Job interviews are stressful events. Even if the interviewer tries to put you at ease, you know you’re being evaluated. But many who throw themselves into prospecting for a new job forget it’s a two-way street: Not only is the company evaluating you, but you’re also evaluating the company. At some point in the discussion, they’ll turn the floor over to you and ask, “Do you have any questions for me?”
In my 30-year career, I’ve learned this is a critical moment that many interviewees flub. Candidates forget that when they’re given control of the discussion, it’s an opportunity to do two very important things. First, it’s a chance to learn something genuinely useful about the firm you might be joining. Second, you get to show that you’re thoughtful and conscientious. Both are hugely important as you look to make a change. Don’t waste the opportunity.
Here are three questions candidates typically ask, and their better alternatives—to help you achieve the two-pronged goal of impressing and learning in a job interview.
Common Question #1: “Can you tell me about the culture here?”
Better Question: “Can you think of a time when the company’s culture made you excited to work here or helped you during a challenging time?”
It’s easy for an interviewer to answer the first question with platitudes you’d expect from somebody representing their company. You can already guess what the answers will be. “It’s collaborative.” “We like to work hard and have fun.” “It’s inclusive and supportive.”
The second version, on the other hand, gets to the intersection of employee and culture. Since that’s the intersection you’ll live in if you get the job, it’s important to understand how you’ll fit with that culture. Imagine how much more you’d learn if you asked the better question and got an answer like this: “I had an unexpected death in the family and my peers proactively contacted me, not just to offer condolences, but to assure me they’d cover for me while I was out.” Wouldn’t that answer help you instantly understand what the culture is like?
Common Question #2: “How have you liked working here?”
Better Question: “I noticed you worked at Company Y before coming here. I’m curious, what did you see about this opportunity that made you make the jump?”
In the age of LinkedIn, you’d be crazy not to do a little intelligence-gathering of your interviewers and ask a question that shows you’ve done your homework. The first question, while not horrible, misses the mark—although you’d certainly learn something if the interviewer were to say they hate working at the company. (That would be something!) But the answer to the better question will help inform your own decision-making process. This is especially true if the person interviewing you has a similar background and skills. They’ve already taken the track you’re considering, so why not learn more about their decision-making journey and how it led them to their current role?
Common Question #3: “The company has had rapid growth. Do you expect that to continue?”
Better Question: “Given the growth this company has experienced, do you anticipate significant strains on your customer service group?”
It’s relatively easy to find financial information on larger firms—particularly if they’re publicly traded—and to use the information to understand the health of an organization. The first question isn’t horrible. You could learn something about the prospects of your potential new employer. But it could be better.
Assume for a moment you’re interviewing to be a customer service manager. Then the better question not only allows you to talk about the company’s growth, but it helps you understand how that growth might affect you in the job you’re interviewing for. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if the group you’re joining is significantly strained by rapid growth? Wouldn’t you like to know how much latitude you’ll have in helping solve this problem?
In a hot job market, it’s tempting to be lazy when doing the upfront work to prepare for an interview. And it’s easy to figure that the interview is over when the person interviewing you gives you the floor. But it’s not. Asking better questions in the right way can significantly increase the chances you’ll not only impress the interviewer, but also gain valuable insights that can help you decide if the position is right for you.
Patrick Mullane is the executive director of Harvard Business School Online. Previously, he led a manufacturing company and served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. He is the author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s.