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Clever and Intelligent Questions to Ask on your Interview
 

 

Chapter 7

 

Questions To Get The Best Deal

Ask a few experts about dealing with salary issues during an interview, and you’ll undoubtedly receive a range of advice. Some experts advise bringing the topic to a head as soon as possible. Others suggest avoiding the subject entirely, as if getting a paycheck were some unspeakable practice, inquiring about that filthy lucre somehow too indelicate.
Common sense dictates a course somewhere between these two extremes. I recommend that you avoid bringing up the subject of salary yourself during your screening and selection interviews. If the interviewer brings it up, do your best to deflect her. It’s really in your best interest to avoid getting down to the brass tacks of salary negotiation until an offer has been made. Not talking about salary at some point is, of course, ludicrous. But talking about it at the wrong time is just foolish.
So don’t discuss dollars and cents until after you’ve convinced the interviewer that you’re the best person for the job. Until you’ve made it over all the other interview hurdles, the interviewer is still assessing your ability. And he or she probably still seeing other contenders as well, including some whose talents, unfortunately, may come cheaper than yours.
The interview is a classic buy-sell situation: You are trying to sell yourself to a company and get the best price you can. The company is making sure that it wants to buy what you’re offering, and, if so, hopes to pay as little as you’ll accept.
If you can stand apart from the crowd of applicants, if you can convince the employer that an extra couple of thousand dollars would be well-spent on a dynamo like you, then one of the only sure ways not to get it is by hanging a price tag around your neck too early in the proceedings.
If the interviewer is loath to bring up salary during the early stages of an interview, than your bringing it up is a sure way to make him feel you are self-absorbed and interested solely in the money.
Would you buy something from a salesperson who only wanted to impress upon you how much something cost? Of course not.
Why would a company hire someone only interested in seeing how much he could get?
I, and most experienced hiring managers I know, have at least on story about candidates who asked only about salary, benefits, and days off...Just before they were thanked and shown the door. None of these subjects is one to raise when an employer asks, “So, do you have any questions?”
But even if an interviewer tries to pressure you into naming a specific number early in the game, avoid committing yourself. Instead, cite a very broad salary range. You might say, “I believe a fair wage for this kind of position would be between $60,000 and $68,000.” The higher the salary, the broader the range you can name. (Be sure the bottom end of that range is no less than the minimum salary you would be willing to accept for the position.)
You should, of course, have a pretty good idea of what your particular market will bear long before you walk into the interview. If you don’t know the pertinent salary ranges in your area (city and state) and industry, do some research. Make sure you know whether these figures represent just dollars or a compensation package that may include insurance, retirement pro-games, and other value-added benefits.
If you’re a woman, make sure you know what men doing the same job are earning. You’re bound to find a discrepancy, but you should request and expect to earn an equivalent salary, regardless of what women predecessors may have been paid.
It’s important, so I’ll say it again: Timing is everything. You have nothing to gain by discussing dollars and cents before you’ve convinced the employer that you’re the right person for the job. In other words, the best time to discuss salary is after you get the offer.

 

What If The Interviewer Blinks First?

You can always tell when an interviewer is paying people too little: She will inevitable raise the salary issue early on to determine whether she can afford you before she wastes time interviewing you.
Okay, that might not always be the reason that the subject of salary is broached too early. It might just be that the interviewer is inexperienced or has a premonition that you’ll want more than he can afford to pay.
Whatever the reason, if the subject of salary does come up too early, sidestep it. Remember: It can’t possible do you any good to discuss salary before you’ve sold the employer. One of the following replies might prove useful:
“I have an idea of the salary range for the position from you ad (or from what the recruiter said). It sounds like a reasonable range to me.”
“I’m willing to consider any reasonable salary offer.”
“I’d feel more comfortable discussing salary after I understand my responsibilities better. Is that all right with you?”
“From what I know about the position and the company, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble agreeing on a fair salary.”
“I’m aware of what salaries are for this position within the industry. I’m sure that if salaries here are comparable, we’ll have no trouble coming to an agreement.”

