April 19, 2010 -- There have been bits of good news of late in the job market: 162,000 positions were added to payrolls last month, the biggest jump since the beginning of the recession. Hopefully we'll see those numbers continue to climb, which means more opportunity for job seekers to interview for new openings.
During every interview, recruiters always ask job seekers, "Do you have any questions for me?" The worst answer is "no."
When you ask questions, no matter how thorough the conversation has been, it shows you're genuinely interested in that particular company and position, not just desperate to get any job.
Plus, by asking smart questions, you can get some crucial intelligence into how the company works and what you can expect if you work there.
I polled some of my contacts at top companies to find out what they think applicants should ask.
Applicants' 'Must Ask' List of Questions
Nikki Gordon, a talent manager at 7-Eleven, says she always likes when a candidate asks simply, "Why is this position vacant?"
You want to know why the position is vacant because it can give you insight into the nature of the job and the culture. Maybe it's newly created because the company is growing. Maybe someone was promoted from within. Both potentially positive signs.
But maybe it's vacant because of high turnover. You don't want to discover on Day One that you're the eighth person in six months to occupy that desk. So if the answer is about turnover, that's a clue to you to probe a bit more.
Pam Webster at Enterprise Rent-a-Car says she likes when candidates ask about the company culture.
Company culture means what is it like to work at that company -- the vibe, the atmosphere, the values, the work styles and preferences -- and what it's like to be immersed in that environment every day.
Success isn't only about performing your particular position; it's also about how you fit into that environment. They're sizing you up for cultural fit, and you should be doing the same with them. They want to know what makes you tick and what ticks you off.
And you'll want to know that their culture is one that you feel is conducive to your success. Is it one you'd be proud to be affiliated with every day? Are the company's values aligned with your own?
Get All Your Questions Answered
A great follow-up question to ask is, "If you could change one thing about the culture, what would it be?" This is a polite way of asking what's wrong with this place without actually saying that. And it can give you insight into something you wouldn't have otherwise learned.
One woman told me the answer was, "I'd change the hours -- everyone works 'til 8 p.m. and it's grueling." You need to know that before accepting an offer.
Rich Deosingh from the staffing firm Robert Half says he advises jobseekers to ask, "How are candidates evaluated and what's the measure of success?"
I want everyone to put this on his or her "must ask" list. It's a perfect way to show that your priorities are in the right place. It's all about succeeding in your book. Every manager and every company has a different method of defining success and a different method of evaluating performance.
This line of conversation allows you to showcase your track record of success and it enables you to tout your desire to meet their measurements of success. What manager wouldn't like to have that conversation with an applicant?
Another "must ask" that you should end the interview with is "What are the next steps in this process?"
You'll want to know if you'll be expected to interview with others. Is there any kind of testing involved? When will they make a decision? When do they hope to bring someone on board? Is there more information or materials you can provide to support your candidacy? Who will you hear from and when? If you don't hear, when and how should you follow up?
This ensures that you're able to manage your own expectations and it gives you a handle on the company's timeframe, so you don't leave the interview waiting and wondering.
Here's some extra advice from Tory Johnson:
It's perfectly acceptable to ask the HR manager to describe the management style of the person to whom you'd be reporting. Oftentimes the HR department has a good handle on the personality traits and work styles of the company's top managers and can share some of those preferences with candidates. This helps to ensure a good fit all around.
Towards the end of the conversation you can ask if they have any concerns about your ability to excel in this role. This is a chance for them to share with you any possible weaknesses, such as a skill you lack or a particular experience they wish you had. More importantly, it's an opportunity for you to learn quite clearly what they're thinking so you're able to address any outstanding issues directly. If you can't think quickly on the spot about how to explain how you'd overcome their hesitation, it's surely a topic for follow-up, which you should do within 24 hours. Point to examples of how you've been a quick study in the past or explain how you'll get the skills and training quickly and confidently. Perhaps you can point to comparable experiences you've had and how they relate to the challenges ahead.
Don't be shy about bringing a pad and pen to take notes during the interview. Don't allow those notes to distract from the conversation; your eyes and focus should be on the people in the room, not on your paper. But if there are key elements to jot down -- perhaps issues you want to follow up on -- you should feel comfortable taking brief notes.