Turning the Tables: Six Questions To Ask Your Interviewer

by Joe Conklin

Time is at a premium when you’re interviewing for a new job. You should expect the hiring organization to invest considerable time sizing you up. But you might seek or be given the opportunity to ask your own questions. This is your chance to interview the organization.

What you should ask will depend partly on the nature of the job. In the course of my own career, six questions have proven helpful regardless of the job. Here’s what to ask:

1. Is this a newly created position? A new position probably means you will not have to compete with someone else’s legacy.

If you’re looking for the best chance to leave a new mark on an organization, an affirmative answer to this question will pique your interest.

This is particularly true in the quality field, where success depends on an organization’s willingness to change. Consider the creation of a new position in the quality function a positive sign.

However, the roles, expectations and standards for a newly created position might not be as well defined as for an existing one.

Make sure you feel comfortable taking the initiative to define what the roles and expectations should be. The opportunity for stumbles could be higher, so your moves need to be considered more carefully.

2. Was the predecessor promoted, or did that person leave? Learning the predecessor was promoted should encourage you to probe further into the history of the job.

  • Have promotions been common?
  • Is promotion within the organization the rule or the exception?

There are many good reasons people leave an organization—a spouse’s relocation, to be closer to family or a change of interest.

If you learn the person left but get less than a straight answer about the reason, your skepticism about the job and the organization should increase.

3. Who are the other people in the work group, and what are their roles? A quick and complete answer to this question speaks well of how the organization is structured.

When considering a new position, look for work groups that represent a variety of age, experience and talent. Having too few experienced people slows down the process of finding solutions. Too few new people could rob the group of fresh ideas.

Before ending the interview, it’s a good idea to note the names and responsibilities of all the people you would work with closely in the new job.

A big surprise of a new job is meeting someone in your group you had not been told about during the interview. The surprise turns into a cruel joke if you and your colleague suffer clashes of style or personality.

4. How do you evaluate performance? The answer to this question is a good way to figure out how long you’ll have to show results. You want to be reasonably sure there’s enough time to tackle the challenge for which you are being considered.

If the new organization has a radically different evaluation system from your current one, are you confident in your ability to adjust quickly? Does the system make sense for the organization’s stated goals?

If success depends on teamwork but the rewards go only to individuals, you could conclude the organization has not thought through performance evaluations sufficiently. If this critical function is shortchanged, what about the other key processes in the organization? Most important, does the system as described seem fair?

5. How long has the position been open? There are good reasons for a job to be open for a while.

The demand for the particular type of employee could exceed the supply. The organization might have had to reorganize to respond to market or industry changes but still needs to figure out where the job fits into the new scheme of things. Maybe it requires such a rare combination of skills that identifying appropriate candidates is time consuming.

If the job has been left open for a good reason, continue to consider it if it interests you. However, if the organization can’t make up its mind about what it wants, is inflexible in the standards it applies or seems more interested in finding a cheap hire instead of the right one, think about marketing your skills elsewhere.

6. What are the one or two most important things I should accomplish in the first six months? I find this to be the best way to find out whether the organization has done its homework about what it is looking for in a new hire. Organizations that aren’t sure what they want seem to be the hardest to please and normally are not good ones for which to work.

Addressing how you would meet the job’s goals for the first six months is a great subject for a written or electronic acknowledgment of the interview.

What’s most important is that you have your own questions, ones that might differ from mine. Interviewing the organization allows you to employ one of the most powerful quality strategies ever devised—prevention.

The shortest route to the best job is avoiding the second best ones through the right questions.

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a mathematical statistician at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, DC. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is also an ASQ certified quality manager, quality engineer, quality auditor and reliability engineer.

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