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April 24, 2011 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Stupid questions for interviewers: memorable, harmless, or just stupid?

Anyone who's had to look for a job knows that there is an entire world of "professional" advice for job-seekers. In my experience, very little of that advice has turned out to be useful or even prudent. This is a question about one commonly encountered piece of that advice.

At the end of most interviews there is a period for the applicant to ask questions. Advice columns on Monster, in the New York Times, and elsewhere usually recommend using this time to continue trying to impress the interviewer with one's drive and desire to succeed. They suggest questions like the following:
  • "How can I improve on my predecessor's performance?"
  • "What qualities does a successful person have in your organization?"
  • "What question do you wish I had asked that I haven't already asked?"
You too can find lots more by searching for "questions for interviewers."

On one hand, these questions sound like something one might actually ask. On the other hand, as someone who's interviewed candidates, I find this kind of question somewhat ridiculous and off-putting. There's a boot-licking quality about them. They're difficult to answer concretely. They seem to aim to impress the interviewer, rather than help the candidate learn more about the company and the position.

On yet another hand, there are, I suspect, employers who buy heavily into the pop psychology of the job search who might look favorably on the applicant who asks artificial questions like these.

The questions for you:
  • If you interview job candidates, how do you feel about getting a self-conscious question like this? Do you get them often? What types of jobs do you interview candidates for, and do you think this affects the type of questions you get?
  • If you're a past or current job-seeker, would you consider asking a question like this during an interview? Do you ask them already? How have your interviewers responded: pleased? puzzled? amused? What types of jobs do you interview for?
Much obliged to learn from your experience.
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (21 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
As an interviewer, I honestly appreciated when people who had no questions said "no questions," but then I enjoy having something with a passing resemblance to a conversation between human beings.

As an interviewee, I wouldn't ask any of the above because I would just feel silly. However I acknowledge the tiresome expectation to ask *some* question, any question. So I usually throw out something about the "makeup of the team" or any other innocuous bullshit that comes into my head.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:10 PM on April 24, 2011

Question 1 would bother me, as I wouldn't want to comment on someone else's performance. But as an interviewer (on a search committee, which is the way things are done in my field), I wouldn't mind questions 2 and 3. I could answer both pretty easily, I think.

But I would hope you would have some real questions for me before you asked number 3. If you hadn't asked anything, and that was your first question, I might think you were lazy.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:16 PM on April 24, 2011

No questions to me means they haven't done their homework, they want A job (and not THIS job), or they don't care. Moreover, many interviewers are nearly as uncomfortable as the interviewee, unlike drjimmy11, and you will part leaving them feeling somewhat awkward if you don't manage to make any small talk. Don't fail to ask questions, when given the opportunity.

If you can't stand the idea of asking a question related to the business, make it personal. Ask what they like most (or least) about their company. Ask what they would change, given the opportunity. Ask about the local schools (if they and you are both parents), ask about the local neighborhood if you're going to have to move.

Don't ask about money. Don't ask about benefits. Ask questions that show your interest in the job and the culture of the company that (ideally) reflect the fact that you've done your homework (do your homework!!) about the job and the company. If you must ask a generic question, how about "What do you feel is one important attribute a candidate would need to be successful in this position?" or "What do you envision me accomplishing in my first three months with X?"

Remember, you ARE interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. To fail to do an adequate job of interviewing them should rightly raise flags about your potential longevity and quality of work at the company. You also miss an opportunity to learn whether this company and this position is the right place for you.
posted by arnicae at 5:18 PM on April 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have often asked a version of the second question - something about what qualities are they looking for in the role. Then I tell them how I have those qualities (with examples). This sounds idiotic, but it also sort of works. It lets you get their vocabulary for what they want in the role. If they are looking for crisps and I have chips, there is a chance they may not realize it is the same thing!

Instead of question 1, I might ask a version of "How do you see this job changing in the next year/two years/five years?" In my industry, just about EVERYTHING is changing in the next five years, so if they answer is "nothing" then it probably isn't a very interesting/mission-critical role.

