“What would you change if you worked here?”
Uh oh. You may have just teetered across the “tell me about your biggest weakness” tightrope, and now there’s another challenging question on the table. It’s important to sound inventive but realistic, yet avoid trashing a potential employer or coming off as a know-it-all.
But be ready for it, because the change question has become increasingly popular. “I love this question and ask it in every interview,” says Alina Tubman, a career consultant and campus strategist who has conducted hundreds of on-campus recruiting interviews.
Knowing that it’s likely to arise, how can you prepare a strong answer? Several interview and career experts weighed in on the best ways to approach this tricky question–and the things you should never say.
Do your research before the interview: Read up on the company, or better yet, talk to a current employee to learn about trouble spots. Even as you sit in the interview, continue to dig for information. Pay attention to the challenges your interviewer mentions. If they’re staying quiet on the subject, ask outright where they feel they need to make changes. All of that information should inform your answer.
A hiring manager knows their company isn’t perfect, so saying that you can’t think of a single thing to change is never a good response. In fact, it may actually be the worst answer you can give. Martha Schmitz, a senior adviser with the career services company Mentat, says it reveals a lack of imagination and critical thinking. “If you say something bland like this,” she adds, “a company will think you won’t bring new, innovative ideas to the table.”
Tubman says candidates who answered by invoking rumors or focusing on negative aspects of a job often disqualified themselves at her recruiting sessions. One particularly bad answer Tubman got to her change question: “I know your culture is cutthroat, and if I were there I would change that.”
She says a standout response focused on the same weakness but avoided going negative: “It seems like the perception of the culture is that it’s cutthroat. Have you thought about doing things in more of a team environment across multiple divisions?”
If you’re applying for an entry-level job, you shouldn’t spout off advice on restructuring the entire company. But Carolyn Thompson, managing principal of the executive search firm Merito Group, says it’s okay to talk big-picture if you’re interviewing for a high-level executive position and the company has explicitly said they want to shake up their current approaches. Just avoid any mention of “cleaning house” and be clear that you’d want to further evaluate before making any major changes.
When Thompson interviewed board candidates recently, one applicant “started talking about all the things she wanted to change about our group and the board freaked out.” The problem wasn’t that the candidate had ideas. It was that the things she wanted to change–and there were many of them–were low-priority concerns. “What she failed to do,” Thompson points out, “was ask about the board’s agenda next year and match up her suggestions. She didn’t make herself relevant to the direction we’re going.”
Thompson also cautions against citing things that worked in your current or past jobs to answer the question. She says a new employer “doesn’t want to hear that.” You don’t know how closely this new place matches your previous situation, and it makes you seem reliant on one-size-fits-all answers.
“The good answers I’ve heard include a recognition of what the company does right, a small example of something they could improve, and the way you’d improve it,” Schmitz says. She once heard a community mediation pro respond that employees had all mentioned their strong relationships, but that she felt a process to address conflicts between colleagues was lacking. The candidate said she’d implement a mediation program so that if conflicts ever did arise, there was a system in place for addressing them.