Ask 4

This seems to be developing into an on-going series of ideas for “penetrating questions” to ask in an interview setting.  Here are some more (prior ones in the series are Ask, Ask 2, and Ask 3).

How would your subordinates describe you?

I just saw this as a question to ask candidates – “How would people you have worked with describe you?”  So flip it.  See if the potential hiring manager can articulate the sentiments and impressions he gives to those who work for him.  Among other things it’s an awareness test, and a measure of how often the boss interacts with the team – not in an instructional mode, but in real exchanges.

How would you describe your boss?

The corollary to the above question.  Ask this of a potential co-worker.  In combination, you can get two points of information.  First, a “skinny” on how people perceive the boss – though obviously filtered for political correctness (let alone survival).  Second, compare and contrast with the answer from the above question.  What agreement is there?  And more importantly, what dissonances exist?  This can also be a good pair of questions for the hiring manager and their boss if you get to meet them.

Why are you the best company for me to work for?

Again, this is inspired by reading articles recommending “innovative” questions to ask candidates, specifically, the question “Why are you the best person for this position?”.  It is similar to others I’ve proposed before (e.g., Ask 2) – in this case, it differs from the previous version in that this is a little more challenging (and could – be forewarned! – be perceived as a little aggressive) .  Remember, just as they are interviewing you, with you having to sell yourself to them, they should likewise be reminded that – even with the job market the way it is – they need to market to you.  After all, you’re a skilled professional, right?  And if they look at you as though you’ve turned purple with orange polka dots and get very defensive, that’s a potential indication that they know their power over you… and are surprised at your out-of-the-gate challenge to it.

What intrinsic personality characteristics do you see as fundamental to a “good hire”?

This is a key insight into the culture (and a bit of a trick question too).  If they’re looking for “hard workers” or “rock stars” or “people who want to go places” and so on, they’re only looking at the superficial.  Remember… skills and knowledge can be learned, corporate cultures can be adapted to (to some degree), ambition can cycle up and down, dedication and drive can be inspired by good leadership, but integrity/ethics and intelligence are foundational elements of a person’s makeup.  As a parallel, ask to see their mission statement.  Is it available?  Is it posted?  And does it discuss ethics and integrity?

Describe a difficult ethical situation you had to deal with in this company, and how was it resolved.

This sort-of goes in parallel with the above.  (Hey, if they can use behavioral interview questions, why can’t you?)  There is no business that does not have situations where, depending on one’s ethics, a decision point could go in different directions.  Understanding a situation or two of such events, and how they were handled, can give you insight as to whether you are interviewing with a place with high ethical standards… or without them.

Tell me about a time you had to give bad news to the boss.

Again, a behavioral question to be asked of someone on the team – not the boss.  How did they handle the bad news?  If they’ve never told the boss bad news, well, there’s always bad news at some point in a project.  There’s small bad news which a person can handle, but sometimes it’s big, and needs to be passed up the food chain.  And IMHO how an organization reacts to that can be very revealing.

Can you describe the company culture in five stand-alone words?

Yes, this could be a very difficult question to answer – but that’s one of the reasons you’re in an interview, isn’t it?  Not only to present yourself as a candidate, but to vet them as a potential employer?  Asking this of several people, at different levels, will give you insights into how those different levels perceive the company… what words (or synonyms) are said by multiple people?  Conversely, what outliers are there?  Those outliers can highlight potential dissonances in perception, which can be useful in evaluating how unified the workforce is in culture and vision.  Some differences are expected, both from level and by individual characters, but if there’s a huge difference that could be a warning sign of any number of things.

How have your career goals changed since you joined the company?

This is similar, but not identical, to a question in Ask; that was a very general question while this is one aimed specifically at how the company handles peoples’ career development from the perspective of an employee (so ask this of a potential coworker only).  Lead into this with “So… how long have you been with ?”  If longer than ten years, follow up with this.  Many – but not all – people have ambitions to move up the ladder, or at least not do the same thing their entire career.  Most people want some kind of growth.  How that growth actually happened compared with what they thought would happen can indicate how the company takes into account what you want to do in your career vs. where they put you.  Does this mean, of course, that the company has dictated where a person’s career went without their input?  No; on top of that, people can change as well.  However, it should give you some idea of how people’s aspirations and plans are handled and factored in to their development.

© 2014, David Hunt, PE

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