answer should tell you how much your traits are valued by the company. With this information, you can underline those traits you possess at the close of this interview – to end it on a string note – as well as during the hiring interview.
Given my qualifications, skills, and experience, do you have any concerns about my ability to become an important member of this company? Probably not – if you didn’t meet the summary of qualifications forwarded to Human Resources, you wouldn’t be talking to anyone. But it never hurts to ask a question designed to uncover hidden objections. (see Chapter 6 for a much fuller discussion of this topic and a number of additional questions.)
How quickly are you hoping to fill this position?
Where are you in the decision – making process?
How would you say I stack up against th other candidates you’ve interviewed?
Can you tell me more about what I’d be doing on a daily basis?
How would you describe the corporate culture?
How would you characterize the company’s overall management style?
What can you tell me about the interviewer?
What can you tell me about my boss?
What can you tell me about the people with whom I’ll be working?
What can you tell me about the people I’ll be managing?
If you’re going to be managing a significant number of people, it’s unlikely you’d be forced to start in HR, but I’ve included this question here anyway.
Does the company have a mission statement or written philosophy? May I have a copy?
If not, consider the Chairman’s message in the annual report the corporate mission statement.
Are there any challenge facing this department right now? (your department, not HR.)
Do you have a written description of the position?
I want to make sure I understand my suites and responsibilities and the results you expect me to achieve.
This is a good question to pose to the screening interviewer (and a great way to ask it). It will help you prepare to face the hiring manager. If a written description doesn’t exist, ask the interviewer to tell you what she considers the primary functions of the job.
Watch out for job descriptions that are too general, too elaborate, or too far-fetched. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t schedule an interview, but it does mean you have to ask some clarifying questions. Why do companies lay out such god-awful descriptions? Why doesn’t the hiring manager take the time to more clearly define the role he wants you to play (and then tell those poor people in Human Resources so they can do a better job screening candidates)? It’s a mystery.
What other positions at the company should this job prepare me for? Is that the career track my predecessors followed?
You don’t want to blindly stumble into a dead-end job. So find out how you can expect to advance after you land this job. What happened to the person you would be replacing? Is he or she still with the company? If so, doing what?
Try to pursue this line of questioning without giving the impression that you can’t wait to get out of a job you don’t even have yet! If you ask questions like this in a completely nonthreatening manner, your ambition will be understood, even welcomed.
At the end of this chapter, I’ve included a more comprehensive list of questions to ask about the company, department, and position. Use it to craft your own list for Human Resources.


Am I overqualified?

This, of course, is a question you really should ask yourself before you go on any interview. It’s essential to admit, at least to yourself, if you are seriously overqualified for a position. Many of you might think it’s easier to get a job beneath your qualifications – to work as an accounting assistant when you’ve been a full – charge bookkeeper, to be a receptionist when you’ve been an office manager, to go back to sales after rising to sales manager.
It isn’t. you may have more qualifications than the job requires, but you may no longer have the specific qualifications it demands. While you may have overseen a 20-person sales force and be known far and wide as an ace motivator, you will have trouble getting a job selling copy machines. Why? Because they don’t care about your management and motivational credentials. Nor do they need them. They want to know how many copy machines you’re capable of selling a month. And they do care that you’re never sold one!
Employers may question the motivation of someone willing to “do almost anything.” Will such an employee just show up, doing what’s asked and little more? What about someone willing to work “for almost nothing”? to quote another cliché: you get what you pay for. And that’s exactly what “almost nothing” is worth.
Especially in lower – level jobs, employers want people happy to be doing what they were hired to do, not constantly looking around and commenting how they could do the boss’s job better than he could. The office manager wants to treat the receptionist as a receptionist, not someone who has been an office manager and may, indeed, know more than he does about running an office. Just as some managers worry about hiring underlings who they fear may one day outshine them, many people worry about hiring people for low – level jobs who have already done what their boss is doing. It’s disconcerting and, to many highly threatening.


Questions To Ask Your Peers (Future Colleagues)

If you actually find a way to talk with your potential peers (and in some companies, it is a normal part of the interviewing process), you will want to ask them many of the same questions you would ask a recruiter, keeping in mind that they will not necessarily be as forthcoming and may be wary of being too honest. Nevertheless, their input can be an invaluable part of your decision making.
Why did you decide to work here?
What were your expectations when you started here? Were they met? How have they changed?
What do you consider this company’s (department’s) strengths and weaknesses?
If you had to do it over again, would you work here?
What can you tell me about working for ...?
How long have you worked for him or her?
How would you characterize his or her management style?
How are your contributions to the organization measured? Does the company support you with ongoing training and education?
What do you know now that you wish you had known before you took your job?
How many hours a day do you usually work? Do you have to work weekends?
Do you consider this company to be an ideal employer? Why or why not?


