Question Period

hand up asking questionThere are times in an interview when you – as a candidate – get the floor. Where you have the chance to ask the interviewer questions. You don’t want to get caught flat-footed. Let’s look at what questions to ask, and how to ask them.

An interview is mostly a one-way flow of information. The interviewer asks you questions, you answer them. The interviewer draws conclusions and makes decisions based on those answers. There are some interviews that (sigh) are entirely one-way, where the interviewer doesn’t offer the candidate any information at all. Those aren’t good interviews.

When to ask your questions

First and foremost, timing is everything. As the person doing the interviewing, I need to manage the flow of communication. I know what I plan to ask, and I know how much time I need. If a candidate takes control of that flow, it’s off-putting. Very brief clarifying questions throughout an interview are fine, but don’t jump into an interviewer’s flow with questions that require in-depth answers. It can throw a wrench into the timing. You also may be jumping ahead in the conversation, asking questions that the interviewer was going to get around to answering anyway.

There are two points during an interview when a good interviewer should give you the opportunity to ask a few questions. Customarily, it’s at the end of the interview, after all their questions have been answered. In some cases, especially if an interview is broken up into several components. For example, if an interview has a technical skills component and a behavioural component, I tend to ask a candidate if they have any questions they’d like to ask, before moving from one to the other.

If you’re invited to ask questions in the middle of an interview, keep it brief. One or two questions at the very most, and keep them focused on the topics you’ve covered to that point. The end of an interview is the time when you can ask a few more – three or four is fine, depending on the nature of the questions and how long they’ll take me to answer them.

What questions to ask

There are two purposes served by this question period. One is obvious: as a candidate, you have as vested an interest as the company does in ensuring that the fit is right. The answers to your questions are going to help you make that determination. The second is less obvious, but smart job-seekers use it to their advantage. The questions you ask show what you’re interested in. What matters most to you.

If a candidate’s questions are mostly self-interested, that says a lot. For example, if a candidate’s only two questions are about how much vacation time they get to start, and what the benefits package is like, what I hear is that they’re mostly in this for themselves. To paraphrase a wise man, ask not (only) what the company can do for you; ask (also) what you can do for the company.

Good questions are ones that inquire about the ‘big picture’ of the company. It’s successes and goals, the culture and the team dynamics, the owners and management. Smart questions show that you’re really interested in making a contribution to the organization overall, and that you’re being just as discriminating as the employer about whether the fit is the right one for you.

There is power in questions; use them wisely.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash