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Hit The Ground Running

10 Questions To Avoid Asking On A Job Interview (And When To Ask Them Instead)

Prepping for that first round of job interviews, or brushing up after a long time off the market? Here's how to nail it on etiquette.

10 Questions To Avoid Asking On A Job Interview (And When To Ask Them Instead)
[Photo: baranq via Shutterstock]

Not sure whether a question is appropriate to ask on a job interview? Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If the question is about the job and your performance of the job, ask it. If it isn't, don’t.

There will be time to ask non-performance–related questions in later rounds of interviews, but only if the company calls you back. Here are 10 common questions you should hold off asking in your first face-to-face interview, and how to know when's a better time to get answers to them.

1. What Are Your Hours?

Save this question for the final stages of the interview process. When a candidate asks this question early on, it can sound alarm bells in the interviewer’s head that he or she isn't all in. And, frankly, unless you're interviewing at a sweatshop, the answer probably won't be a deciding factor for you anyway. Let the company become interested in you first, then if you really have to ask about the hours, do it in a way that suggests you'll be a hard worker and a dedicated employee.

Here’s one way you can phrase the question: "Can you tell me what time most people get into the office and how late they stay?" This makes the question more about the company culture, not about you. And whatever the answer is, you can say, "Oh, I’m sure with all that I have to learn, I'll be getting in earlier and staying later than most, at least at first." What interviewer isn’t going to love that?

2. How Many Sick Days Do I Get?

This question raises an automatic red flag, since it indicates bad intentions. Fortunately, many companies are changing to a paid time off policy that provides a set number of hours without differentiating among sick days, vacation days, and personal days. But if you're interviewing with a company that still has traditional sick days, many people see it as that many free days where they don’t have to work—which is how this question sounds when it's asked.

Sick days are for people who are sick; no company wants a martyr who tries to show how dedicated he or she is by coming to work with the flu. But they are not "extra" vacation days. It tends to rub management the wrong way when employees are fine one day, then call in sick the next, and manage to use up all their allotted sick days every year.

So yes, every employee is entitled to know how many sick days they'll be eligible for, but there's a tactful way to go about it. You can simply ask, "Can you tell me what your policy is regarding sick days?" You'll get the information you want to know, and this phrasing will sound better to the person answering the question. But you might want to leave this question out altogether since it'll be covered in the employee handbook anyway.

3. When Do I Get Vacation Time, And How Much?

This is a valid question, and you should definitely ask it—near the end of the interview process. Good companies want their employees to take vacation time to refresh their bodies, minds, and souls. There's nothing to be gained by being one of those employees who boasts that they haven’t taken a vacation in years. As an interviewer, when I hear this, I never think, "Oh, what a dedicated worker." Instead, I think, "There’s somebody who doesn’t quite get it."

4. Can I Carry My Vacation Time Over?

This is another reasonable question, because different companies have different policies. Some let their employees carry over unused vacation time into the next year, others will pay their employees for unused vacation time, and others have their employees forfeit unused time. You need to know a company’s policy before you start working for them, because it can impact your income. Still, asking this question without an offer in hand is a bit premature. Wait until then.

5. What Are The Benefits You Offer?

This is a critical question, but it's also one that's best to ask at the end of the interview process around the time an offer is made, since the answer can directly impact your decision. A strong benefits plan may be the tiebreaker when it comes down to two competing offers by companies with equal base salaries. Health care, retirement programs, educational reimbursement, and many other components of a benefits package can make a dramatic difference for someone in a lower-salaried, entry-level job.

6. Do You Pay For Commuting If I Work After A Certain Hour?

Don’t ask this question at any time during the interview process. The company will tell you its transportation reimbursement policy when you start working. Either it pays for transportation or it doesn’t, but this probably shouldn't be a factor in choosing a job that represents a good opportunity for your career. You have other things to worry about; don’t let what's like a minor amount of money impact such an important decision.

7. How Much Time Do I Get For Lunch?

This is another question that simply doesn’t sound good to an interviewer. It will be obvious when you start working for the company; just ask a coworker or follow along with everyone else.

8. Can I Leave Early On X Weekday For Y Commitment?

If you have commitments outside of work, like a class that you're finishing up at the local college that would require you to leave by 6 p.m. two nights a week, you need to let the company know about this in the final stages of the interview process. It shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if the company likes you and wants to hire you, but you can't put if off for when the company makes you an offer, because that feels sneaky. Your potential employer will appreciate the heads up.

9. Do You Pay Overtime?

This is a reasonable question to ask when you’re negotiating your salary, because it can directly influence your decision to take a job. While some companies do compensate employees for time worked above and beyond the scope of the job, many others don't. If you’ll be expected to work weekends but won’t be getting paid more for that additional work, you need to know upfront.

10. What Do I Do About An Upcoming Vacation I've Already Booked?

It’s totally understandable to have booked and paid for a vacation months ahead of time, then to get an offer for a job that will start before that vacation is scheduled to take place. If you’re in that situation, though, you need to mention it during your salary negotiation because the company will have to make provisions to address it fairly. One way the company might handle this is to honor your vacation but treat it as non-compensated time off. However you work it out, the negotiation stage is the time to do that, not the first-round interview.

This article is adapted from The Dirty Little Secrets of Getting Your Dream Job. Copyright © 2016 by Don Raskin. It is reprinted with permission.

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