You May Be Screened By Phone Or In Person

Your “pre-interview” with an employment agency, recruiter, headhunter, or Human Resources may be on the phone or in person.
Telephone screening is an effective tactic used by many interviewers. Some interviewers, however, rely on the strategy as a primary means of qualifying candidates. For many of these interviewers, the in-person interview is little more than an opportunity to confirm what they feel they’ve already learned on the phone.
Interviewers who typically fall into this category are entrepreneurs, CEOs, high-level executives, and others short on time and long on vision. Their guiding philosophy could be summed up as “I have a personnel problem to solve, and I don’t plan to waste my valuable time talking in person to anybody but the very best.”
A telephone screener is also often the dominant interviewer at small-to mid-sized companies where no formal Human Resources (or Personnel) department exists or where such a department has only recently been created. The primary objective of the telephone screener is to identify reasons to remove you from active consideration before scheduling an in-person meeting.
Among the common reasons for abrupt removal from the telephone screener’s short list: evidence that there’s a disparity between your resume and actual experience; poor verbal communication skills; or lack of required technical skills.
If you are expecting a call (or calls) from telephone screeners, make sure family members know how to answer the phone. Hint: A sullen “Huh?” from your teenage son or brother is not the best way. And by all means avoid cutesy answering machine tapes. (“Hi!” [Giggle, giggle] “We’re upstairs getting out groove on!” [Giggle, snort] “So leave a message, dude.”)
What could be better than answering questions from the comfort of your own home?
For starters, conducting a telephone interview has cost you two valuable tools you have to work with during in-person interviews: eye contact and body language. You’re left with your skills, the facts on your resume, and your ability to communicate verbally.
Don’t be discouraged. Always project a positive image through your voice and your answers. Don’t overdo it, but don’t let the telephone be your undoing either. I8f your confidence is flagging, try smiling while you listen and speak. Sure, it might look silly, but it works. I also like to stand, even walk around, during a telephone interview. It seems to simultaneously calm me down and give me more energy.
You gave a right to be prepared for any interview. Chances are, the interviewer will call you to set a time for the telephone interview. However, if she wants to plow right into it as soon as you answer the phone, there’s nothing wrong with asking if she could call back at a mutually agreeable time. You need to prepare your surroundings for a successful interview.
Next to the phone, you’ll want to have a copy of your resume (which you’ve quickly reviewed), the cover letter you sent to that company, a list of questions you’ve prepared for them, a notepad, your research materials on that company, and a glass of water. You will also want to have already answered nature’s call (since you surely don’t want to excuse yourself in the middle of the interview) and placed a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door, so family members or roommates don’t interrupt. Needless to say, you never want to put the interview on hold for any reason.


Did The Interviewer Dial A Wrong Number?