 

Fielding The Offer

So, you’re an ace candidate. You have impressed the interviewer so much that a couple of days later you get an offer by phone. You’re delirious. You want to shout with joy. You got the job!
Don’t get too carried away just yet. You’ve captured the high ground in your search for a job. Now you want to take advantage of that strategic position.
Even if you’ve been out of a job for months, this is not the time or place to let your desperation show, so avoid gushing, “Gee, this job sounds so gosh-darned wonderful I can’t believe you’re going to pay me anything! Just give me an office and a phone and I’ll work for the sheer fun of it!”
I stressed earlier that the interview is a buy-sell situation. Now that the company is sold on you, you’re the one who must make the decision to buy.
Get the complete offer in writing with all details spelled out. But be careful: I actually once interviewed someone who was so mistrustful she insisted that I confirm, in writing, that she be allowed to wear sneakers to the office every day … and that I had to notify her 24 hours in advanced if I expected her to dress up for any reason. Otherwise, she intended to wear jeans in the winter and a T-shirt and shorts in the summer. And that had to be confirmed too.
Can you say, “I’m sorry, I just changed my mind about hiring you?” I did.
Take your time. You should never – repeat, never – accept a job the minute it’s offered to you. Even though you’ve probably thought about little else since your last interview with the employer and have thoroughly made up your mind that you will accept the job if it offered, politely inform the interviewer that you “need some time to consider it.”
You could say you want to sleep on it, or think about it over the weekend, or talk it over with your spouse or “advisor.”
Most companies will push you for a fairly quick response – they have probably interviewed other promising candidates for the position and don’t want to lose them if you reject the offer.
However, don’t act before you’re ready to. Tell the person making the offer that you need a short time to think it over.
Thank her for thinking so highly of you, and agree on a day and time that you’ll call back with your answer.
What’s the first thing you should do once you’ve received an offer? Tell all the other companies you’ve been interviewing with about it! Much like the stock of a company that’s perceived to be “in play,” your perceived value to these companies will increase. Another interested company will know they can no longer sit on the fence about hiring you; it’s either act now or forever lose you … perhaps to their competition.
That’s another reason to ask the offering company for as long as possible to tell them your decision. You want to give all the other potential players time to get into the game!
Questions to ask when you’ve gotten an offer
I’d like a little time to think about your generous offer. When would you like me to get back to you?
When would you like me to start (earliest or latest)?
If I have further questions, whom should I contact?
You indicated that my base pay would be ----, plus a bonus would be payable quarterly based on specific criteria you’ve outlines. I understand the medical benefits. You’ve also told me that I shouldn’t expect consideration for a company car for one year. Are there any other items we need to discuss to make this offer complete?
Especially if the money isn’t all you’d hoped for, you are looking for hints about how flexible the interviewer (or the company) can be about perks: Is a better title negotiable? Will they pay for your cell phone? Give you an advance against travel expenses? Reimburse your graduate school tuition? Buy you a laptop computer to use at work, at home, and on the road?
As I’ll discuss a little later in this chapter, it is imperative that you consider the whole compensation package, not just the salary, when evaluating an offer.

 

