Tag Archives: questions

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

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

Why Am I Here?

In replying to someone’s comment on my posting Am I a Fit? in a LinkedIn group, I had a flash of insight for another essay.

When writing resumes, and especially when in an interview, there are several acronyms for techniques used to outline your accomplishments.  The one I know is SPAR.  Situation, Problem, Action, Result.  What was the Situation – the environment, the product or service – in which you were working?  What was the Problem you faced; what Action did you take; what Result came from that action (ideally something quantifiable)?

But there’s something missing.  And so at the risk of creating an unwieldy acronym, I want to propose:


Situation, Problem, Action, Result… Transferrable, Aimed, Customized, and US.

Transferrable: Based on your research, can you highlight the skills you exercised in this item that can transfer directly to the company where you are interviewing?

Aimed: The examples need to be aimed at specific problems they’re having – or are likely to be having.

Customized: The more you can customize your story to that particular company, the better.

US: Try to discuss the problem and your transferrable skills as if you were already there.

Now that I’ve probably got your head spinning, let me back up.  Much of this presupposes that you already understand specific problems the company is having.  Well, as many job search advice articles hammer home… do your homework.

Read up on the company, both on their own website, the product line, competitors, and the industry in general.  Peruse the job description word by word.  Often times the order of duties in the description/posting is keyed to the problems they’re experiencing.  Can you network to people in the company through LinkedIn or elsewhere to learn more – assuming, of course, that you have the time to do this.  But even an after-hours phone call can yield great information; you don’t need a face-to-face lunchtime informational meeting.  An article on LinkedIn gives some interesting tips for this.

Can you post to topical LinkedIn groups?  Put out the word on your own network (alumni groups can be of enormous help in this) that you will be interviewing at the company… not only will you – hopefully! – get some good info, but it’s entirely possible that someone from that company might see your request for information.  First, they might offer to help.  Second, they may know someone who is interviewing you (or be one of the interviewers).  Showing publically that you have an active interest in being informed can, IMHO, do nothing but good things if the company learns you are doing solid preparation.

Next, there’s the interview itself.  Take charge.  As the hiring manger enters the room, be standing already.  Proactively go over as they come in, shake their hand; “Mr. So-and-so, glad to meet you.  I’m really excited at being interviewed for <position title>; what kinds of problems would you have me working on out of the gate?”  (Remember, many people don’t like doing interviews; so long as you’re not pushy about it, they may appreciate your taking an active role in the conversation.)

Wham!  You’ve shown you have energy, drive, and you’ve opened the door for them to vent about their “pain points”.  You’ve also painted yourself as if you’re already in the position ready to get started on Day One.

As they talk, take mental notes.  The things they say will then guide your SPARTACUS answers from then on.  Remember – you are not in an interview because you need a job, but because they have problems they need to solve. 

By taking a SPARTACUS approach to the interview conversation you:

  1. Highlight accomplishments you’ve already made
  2. Show how you can transfer skills to their problems – don’t rely on them to make those inferences
  3. Demonstrate enthusiasm and initiative because you’ve clearly taken the time to do your homework
  4. Get the interviewer to envision you in particular in the role


© 2014, David Hunt, PE