The main rule most telephone screeners follow (or are taught to follow) is not to extend an offer for a face-to-face interview to anyone they feel is not well suited to the position or the company. If the phone interview has led them to this conclusion, there are two ways they will try to wrap up. The first is to let you down easy:
“Mike, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk about your background with me today. You’ve given me a lot to think about. You should know, though, that this is a very competitive position and that we’ll be talking to a lot of people over the next week or so.
“I think the way I’d like to leave this is that if we feel there’s the possibility of a good match for this position or for any other opening, we can get back in touch with you at this number. Does that make sense?”
There is another school of thought about the best way to conclude a screening conversation – the direct approach (which I personally favor). It could go something like this:
“Mike, I’ve listened carefully to what you’ve told me today, and I have to be honest with you – I don’t think we have a good match here. We’re going to have to take a pass this time around.”
What can you do to fight off either of these brush-offs? In the first instance, the door has been left at least a little ajar. So a truly aggressive rejoinder is not called for. Nevertheless, you cannot allow the screener to hang up without finding some way to actually get in that door, to make him or her reconsider. Here’s one way to accomplish that:
“Mr. Billingsly, I appreciate how hectic your schedule is, but I think we would both benefit if you could spare me some time to meet in person. May I call your secretary to schedule a brief 15-minute meeting with you next week?”
If the interviewer is a soft touch, the very fact that you resisted his attempt to brush you off might make him relent. Even a tougher interviewer, though, would be impressed with the confident tone you struck (“we would both benefit”), the understanding you demonstrated (“hectic schedule”), and the modest request you made (“15 minutes”).
In the second instance, you have to be more aggressive because the interviewer is being more aggressive. Try something like the following:
“Mr. Herman, I’m surprised to hear you say that. I must have done a poor job communicating the credentials that make me perfect for this job and my enthusiasm for it. We obviously need to meet in person to discuss this more. Which would be better for you, Monday at 10 or Tuesday at 3?”
Did it ever occur to you that Herman’s aggressive brush-off could be a conscious strategy, an attempt to gauge how you will respond to such outright rejection? If you’re applying for a sales position, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were. And if you just rolled over and accepted his brush – off, then the interviewer would conclude you couldn’t handle rejection (a huge factor in sales) and wouldn’t be right for the job after all. Respond to an aggressive brush – off by being equally aggressive. The alternative is unappetizing – to hang up and move on to the next interview.
Many human resources and personnel professionals fall into a different category – human screens. For them, interviewing is not simply a once-a-quarter or once-a-month event, but rather a key part of their daily job descriptions. They meet and interview many people, and are more likely than a telephone screener to consider an exceptional applicant for more than one opening within the organization.
A primary objective of a human screen is to develop a strong group of candidates for managers (the third kind of interviewer) to interview in person. To do this, of course, they must fend off many applicants and callers, a daunting task, because the human screen or the department in which he works is often the only contact provided in employment advertisements.
Among the most common reasons for removal from a human screen’s “hot” list are: lack of the formal or informal qualifications outlined in the organization’s job description; sudden changes in hiring priorities and/or personnel requirements: poor performance during the in-person interview itself; or inaction due to un-certainly about your current status or contact information. That last reason is more common than you might imagine. Human screens are constantly swamped with phone calls, resumes, and un-announced visits from hopeful applicants. Despite their best efforts, they sometimes lose track of qualified people.
Human screens excel at separating the wheat from the chaff. Because they are exposed to a wide variety of candidates on a regular basis, they usually boast more face-to-face interviewing experience than other interviewers. They may be more likely to spot inconsistencies or outright lies on resumes, simply because they’ve seen so many over the years that they know when a candidate’s credentials for a given position don’t quite pass the “smell test.” And while interviews with a telephone screener or the hiring manager may be rushed because of their hectic schedules, human screens are often able to spend a comparatively long amount of time with particularly qualified candidates.
However, these interviewers often do not have direct knowledge of the day-to-day requirements of the job to be filled. They have formal summaries, of course, but they often don’t possess the same first-hand familiarity with the skills, temperament, and outlook necessary for success on the job. Typically one step away from the action, they’re reliant on job postings and experience summaries (often composed by managers).
If those formal outlines are imperfectly written, and if human screens receive no direct input from supervisors on the kinds of people they’re seeking, you may be passes through the process even though you’re not particularly qualified (or eliminated even though you are).
Not surprisingly, human screens often react with a puzzled look if others ask them to offer their gut reaction to a particular candidate. Because they’re generally operating at a remove from the work itself, they often prefer quantifying their assessments of candidates in hard numbers: Either the candidate does have three years of appropriate experience, or she doesn’t. either she has been trained in computer design, or she hasn’t. of course, this analysis may overlook important interpersonal issues.


Don’t Believe Everything You Read

And don’t believe everything company representatives tell you. Just as employees have been known to “forget” a job when writing their resume and slightly exaggerate their responsibilities, employers have been known to tell attractive candidates what they want to hear. “Need your space and independence? Like to work in a freewheeling, open kind of atmosphere? Hey, that’s us!” Except, unfortunately, for the one Neanderthal who just happens to be...Your prospective boss.
It happened to my wife. At one time we both wound up working for the same magazine publishing company, though we experienced totally different corporate cultures.
One reason was because I was in corporate headquarters (New York), and she was based in an outpost (Chicago). I had 400 people around me, including all the major executives and the two owners. She had seven other salespeople and a secretary around her. Whatever answers she got about the corporate culture would have born little resemblance to the reality she lived.
She also had one of the above “Neanderthal” bosses, who, again, bore no resemblance to anyone else I ever worked with or for at that company. As a result, while I was in an environment that allowed me a lot of freedom and the ability to pretty much set my own priorities and schedule, she was virtually a prisoner of the time sheet and the object of frequent bullying rants.
Companies sometimes consciously misstate job requirements in their advertisements so as to attract, they believe, the higher end of the applicant pool. If their gut feeling is that the job requires two years of experience, they may say three are required, expecting a higher grade of queries. They may also believe that the few people who do contact them with only two years of experience are likely to be more motivated than the average applicant.
This is called an “enhanced excluder,” a means of setting the bar slightly higher than they need to, knowing they can always ignore the standards they’ve set for the right candidate. Some companies use this method almost as a pre-interviewing technique, a way to see which applicants try to get around the announced requirements … and how compelling a case they can make for themselves.
If candidates absolutely, positively have to have particular technical experience, that requirement should be prominently and specifically featured in the advertisement. This sounds self-evident, but you’d be surprised at the number of hiring managers I’ve spoken to who don’t specify particular skills they’re seeking … and then complain about the experience levels of the candidates they interview. Ambiguous statements like “good computer skills” don’t help an employer attract the skilled people it’s seeking. And they certainly don’t help you figure out whether you’re qualified for the position!