What To Do If You Don’t Like Their Offer

You know the salary range for the job on offer. You either discovered it through your research, found out by asking a recruiter or Human Resources, or asked the hiring manager directly.
If you are offered a salary close to the top of that range, consider it a compliment and don’t think too hard about pushing for more money. You don’t have that much to gain anyway, particularly in today’s performance-based job market.
But if you’re offered a salary at the floor of the range, you may certainly consider making a case for a better deal. You may say something like:
“I understood that the position was paying as much as $84,000, and yet you’re offering me only $77,500. You told me that you’ve interviewed several candidates for the position. Well, you’ve selected me because of my management and financial expertise, as well as my experience working with plastics. Therefore, I believe a salary of at least $81,000 is reasonable for me to expect.”
By not pushing for the very top of the range in this example, you have made it very easy for the interviewer to see it as a “win-win” situation and give you what amounts to an immediate $3,500 raise.
Never couple asking for more money with an explanation of why you need it. Rather, always couch such a request within a declaration of the “extra value” the employer should expect in return. Remind him of the cost savings and other benefits he’ll enjoy when you come on board. For example, you might say:
“I was able to cut my previous employer’s expenses 10 percent by negotiating better deals with vendors. I think it’s reasonable to expect that any additional salary we agree on will be more than offset by the savings I will bring the company during my first few months on the job.”
If the interviewer won’t budge and seems to have at least reasonable valid arguments as to why, ask when you will receive your first salary review. If the answer is on your anniversary date, see if you can push for an earlier review to make up some of the shortfall between the offer and your expectations:
“I am very flattered by the offer, though I wish we could have agreed on a slightly higher salary. Could you give me my first salary review in, say 6 months, rather than 12?”
This is a rather easy concession for the interviewer to make. He will think that he is getting you for only half the difference between what you want to earn and what he wants to pay.
Look for other win-win solutions. If the employer is adamant about not increasing your salary, he may be amenable to a company car or some other perk that works for both of you.
Unless you become overheated and frantic, employers expect negotiation. You will not lose the offer just because you try to negotiate – your willingness (or unwillingness) to do so may actually be the final test!
Even if you’re disappointed, but have decided to take the job, make sure everything ends on a friendly note. Otherwise, you’ll leave a bad impression and may be put under the microscope or on a short leash right from the start.
If you become too intransigent, you may even force them to change their minds! After all, you’re already showing them you’re not a team player by not giving an inch on anything, no matter how inconsequential.

 

They’re Offering A Package, Not Just A Salary

If you are already an experienced worker at any level, you are aware that salary is only part of the compensation package you can expect. But even if you are an entry-level candidate, I encourage you to analyze the entire value of the compensation package before making any decision. Some companies provide very generous benefits packages, including stock option, dental care, company cars, free lunches, and more, even to the rank and file. If these benefits don’t fatten your take-home pay, at least you won’t have to pay for them out of your own pocket.
Most company vacation policies are fairly standard – two weeks for the first three years, three weeks thereafter. Some companies offer “comp” time in exchange for overtime. Some match some or all employee donations to retirement plans. Some require employees to contribute something toward health insurance. A number of benefits, such as profit sharing, may only be available to senior-level employees.
You should have learned something about the company’s standard benefits package early in the game. If, at this stage, you find the offer abysmal, why are you still considering that company?
If there are any other questions you feel will affect your decision about whether to accept this job, you had better ask them now, while you are still considering the offer!
Here’s a comprehensive list of all forms of compensation, which, obviously, is far more extensive than just salary and a holiday bonus:

 

Basic Compensation

Base salary
Deferred compensation (401 (k), SEP-IRA, etc.)
Incentive compensation
Performance bonus
Sales commission
Sales incentive plans
Shares of stock
Stock options/ESOPs
Matching investment programs
Medical insurance
Profit sharing
Signing bonus
Timing of first review
Perquisites
Accidental death insurance
Child/elder care allowance
“Comp” time
Commuting cost assistance/reimbursement
Company car or gas allowance
Continuing professional education
Conventions – paid attendance and expenses
Dental/vision insurance
Disability insurance (long-and/or short-term)
Employee assistance programs
Employee discounts
Executive dining room privileges
Executive office
Expense account
Extra sick/personal days
Extra vacation days or weeks
Financial planning assistance
First-class hotels or air travel
Furlough trips for overseas assignments
Lower contribution (or lower deductible) for medical coverage
Memberships
Country club
Luncheon club
Athletic club
Professional associations
Paid travel for spouse
Parking assistance/reimbursement
Personal use of frequent – flyer awards
Private Secretary
Shorter waiting period to qualify for medical coverage
Tax assistance
Tuition assistance/reimbursement
Relocation expenses
Closing costs, bridge loan
Company purchase of your home
Discounted loans/mortgages
Home-buying trips
Lodging while between homes
Mortgage funds/short-term loans
Mortgage prepayment penalty
Mortgage rate differential/housing allowance
Moving expenses
Outplacement assistance for spouse
Real estate brokerage fees
Temporary dual housing
Trips home during dual housing

Related to severance
Consulting fees after termination
Insurance benefits after termination
Severance pay and outplacement, including extra weeks/months of severance

 

Questions To Ask Yourself Before Saying “YES!”

