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Got any questions?

Your big job interview is going well. Your suit looks great. You're relaxed, poised and confident. Then the friendly interviewer looks up and asks the dreaded question: "So, are there any questions I can answer for you?"

Your first response may be: 'How much you going to pay me?' Whoa, Nelly! Never bring up questions about salary or benefits until you've been made an offer, says Richard Fein, director of Placement at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of 101 Dynamite Questions to Ask at Your Job Interview.

"That's exactly the wrong question to ask," says Fein. "It's kind of tacky to raise it -- and not to your advantage."

On the other hand, Stephen Viscusi, host of the radio talk show On the Job with Stephen Viscusi in New York, thinks times have changed.

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"It's not as taboo as it once was," he explains. "The market is tight right now. You don't want to waste your time." Viscusi says you should have an idea of the compensation either from the ad or from what the interviewer brings up. But if you still need to find out, couch your salary question in pretty general terms. If you are being recruited for the job, Viscusi suggests asking something along the lines of: 'This is how much I am making now. Will this job's salary be comparable?'

The pressure is on
While you're asking the questions, don't relax too much -- you're not out of the hot seat. Your questions are another means of evaluating you as a job candidate.

"Interviewers do put an emphasis on your questions," explains Viscusi. "It seems to reflect a level of interest in the job. You must develop some questions -- regardless if all your questions were answered."

OK, so what do we ask?

Prepare about five good questions. If any of your memorized questions are answered earlier in the interview, rephrase it to go for more detail. And of course, add any questions that actually come up during the interview.

Make the questions relatively easy for the interviewer or recruiter to answer. This is not the time to test the guy about his industry knowledge. "Ninety percent of hires are made on chemistry. Make it comfortable," advises Viscusi.

"Your question should reflect the fact that you've thought about a topic," says Fein. He recommends showing that you have read or thought about a subject related to the company or its industry. For example: 'I read in Business Week that ... I wonder how that is going to be felt by XYZ Corp.'

Don't ask questions about only one topic. "One-dimensional people are not top job prospects," says Fein. Also don't ask questions where the answer can be found in an obvious place.

Don't ask questions that raise barriers to getting a job offer. In other words, questions that could be interpreted to suggest something negative about you. For example, asking 'Would I really have to work weekends?' implies that you won't be willing to pull your weight.

Get the scoop early
Some career experts say it's in your best interest to ask one question as early in the interview as politely possible: 'Can you tell me about the position and the type of person you are seeking?' With the answer, you will be able to tailor your responses to showcase your abilities to fill the job. The best way to slip in this query is to lead off from an answer to one of the interviewer's questions.

"You should know something about the job [from the ad]," counters Fein, referring back to the rule about not asking questions that have easily found answers. If you need more about the details of the job, Fein says you always can ask 'I read . . . in the job description and I was wondering how this company handles that.' For example, if the ad mentions teamwork, ask if it's long-term teams and how the team receives recognition for its work.

I was wondering . . .
Usually your opportunity to ask questions will be at the end of the interview. If you are still deciding if this is a job that you want, take this chance to learn more about the position. Try one of the following questions:

  • 'Tell me about a typical day in this job.'
  • 'What needs to be accomplished in this position in the next 6-12 months?'
  • 'What skills are important to be successful in this position?'
  • 'Why is the position available?'
  • 'What long and short term problems and opportunities do you think my prospective area faces?'

If you know the job is right, but you're not sure about this particular company culture, then ask:

  • 'Why did you decide to work for this company?'
  • 'What types of systems do you use throughout the company/department/division?'
  • 'How do you (the supervisor) like to operate in terms of assignments, delegation of responsibility and authority, general operating style, etc.?'
  • 'With whom will I be interacting most frequently and what are their responsibilities and the nature of our interaction?'
  • 'What is the anticipated company growth rate over the next three years?'
  • 'Could you tell me about the plans and goals for the company/ department/division?'

And in closing . . .
Before you leave, you're going to want to know whether you'll be sweating it out waiting for their decision or moving on energetically with your job search. You could ask a basic question such as: 'What is the time frame for making a decision on this position?' However, Fein warns that such a neutral question will probably get you a non-descript, and non-helpful, answer.

"Questions should push them toward a yes," he recommends. "As you are leaving, say 'I really want this job -- what's our next step?'"

OK, now go get that job!

-- Updated: Dec. 15, 2004


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