An Organized List Of Questions

Here is a comprehensive list of questions to ask about the company, department, and/or job. Some may have already been answered through your research; some may be pertinent for the Human Resources screener; some may be more pertinent for the hiring manager. In any case, add them to your list of smart questions!


Questions About The Company

Who owns the company?
What are your leading products or services? What products or services are you planning to introduce in the near future?
What are your key markets? Are they growing?
Will you be entering any new markets in the next couple of years? Which ones and via what types of distribution channels?
What growth rate are you currently anticipating? Will this be accomplished internally or through acquisitions?
How many employees work for the organization? In how many offices? In this office?
Are you currently planning any acquisitions?
What has been your layoff history in the last five years? Do you anticipate any cutbacks in the near future and, if you do, how will they impact my department or position?
What major problems or challenges have you recently faced? How were they addressed? What results do you expect?
What is your share of each of your markets?
Which other companies serving those markets pose a serious threat?
What is your hiring philosophy?
What are your plans and prospects for growth and expansion?
What are your goals in the next few years?
What is your ranking within the industry? Does this represent a change from where it was a year or a few years ago?
Please tell me about your own tenure with this company.
What do you like best about this company? Why?
Questions about the department
Could you explain the organizational structure of the department and its primary functions and responsibilities?
To whom will I be reporting? To whom does he or she report?
With which other departments would I work most closely?
How many people work exclusively in this department?
What problems is this department facing? What are its current goals and objectives?


Questions About The Job

Is a written job description available?
What kind of training should I expect and for how long?
Please tell me more about your training programs. Do you offer reimbursement for job-related education? Time off?
How many people will be reporting to me?
Is relocation an option, a possibility. Or a requirement?
How did this job become available? Was the previous person promoted? What is his or her new title? Was the previous person fired? Why?
Would I be able to speak with the person who held this job previously?
Could you describe a typical day in this position?
How long has this position been available?
Is there no one from within the organization who is qualified for this position?
Where will I be working? May I see my office/cubicle?
How advanced/current is the hardware and software I will be expected to use?
How much day-to-day autonomy will I have?
Does this job usually lead to other positions in the company? Which ones?
Please tell me a little bit about the people with whom I’ll be working most closely?


Questions About The Next Step

How many other candidates have you interviewed?
How many more will you be interviewing before you expect to make a decision?
Before you’re able to reach a hiring decision, how many more interviews should I expect to go through and with whom?
With whom will I be meeting next (names and job titles)?
What issues are important to each of them?
What are they like?
Are they amiable, laid back, hard charging? You want to be ready for the personality you’re going to face. Won’t you act differently with a fire-breathing sales type than you would with a mild-mannered bean counter? Of course you would. Additionally, you wouldn’t want to overemphasize your computer expertise with the guy who is computer illiterate; it would just make him feel inferior … to a potential subordinate.


What are their ages and family situations?

You would not ask this question of a hiring manager or anyone else with direct input into the hiring decision. Since they can’t, by law, ask you these types of questions, you would (I hope) be careful to avoid such personal questions yourself. But even though it’s a small risk, I think it’s worth it to get whatever such information you can from the lower-level interviewers. The more you know, the more you can prepare.


How long have they been with the company?

If the interviewer is middle-aged and in a middle management position at a smaller company, he’s either not the most ambitious person you ever met or has “risen to the level of his incompetence.” You may want to make him feel secure – by not coming on too string – since he’s probably aware he isn’t moving any higher up the corporate ladder.
On the other hand, if you’re interviewing with a 27-year old vice president who clearly seems destined for better things (and higher levels), you’ll want to convince her that you’re someone she’ll want to bring along for the ride, someone who can perhaps make her own rise quicker or easier. You may not be able to find out the answers to all or even most of these personal questions, but you will certainly get helpful answers to some. Whatever you learn will be more than you knew before!
Based on the answers you receive to these kinds of questions, try to create a model of the person with whom you’ll be meeting: what she looks like, what makes her smile, what makes her angry, how she deals with stress, what seems important to her, what she’d laugh off.
Using this admittedly hypothetical “pseudo-interviewer,” picture yourself actually in the interview with her. Answer her questions. Ask yours. Counter her objections. As for the job! Even if the eventual reality bears little or no resemblance to the model you’ve constructed, doing this exercise has got to make you better prepared than just walking in cold.
All the research, assessment, and preparation is over. It’s time for the real thing – your interview with the hiring manager.

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