Let’s review some of the basic questions you asked yourself very early on (didn’t you?): What’s the purpose of your job hunt? To get an interview? Only if you enjoy collecting unemployment on the way to your next performance. To get a job? Well, sure, but what kind of job? How about getting a job that you will actually like, that you can actually do, that meshes with your values and interests, and offers future opportunities?
Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly situations in which you can’t be choosy – getting a job, any job, is preferable to cruising local trash bins. But those situations should be dire circumstances – if you don’t get a job tomorrow, your family doesn’t eat. Don’t create those circumstances in your head and convince yourself that a job offer, any job offer, is something to leap at.
What good (again, except under the direst of circumstances) is getting a lousy job that you will wind up hating in a month … or less? Do you really want to restart this whole process from scratch? I didn’t think so.
So as tempting as it is to accept an offer without a lot of deep analysis, especially if the money is exceptional (or, at least, more than you thought you were going to get), take the time to go through that analytical process and ask yourself these smart questions:
Do I really want this job?
Does this job mesh with my long-term career plans, or is it an abrupt detour?
Does the described career path mesh with my own?
Can I really do this job as described? Will I enjoy doing it as described?
Does the company’s/department’s culture match my strengths? Will I comfortably fit in with the team and/or department?
Do I really like/respect the person I’ll be working for?
Do I like the people whom I’ll be working or whom I’ll be managing?
Is there anything else I need to know about anything – the company, department, job description, boss, team, subordinates, colleagues – to assure myself that this is the right move?
And what’s the purpose of asking questions? To get the job by showing how smart you are and how much research you’ve done? Only partly. Yep, that other part (and don’t sell it short!) is to make sure the answers make you smile, not wince! A fast-paced environment where merit is quickly rewarded? Great! Just what you want, Ms. Type A. A cutthroat department where you’ll need to spend half your time covering your ass and the other half sucking up? Don’t think so, Ms. Nonprofit.
No matter how good the offer and how happy you are, don’t think only of the present. Make sure you ask the following smart questions: In this job or department, on what bases are raises and bonuses awarded?
Could you tell me more about how bonuses are structured? How much is based on my individual performance? How much on the performance of the department/company/division/etc.?

 

The Job Description Is Negotiable?

Remember that you are not just negotiating your compensation, you are also negotiating what particular work you will do for that salary (plus benefits and perks, of course). There is a lot more room to define a job the way you want than most employers will ever admit. The more they want you, the more flexible they may prove to be.

 

Why Don’t You Want Me?

