Workplace advice columnist Alison Green answers all your questions about office life. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com.
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You’re in a job interview, you’ve fielded a couple dozen questions from your interviewer, and now they ask, “What questions do you have for me?”
If you’re like a lot of people, you might end up stumbling around for what to ask. I’ve interviewed probably thousands of job applicants in my career, and I’m always surprised by how many people don’t have questions at all — which is hard to understand when they’re considering spending 40-plus hours a week at this job and when it’ll have such a big impact on their day-to-day quality of life.
To be fair, many people worry about which questions are okay to ask. They’re afraid of seeming demanding or nitpicky or they’re concerned that their interviewer will draw unflattering conclusions from the questions they ask. It can be hard to elicit the information you really want to learn (like “What are you really like as a manager?” and “Does everyone secretly hate it here?”) while still being reasonably tactful.
And sometimes people misunderstand how they can best use this part of the interview. Rather than using it to find out the information they truly want to know about the job, the manager, and the culture, they instead try to use the time to further impress their interviewer and pitch themselves for the job. That’s not a good strategy since it means you won’t get the intel you need to decide if the gig is right for you or not. (It also tends to be pretty transparent and will annoy interviewers who don’t appreciate having their time wasted that way.) It’s not that you don’t need to care about the impression your questions will give the interviewer — you should — but you shouldn’t squander the opportunity to get a much deeper understanding of what you’d be signing up for if you take this job.
So what should you ask when it’s your turn to question your interviewer? Here, ten really strong questions that will get you useful insights into
whether the job is right for you.
1. “How will you measure the success of the person in this position?”
This gets right to the crux of what you need to know about the job: What does it mean to do well, and what will you need to achieve in order for the manager to be happy with your performance?
You might figure that the job description already laid this out, but it’s not uncommon for a job description to be the same one an employer has been using for the last ten years, even if the job changed significantly during that time. Companies often post job descriptions that primarily use boilerplate language from HR, while the actual manager has very different ideas about what’s most important in the role. Also, frankly, most employers just suck at writing job descriptions (which is why so many of them sound like they were written by robots rather than humans), so it’s useful to have a conversation about what the role is really about. You might find out that while the job posting listed 12 different responsibilities, your success in fact just hinges on 2 of them, or that the posting dramatically understated the importance of 1 of them, or that the hiring manager is battling with her own boss about expectations for the role, or even that the manager has no idea what success would look like in the job (which would be a sign to proceed with extreme caution).
2. “What are some of the challenges you expect the person in this position to face?”
This can get at information you’d never get from the job description — like that you’ll have to deal with messy interdepartmental politics, or that the person you’ll be working with most closely is difficult to get along with, or that you’ll need to work within draconian budget restrictions on your program.
It can also create an opening for you to talk about how you’ve approached similar challenges in the past, which can be reassuring to your interviewer. I don’t recommend asking questions just so you can follow up with a sales pitch for yourself — that’s annoying and usually pretty obvious — but if asking about challenges leads to a real discussion of how you’d approach them, it can be genuinely useful for you both.
3. “Can you describe a typical day or week in the job?”
If the job description mentioned a combination of admin work and program work, it’s important to know whether 90 percent of your time will be spent on the admin work or if the split is more like 50/50. Or you might find out that the part of the job that you were most excited about actually only comes up every six months. But even barring major insights like that, the answer to this question can just help you better visualize what it will actually be like to be in the job day after day.
Tip: Some interviewers will respond to this question with, “Oh, every day is different.” If that happens, try asking, “Can you tell me what the last month looked like for the person in the job currently? What took up most of their time?”
If nothing you try gets you a clear picture of how your time will be spent, that might be a sign that you’ll be walking into chaos – or a job where expectations never get clearly defined.
4. “How long did the previous person in the role hold the position? What has turnover in the role generally been like?”
If no one has stayed in the job very long, that could be a red flag about a difficult manager, unrealistic expectations, lack of training, or some other land mine. If just one person left after a few months, that’s not necessarily a danger sign — after all, sometimes things just don’t work out. But if you hear there’s been a pattern of people leaving quickly, it’s worth asking, “Do you have a sense of what has led to the high turnover?”
Obviously if the position is a new one, you can’t ask this – but in that case you could ask about turnover on the team instead.