Question 3 is just confusing.

Ultimately, you should ask questions that help you (a) look like the best candidate and (b) figure out if you really want to work there.

I work in health care in non-clinical roles in experienced staff or low-to-mid management type roles.
posted by jeoc at 5:21 PM on April 24, 2011

I'm a little confused about what kind of questions you're referring to. By definition, "stupid" questions are stupid and shouldn't be asked.

I don't bother with questions like "What qualities does a successful person have in your organization?" I would never phrase a question like that. Either they'll dodge the question and talk about what you specifically need to do at the job (in which case, why not just ask that?) or they'll say something vague about what "qualities" you need, which will predictably lead to you claiming to have those qualities.

I can't imagine asking, "How can I improve on my predecessor's performance?" This implies that you're sitting around criticizing someone who used to work there. Don't be at all negative about anyone.

"What question do you wish I had asked that I haven't already asked?" I have asked variations on this, and it seemed to go well. I only ask if I'm genuinely concerned that they might have lingering questions about me that could determine whether I get the job.

My approach to the "What questions do you have for us?" part of the interview is: before the interview, I brainstorm a list of questions I would actually like them to answer. They should be fairly specific and useful, and they shouldn't be too difficult to answer (you don't want the interviewer to remember the experience of interviewing you as uncomfortable, difficult, awkward).

If, after trying to brainstorm this list, I realize that I have no questions for them because my research has already answered everything I need to know about them -- or if I realize by this point of the interview that they've answered all my questions -- I simply tell them this. "I have no questions for you. I've researched the company and spoken with X beforehand [someone I got in touch with who works there or used to work there], and you've given me a very clear idea of what the job entails." Good for you -- you've done your homework and paid attention to them in the interview. If you don't have a question that would actually be useful for you to have answered, don't concoct a useless question just to fill in the space and waste their valuable time; impress them with your candor and the fact that you're already confident in your knowledge of the company.
posted by John Cohen at 5:22 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

As an interviewee, I often ask for what their goal is for me in the first 6 months and first year. I really want to know what they expect from me so I can determine if I am a good fit for the job. I don't think I would ask about a predecessor as, truthfully, I don't give a rats ass what she did, only what I can do and am expected to do.

As an interviewer, I would ask the interviewee why she thought that her predecessor had done something wrong or incomplete. Maybe that person was promoted or moved on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:23 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm just antagonistic, but I lean toward company and departmental culture and practices, kinda playing a "walk away" card by interviewing them for fit. I think it demonstrates giving a crap about the company, though:
  • How would you characterize your/the management style?
  • What's the turnover like for these positions?
  • Why are you interviewing outsiders for this position?
    • How often are people promoted from within?
  • Why do you use software package X?
  • (other position-specific whys and whats)
Be genuinely curious through these questions, though.
posted by rhizome at 5:25 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: how do you feel about getting a self-conscious question like this?

Like the candidate had little real experience in the working world, and that they were rather immature.

Do you get them often?


What types of jobs do you interview candidates for, and do you think this affects the type of questions you get?

Software development. Yes, because as a group developers tend to have very cut-to-the-chase personalities. Other professions put higher value in the hierarchy, the ceremony, the shmoozing and the ass-kissing…

If you're a past or current job-seeker, would you consider asking a question like this during an interview?

Only as a joke, and only if I could be 100% certain that the group I was saying it to understood that I was joking. In other words, no.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:25 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

As an interviewer for State government jobs, I want someone to ask me questions that let me know they are honestly pondering if it is a good fit for them. Not having any questions means that they haven't researched the position or section and aren't as invested in the interview as I would like - they'll happily take any job offered to them and aren't particularly interested in this specific one. I've even had interviewees ask during the interview what the position title is for; they weren't offered the job.