Invariable (i.e., at least once in your lifetime!) you will not be offered a job, no matter how many times you’ve gone back, how many interviews you’ve had. There are many possible reasons. The job was more fluid than you thought – the company is rethinking its strategy and isn’t even sure they’re hiring anybody. Or they’re redefining the job (which may or may not work in your favor). Or the executive who has to sign off on the decision went to the Bahamas … for three weeks. Or the hiring manager simply can’t decide between you and another candidate. Or two. Or three. There are two kinds of rejection that occur during the job-search process: the kind you expect and the kind you don’t. the first is easy to understand and describe. I once interviewed for a vice-presidency at a prestigious international travel magazine. I knew things had not gotten off to a good start when I met the interviewer at a restaurant – he looked like he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ. And I...Well, I didn’t. I wasn’t wearing jeans and I didn’t have nose hairs creeping out of both nostrils, but I was clearly in a different sartorial league. I saw the evaluating look in his eyes and knew I had already taken my first strike. (As it turns out, it was probably three strikes right then and there. The person he hired was a lightweight salesperson and manager but a charming rake with a monstrous closet of designer duds.)
Within 15 minutes, I knew I had definitely struck out. In answer to a very specific question, I happily noted that I did indeed have the unusual experience he said he needed. Had done it for 6 months at a single job. There was then a long pause, as he unsuccessfully scanned my resume for any hint of that job...And I realized I would be leaving long before dessert.
My duplicitous attempt to “sanitize” my resume to avoid a charge of job-hopping was clearly not the smartest thing I had ever done.
And my lack of sartorial splendor, which clearly cost me the job before I had read the menu? It was an unstated but highly implied requirement for the job that I failed to even contemplate; I just didn’t think of clothes as anything more than something you wore because society didn’t condone running naked around the office. Not only would I never get a job where model-level grooming was a keenly desired trait, I would never want such a job.
The lesson learned was more subtle but far more important: Think about the real requirements for the job and make sure they match not just your desires but “you.” If I had thought for even a moment, it should have been apparent that the audience for such a magazine would be decidedly upscale, as would the advertisers, as should the image of the salesperson trying to sell those advertisers. I work hard, work fast, and get great results. But I am not going to give anyone the impression that I am Ralph Lauren incarnate. Nor, if I want to have a happy life, should I try.
What if you believed in your soul that you knocked the interviewer’s socks off? If it comes as a genuine shock that you didn’t receive an offer at the top end of the salary range, let alone any offer at all? Go through your memory and your interview notes to see if you missed something. Did the interviewer hint that he had a problem with something that you simply ignored in your haste to talk about something else?
But be aware that there are many reasons this might have occurred, and certainly not all of them are even remotely connected to your interview. The job description may have changed without your knowledge. Another candidate with much stronger credentials may have waltzed in and delegated you to that sad “String Number Two” position. The position may not even have been available; the interviewer may have concocted a quick one-or two-day experiment to see if there was someone out there better than the employee he already had. (In my experience, this happens in smaller companies all the time, especially family-run firms.) you may not only have had to impress the interviewer more than the other candidates, but also beat out the guy already on the job!
Will you ever know for sure? Probably not. Not that long ago, I would have given a bunch of advice on how to get the interviewer to give you some hints “so I can do better the next time.” Unfortunately, the hiring landscape has changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of decades. Employers are so scared of being sued that it’s difficult for another employer to get more than “name, rank, and serial number” (name, title, and salary) when calling for a new employer reference. Believe me – I’m the only person in my company who is allowed to talk to someone asking for a reference. And I say virtually nothing, certainly nothing even remotely negative. Which is, after all, why they’ve called me in the first place: to ensure they aren’t hiring someone I just fired for embezzlement, sheer craziness, or killing my cats. Sorry, no other info. Good luck. Better you than me. Let the cats out...quick.
If you’re working with a recruiter or headhunter, he or she may be in a position to get more information that you would on your own, but, again, don’t count on it.
What if you left the interview with the distinct impression that there were unexpressed objections. You tried. You asked probing questions. You all but begged for feedback. Nada.
Then follow-up is even more important. If you know what the objection is, answer it in your follow-up latter. Then write another letter, raising the objection again and offering yet another reason why it isn’t valid. And another.
The danger, of course, is that you’re tilting at windmills of your own creation, that there is no real objection, just some of the above possibilities (vacation, indecision, etc.). in which case, all you’re doing is drawing the interviewer’s attention to some glaring hole in your resume or education or qualifications … which he never noticed before. But thanks to your input, you are now a non-candidate!
How do you follow up? Following an enthusiastic recounting of how much you want the job and how perfect your qualifications seem to mesh with their needs (either in a letter or during a telephone conversation), here are two smart questions to ask if a job offer doesn’t materialize:
Is there more information I can give you?
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to (something you discussed) and have developed some (ideas, sketches, plans, proposals). May I come in and discuss them with you?
Your negotiating “CHEAT SHEET”