5. “What are you hoping this person will accomplish in their first six months and in their first year?”
This query can give you a sense of what kind of learning curve you’re supposed to meet and the pace of the team and organization. If you’re expected to have major achievements under your belt after only a few months, that tells you that they likely won’t give you a lot of ramp-up time. Which might be fine if you’re coming in with a lot of experience, but it might be worrisome otherwise. On the flip side, if you’re someone who likes to jump right in and start getting things done, you might not be thrilled to hear that most of your first six months will be spent in training.
This question can also draw out information about key projects that you wouldn’t otherwise have heard about.
6. “Thinking back to people you’ve seen do this work previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great at it?”
A job candidate asked me this question years ago, and it might be the strongest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview. The thing about this question is that it goes straight to the heart of what the hiring manager is looking for. Hiring managers aren’t interviewing candidates in the hopes of finding someone who will do an average job; they’re hoping to find someone who will excel. And this question says that you care about the same thing. Just asking obviously doesn’t guarantee that you’ll do extraordinary work, but it makes you sound like someone who’s at least aiming for that — someone who’s conscientious and driven, and those are huge things in a hiring manager’s eyes.
Plus, the answer to this question can give you much more nuanced insight into what it’ll take to truly excel in the job — and whatever the answer is, you can think about whether or not it’s something you’re likely able to do.
7. “How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive here, and what type don’t do as well?”
Sometimes hiring managers are pretty bad at accurately describing the culture on their teams — in part because they have a vested interest in seeing it a certain way and in part because they have an inherently different vantage point than their staff members do. For example, I’ve heard incorrigible micromanagers tell candidates that they like to give people a lot of independence and autonomy — and they probably really believed that about themselves. So take managers’ descriptions of culture with a heavy grain of salt (and confirm anything that’s important to you with people who are not the manager), but there’s still value in hearing what they do and don’t emphasize.
But asking about what types of people tend to thrive versus those who tend to struggle can get you more revealing information. You’ll often learn what that manager really cares about in their employees, or which traits will set you up to clash with them, or who’s likely to bristle at their management style.
8. “What do you like about working here?”
You can learn a lot by the way interviewers respond to this question. People who genuinely enjoy their jobs and the company will usually have several things they can tell you that they like about working there and will usually sound sincere. But if you get a blank stare or a long silence before your interviewer answers, or the answer is something like “the paycheck,” consider that a red flag.
9. Ask the question you really care about.
It’s understandable to want to impress your interviewer, but interviewing is a two-way street — you need to be assessing the job and the employer and the manager, and figuring out whether this is a position you want and would do well in. If you’re just focused on getting the job and not on whether it’s the right job for you, you’re in danger of ending up in a place where you’re struggling or miserable.
So before you interview, spend some time thinking about what you really want to know. When you imagine going to work at the job every day, what are the things that will most impact whether you’re happy with the work, with the culture, with the manager? Maybe it’s important to you to work in an informal culture with heavy collaboration. Maybe you care most about working somewhere with sane hours, where calls and texts on the weekend or in the evenings are rare. Maybe you’ve heard rumors about the stability of the funding for the position. Whatever’s important to you or that you’d want to have answered before you could know if you’d really want the job, think about asking it now.
Of course, you shouldn’t rely only on your interviewer’s answers about these things. You should also do due diligence by talking to people in your network who might have the inside scoop on the company’s culture or the manager you’d be working for, reading online reviews at places like Glassdoor, and talking to other people who work there.
10. “What’s your timeline for next steps?”
This is a basic logistics question, but it’s useful to ask because it gives you a benchmark for when you can expect to hear something back. Otherwise, in a few days you’re likely to start agonizing about whether you should have heard back about the job by now and what it means that you haven’t, and obsessively checking your phone to see if the employer has tried to make contact. It’s much better for your quality of life if you know that you’re not likely to hear anything for two weeks or four weeks or that the hiring manager is leaving the country for a month and nothing will happen until she’s back, or whatever the case might be.
Plus, asking this question makes it easy for you to check in with the employer if the timeline they give you comes and goes with no word. If they tell you that they plan to make a decision in two weeks and it’s been three weeks, you can reasonably email them and say something like, “I know you were hoping to make a decision around this time, so I wanted to check in and see if you have an updated timeline you can share. I’m really interested in the position and would love to talk more with you.”
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.