Surviving the Job Interview: Asking the Right Questions

“Do you have any questions for us?”

For some people, that’s the most challenging question in a job interview. They’ll spend time preparing a resume and anticipating the interviewer’s questions but thinking of questions to ask in return gets the least attention. Some people don’t even see the point in asking questions when they’re just hoping to get the job so they can start paying bills again.

Still, the questions that you ask tell the interviewer a lot about you as a potential employee, especially your level of interest in working for the company rather than just collecting a paycheck. When a potential employee has no questions about the company at the end of the interview, he or she can appear lazy or apathetic, which are never desirable traits in an employee.

In any professional position, it’s important to find out as much as you can about the company where you might be working for years. That company will have a place on your resume and will impact the future of your career. The right questions will also demonstrate your knowledge and perspective on your chosen field and that you take the time to do research before making a decision. This demonstrates an intelligence and analytical skill that companies like to see in their professional employees.

It’s good to have a master list of about 25 questions on various areas and to select several of them based on the position that you’re interviewing for. Obviously, you don’t want to go in there with 20 questions that would take up the interviewer’s afternoon but you do want to have six or seven good ones that will provide useful information and demonstrate the fact that you’ve thought about the position. Not all of these questions have to affect whether you’ll take the job; many can simply be questions based on your particular field that you can ask in a conversational manner to get a sense of the company’s way of doing business. As you gain experience, you will also be able to generate questions based on your own experience and you should maintain this list just as you would your resume.

You might be able to get some of the answers by researching the company through its website or other resources prior to the interview. This is important as some interviewers will ask you what you know about their company. Walking into the interview already informed on things such as the history of the company, its products or major projects and maybe even its investor information is a big plus.

When asking questions, it’s important to treat it like a conversation, not a checklist of items to be ticked off. Pay close attention to the interviewer’s answers so you can follow up on things they say with additional questions that you might not have thought of beforehand. After all, the purpose of asking these questions is mainly to learn about the company and what you’ll be facing if you actually work there. You might even find out that you don’t really want to!

What are some of the projects I might work on specifically? How are these projects distributed throughout the business?

Depending on the position that you’re interviewing for, you might be assigned to one or more projects within the company, especially when pursuing a more technical role such as software developer or another type of engineering. Even though you probably have a good idea of the work involved already, asking about the specific reason you’re being hired shows interest the company’s business.

What kind of training opportunities are available? Is there a department training library or other type of resources?

Depending on the type of position, this might come down to tuition assistance or training seminars offered by the company. It could also be online resources that employees can use from their desks. One thing employers like to see is enthusiasm for the work itself and effective use of free time. Although some jobs can have very little free time, others might have a decent amount and an employee who will use that time to look for ways to improve his or her own skills and efficiency on future projects is much more valuable than one who hangs out on YouTube.

Is there any form of mentoring? On average, how long does it take for a new person to become productive here?

Asking if there is a mentor program in place and about the time it takes for the average employee to train in that specific company is another way to gauge the training environment and expectations the company has for its employees.

How much overtime is expected / required on average?

How many projects can I expect to be working on at any given time?

Do not be afraid to ask about overtime, especially if you will be working on salary and you don’t get paid for it! Wanting a decent work / life balance does not make you lazy and some companies will exploit a employee’s salaried status to get as much time as they can. You will also want to know if you’ll be required to carry a company cell phone or laptop. Asking about the project load is another way to find out what impact the job will have on you personally. A position where you’ll routinely be bouncing between three or four projects, each with a deadline, and providing continuing support on past projects can also be particularly difficult and this is something you should be aware of going in.

May I see the work area?

Is telecommuting available?

Ideally, you’ll get a tour of the work area as part of the interview but this is not always possible. It’s still good to ask because this is the place where you will be spending at least eight hours a day. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the environment you work in to be positive and healthy. How big is the work area and how many people will you be sharing it with? How is the lighting and the noise level? Is it clean and safe? Some companies can give surprisingly little consideration to work environment quality and it’s best to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

If hired here, will I have to sign an intellectual property agreement? If so, does it apply to any projects that I work on outside the company?

It’s best to read over every intellectual property agreement that you sign very carefully. If you can get a copy before accepting the job, that’s even better. There are some companies that try to lay claim to ALL of an employee’s work, on and off the job. It’s important to know what you’re signing. Letting an interviewer know that you do have side projects that you care about does an extra bit to establish your experience and professionalism.

What is the best thing about working at this company in comparison to other companies you’ve worked for.

This might sound like a pretty soft question but it expresses an interest in the company and indicates that you are thinking long-term rather than just until your next paycheck. It’s also a diplomatic way of asking “What’s the best reason for me to come to work here?”

Remember that as an interviewer is answering these questions, you should be reading between the lines and paying attention to how they say things. You might not get incredibly candid answers to some of these questions but a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the interviewer’s part or sincere and glowing descriptions of the management and the company’s mission can be revealing. It’s up to you to be the judge.

This might sound like quite a bit of information to be gathering during an interview process but with a little practice, you can get the hang of it. For many professional positions, the hiring process can actually involve multiple interviews over the phone and in person so there’s time to work with. Of course, the quality and cooperation of the interviewers themselves varies and the occasional interviewer might start to sound impatient after only two or three questions. That’s generally a bad sign.

Maybe the most important benefit of asking the right questions is the transformation of the interview process from that nerve wracking examination experience that so many people are familiar with to a process of give and take between two professionals. Knowing what you are looking for in a position and the company at large can change your perception of yourself from walking in with your hand out asking for a job to reaching out to a company with which you want a relationship that will benefit you both.