  • Wait until you receive an offer before you discuss salary, benefits, vacation days, and the like. Deflect any question of salary that comes up early in the interview with an answer like this:
    “from what I know about the position and the company, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble agreeing on a fair salary.”
Or
“I’d like to know a little bit more about the job responsibilities and the level of expertise you’re expecting before I feel comfortable discussing a salary.”
  • Research compensation levels within your industry, city, and state. If you don’t already know the salary range for the specific position you’re considering, find out. You need to go into salary negotiations armed with this information.
  • Know your worth. Once you receive a solid offer, you know that the company wants you. They have decided you are the best candidate they have met. This puts you in a position of power. If they balk at your initial salary demand, remind them of the specific benefits they stand to gain by hiring you.
  • get it in writing. Especially if you negotiate a complex, nonstandard salary/benefits package. Be sure you have something in writing – either a letter or memo from the employer or one you’ve sent that’s been accepted – before you give notice to your current employer.
  • Negotiate the perks. Make sure you understand the value of all the potential benefits in the salary/benefits package. Benefits can vary widely and, depending on your level, could be a substantial part of your package.
  • Shoot for top salary. If that is more than the company will pay, the interviewer will counter with another offer. Work toward a compromise from there. Employers expect some give-and-take. You will not make them angry if you remain calm and professional.
Once you’ve accepted an offer
How do you convince someone who’s just offered you a job that she absolutely made the right decision? Ask one of these smart questions:
Are there any upcoming events occurring before my start date in which I could participate?
The more social, the better. You really want to get to know your boos, peers, and subordinates once they’ve “let their hair down.” (if they remain stiff and formal even at social events, there’s a message there, too!) So a company picnic is great. A departmental Friday night “let’s-have-a-beer-together” is nice, though socially tough if you’re not a butterfly. It would be most beneficial if you could attend one of these before you make a decision, but that’s unlikely. However, if there’s a big press conference or similar corporate event, you could always ask to attend. A little exposure to the Big Wigs to see what they’re really saying in public as opposed to what they told you during the interview may prove enlightening.
What could I do before my first day to jump-start my entry into the department?
Is there any reading I can do to prepare for my first day (reports, memos, whatever)?
Both of these (and similar) questions will confirm to the interviewer that he has made the right decision. Look at that passion! That interest! That aggression!

Epilogue

Questions That Get Real

In the introduction, I boiled down 101 tough interview questions to 5. Well, I’m going to boil down the many smart questions I’ve suggested you ask to 6. When all is said and done, here’s what you absolutely want to know before you accept any job:

 

Can I do the job?

Are you really qualified? Be honest with yourself, because if the answer is “no,” sooner or later it will not be a secret to your boss!

 

Do I want to do the job?

They may love and want you, but you’d better be sure this is a job you can be passionate about. If not, but you plan to take it anyway, you should at least be honest and know you are compromising for a reason that is valid to you …. Like, you have to eat.
Does this job fit in with my long-range plans?
The more solid and thought-out your long-range goals, the easier it is to create a directed and targeted career path rather than simply a series of jobs that fail to build upon one another. Just as you can and should take charge of the interview, you must control your own goals.

 

Will I fit in?

Did you like your boss? Did you like the people you’ll be working with? Those you’ll be managing? A job is not simply a set of functions; it’s a collection of environments created by all the other people that work at the company. You may be totally qualified for and challenged by the job itself, but if you can’t stand any of the people, how long do you think you’re going to last?

 

Can I live on what they want to pay me?

I’ve lectured you enough about keeping money in perspective, but one does have to live. If your ideal job won’t even pay the rent or the mortgage, you have a problem. But the biggest problem is if you haven’t bothered to think about your financial needs at all.
Do I feel secure taking a job at -----?
Doubling your salary may be wonderful. Stock options could make you rich. Or you could find yourself back on the street in a month if you haven’t bothered to ask yourself this question. Always evaluate the compensation package in concert with your analysis of the health of the company. It doesn’t matter how much they promise to pay you if they’re heading towards bankruptcy.

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