Caroline Howard, Forbes Staff
Anyone who’s ever been on a job interview knows the pause: The moment when the interviewer’s q&as come to a stop, she looks you in the eyes and says: “And do you have any questions for me?”
Preparing for that crossroads in the interview is crucial, say recruiters and hiring managers. It’s the time to turn the table. And you don’t want to be caught off-guard with crickets in your head. You’ll appear indifferent, or worse, clueless. Alternately, if you’re buzzing with questions and give the interviewer what feels like the third-degree, it will immediately signal that you are unfocused or too aggressive.
“This is an opportunity to look like a leader and show that you are engaged in the interview,” says Cynthia Shapiro, a career strategist based in Woodland Hills, Cal., and author of What Does Somebody Have To Do To Get A Job Around Here?
“The best questions are really all about them and not about you,” says Louise Garver, an executive coach for the past 23 years from Broad Brook, Conn., and founder of Career Directions, LLC. “They have one thing at their core: How can I contribute value to the team and the company.”
Here, the five most important questions to ask at a job interview–plus a debatable no-no–so that you’ll make the right impression and get the job offer.
1. How would you describe the ideal candidate?
What this question does is enable the hiring supervisor to imagine you actually in the job as he or she is describing the position, says Shapiro. Technically, it is a form of transference. But practically it’s a way to role-play. “I’m so glad you said you need an Excel wiz. In my last position I…” Grab this as an opportunity to describe yourself doing the very things the interviewer outlined by using past experiences and wins.
Continuing this line of questioning–”What are the top three qualities you’re looking for?”–will reveal key information. Take mental or actual notes (it’s OK to have pen and paper handy–it’ll keep your hands busy) in order to shape your responses accordingly for future interviews or later in the conversation.
2. How do you envision this position supporting you?
At face value, this question has nothing to do with the job candidate herself–and the interviewer will certainly appreciate that. You’ve likely already listed all your past job and educational experiences. Instead of more me-me-me talk, it translates to I’m-all-about-you. “What you’re saying to your potential employer without saying it is, ‘I’ll make your life easier,’” says Shapiro. “That alone will put you at the top of the list.”
3. How does this position fit into the company’s long-term plans?
This query will open the door to discussions about the position and overall business strategy. It is perfectly appropriate at this point to ask about the person who is leaving (left or promoted?) or why the position was created, says Garver. You will also want to ask about the specific challenges and goals of the job, and the company’s vision for it in the next six months, year and five years.
If you feel uncomfortable, you can always couch your queries as permission-based statements, as in, “May I ask…,” says Garver.
4. How would you define “success” for this position?
The question drills down into a win looks like to the hiring supervisor and the company, says Shapiro. (Hint: many companies do not have performance evaluation systems in place, so you may catch your interviewer by surprise.)
This question not only reveals the kind of boss you are applying to–is he or she hands-off or a micro-manger?–but will give you insight into the company’s procedures and culture. “You need to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat during a job interview and be a silent observer,” continues Shapiro. “That is the only way you can determine what kind of a boss your interviewer will be and the kind of company you may be working for.”
5. What can I do for you as follow-up?
You want to know how you can grease the process in your favor. What you are saying, though, is “How can I help you.” And the more you find out about who or what group will be making the decision and their timeline, the more influence you have in terms of making the right contacts and sending follow-up information. “What employers are looking for are people who really want to work in the organization and are enthusiastic about affecting the outcome of the interview,” says Garver.
What’s the salary range?
Of course you want to know. But this matter of keen interest, along with other forms of compensation and benefits such as health insurance, child care, vacation, 401(k) and tuition reimbursement, is of some debate.
“This is my career, this is my life, I’d better bring up money,” says Debra Benton of Benton Management Resources of Ft. Collin, Col., a professional speaker and executive coach with 30 years experience working with such companies as Verizon, Campbell’s Soup and the USDA. “One subject you want bring up is money: ‘Money is not my main motivation in this job but what is the range?’ That shows my character. It takes courage and confidence to ask those questions.”
But many other experts advise a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy prior to a job offer in writing. “Never ask about salary and benefits,” says Garver. “Don’t ask any questions related to your needs.”
Why? You don’t have much negotiating power until they decide they want you on board. “Bring salary up too early and they’ll think that’s all you care about,” says Shapiro. So what should you do if THEY bring up salary before the offer? Simply say it would be something you’d consider. “Once they make the offer, it means they want you. Then negotiate. It shows that you’re serious.”