Ask 6: Still more questions to ask in interviews

This is the sixth in a series of thoughts I’ve had for unique and penetrating questions to ask during an interview. These days, the expectation is that you will ask questions and there are many articles out there on “stock” questions to ask. I submit these – as an on-going series – in an effort to provide questions that will be revealing in that they’re not going to be the same-old, same-old questions interviewers hear all the time – thus, not only gaining you useful information, but differentiating you in their eyes. The prior ones in the series are Ask, Ask 2, Ask 3, Ask 4, and Ask 5.

Tell me about the last time you went head-to-head in a disagreement with a subordinate. What was it about and how was it resolved? (This can also be reworded to be asked to potential co-workers.)

Hey, if employers can ask behavioral questions, so can you. The positive of this question is that, assuming they answer the question, you will gain insight into how they handle disagreements in the group. The negative, obviously, is the implicit (even if incorrect) message that you are a troublemaker who wants to know how they’ll handle when you don’t toe the line. But, in and of itself, that too would be a useful piece of information about what it would be like to work there. And asking a reworded version to co-workers can reveal if the boss is a “My way or the highway” person, or is open to alternatives and constructive disagreements from the team.

 

Am I the first candidate you’ve interviewed for this position?

Best to ask this early on, and casually. But this can be a critical datum point. Very often in the interview process interviewers learn from their conversations with candidates details and tidbits of what they want that they hadn’t realized they wanted – and those get added to their mental lists. Thus, you don’t want to be first. Then again, they may have already decided by the time you get there and are just going through the motions. Now, there’s nothing you can really do about it, but… consider a follow-on question if they say they’ve spoken to several other people:

I’m curious: Have you refined what you want in a candidate based on those prior conversations?

This should indicate to a hiring manager that you’re really interested in what their needs are. In my experience, there is always something that they’ve identified from talking with the first candidate or two. See if you can get it out of them, and then address those points. Those newly-discovered, but undocumented, wants and needs can make or break you.

Have you seen a lot of resumes for this position?

This is especially pertinent for companies that use ATS portals, and is probably best asked of HR. It’s an imperfect metric, but the number of resumes the HR person has seen can be an indication of how much competition there is, how fine their ATS screen is, and – if they’ve not seen many and you’re talking with them – this is an excuse to then chime in sympathetically about how hard it is to find qualified people and that you’re glad you’ve met the bar to be them in person. Thus, this can be a psychological trick to get them to put you on the short list since they’ve seen so few resumes come through.

What is the last book or magazine you’ve read?

This is a reversal – hey, they can ask, why not you? – of the third question from here. Just as the person who asks this wants to understand your intellectual base, I think it’s fair to understand the hiring manager’s intellectual base too.

When’s the last time you changed your mind about something “big”, what was it, and what changed your mind?

How open-minded is your potential boss? Are they ossified in their cognitive template, or can they assimilate new information even if it disrupts their world view? Note that this has a danger in that it can tread upon peoples’ deep-held beliefs, and threatens to open up the Three Dread Topics: Sex, Religion, and Politics. So I’d recommend this one only if you are having a good, friendly conversation where there seems to be a good rapport.

Who is the last person who left the group, and do you know why?

This is best aimed at potential co-workers, and can be phrased any number of ways to investigate a little. What are you hoping to find? That people leave the group because they are promoted. If people leave because they’re shown the door, or spew bile about the place as they walk out the door, that’s not a good sign. A related question to ask, if someone left to go elsewhere, is:

How did the boss take it when so-and-so left the company?

When someone finds a better career move, it’s sad for the company they’re leaving but good for them. I read about one company – don’t recall which – that as a person exits on their last day, people line up to applaud and congratulate them. (WOW!) If a boss doesn’t even spring for a goodbye lunch, that can be an indicator of vindictiveness. And a parallel question to ask HR:

What would you say the turnover rate at this company is like?

First, HR better know it. If they hem and haw, it means it’s high. And a high turnover rate can mean several things: 1) that they fire lots of people, 2) that lots of people leave, which can indicate lots of problems, whether low pay, high stress, abusive managers, etc. (In parallel, if you have time and access to industry groups in the area related to the company’s business, see if you can dig a little into what the company’s “ people churn rate” is.)

© 2015, David Hunt PE

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