The three examples you provide look silly, and if an interviewee asked me those verbatim I'd know that they just stole them from online. #1 could be reworded better, more like "what would you like to see me accomplish in the first few months of the position?" #2 is too broad because success is measured differently for different positions in my (large) organization. Asking for the qualities a successful person in the specific position you're interviewing for would be awkward in my situation because this is included in the job posting and shows me you can't even be bothered to remember what I've already given you. #3 is terrible and please don't ask that, it tells me you're too dependent on others to do your work for you. Instead you can ask a variation along the lines of "is there anything I haven't been clear on?"

As an interviewee, I ask one of the interviewers why they stay at their job, why they like it. What changes and/or challenges they foresee with the position in the next few months. And what challenges the section faces. And very specific questions regarding the specific position that shows I've done my research.

On preview: "Remember, you ARE interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you."

This 100 times. How do you know I'm not the boss/coworker from hell if you don't ask me any questions?
posted by rhapsodie at 5:28 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: John Cohen: I'm a little confused about what kind of questions you're referring to. By definition, "stupid" questions are stupid and shouldn't be asked.

There are concrete, answerable questions about the duties of the job and the nature of the work, and there are generic questions about "qualities" and "styles" that sound like they came from a job-seeker's handbook.

rhapsodie: How do you know I'm not the boss/coworker from hell if you don't ask me any questions?

Because there is no question that's guaranteed to make you say, "I am the boss from hell." People are usually guarded in interviews. No interviewer will tell you that they obsessively micromanage, or do something else you might not enjoy.

Please note that I'm not asking whether one should ask any questions during the interview. I'm asking about the particular type of question I have in mind.
posted by Nomyte at 5:31 PM on April 24, 2011

There are concrete, answerable questions about the duties of the job and the nature of the work, and there are generic questions about "qualities" and "styles" that sound like they came from a job-seeker's handbook.

OK. I always try to ask questions whose answers are going to be specific and useful. I would never ask about the "qualities" of a successful applicant/employee, the "style" of management, or the "culture" of the company. In fact, one of my law school advisors specifically told us never to ask: "What is the culture of your firm like?"

These are the kinds of questions that books and websites will tell you to ask because they're so vague they could apply to anything, and the book/website obviously can't know anything about what type of field or position is involved. The downside is they're likely to make you seem like you have a standard list of questions to ask at every interview. The interviewer is likely to respond with the first pablum that comes to mind, which probably won't be very useful to you.
posted by John Cohen at 5:39 PM on April 24, 2011

My last (successful) inteview included at least half an hour of conversation around my questions. I'm not saying that would or should be the case everywhere, just that under some circumstances, it would be welcomed. I wasn't asking my questions to "impress" anyone though -- I was asking them in order to learn about the company and the job, both to see if we'd be a good fit, and because I was genuinely interested. Just the *way* in which my questions were answered told me a lot. I was given forthright, thorough, and sincere answers to everything I asked.

The three questions you gave as examples sound a little weird though, I don't think I'd ever ask any of those.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:10 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As an anecdotal data point, I would not ask those questions, but I have a very different rationale questions for asking questions and those would not fit (for me). I’ll give you my rational and approach to questions and these do differ by types of jobs, so I will give you examples from 2 different industries.

When I was on a search for academic jobs (biology) several years ago (as the interviewee), I would always 1) look at the website and “mission” of the college of the university or college (because someone would always ask me why X college or X university), 2) look at the about website for the department and really pay attention if they had newly awarded grants for the department, 3) look at the courses offered by the department, and 4) if I was given names of the interviewers, I would look at their about us webpages and if his or her research looked interesting, grab the paper and read it before the interview. I would always have a list of questions to ask during an interview, typically a phone interview followed by a full-day on campus interview.

When I looked at grants for the department and courses offered, if I had an interest in it (let’s say they were recently awarded a technology grant and I wanted to use a special piece of technology in class down the road), I would actually say at the end of the phone interview and during the “do you have questions for us” that I had a high interest in using X in a classroom and how it be viewed and would it be supported? Usually one or two people on the committee would get very excited and tell you all about their new grant. My rationale (that I learned over time) was to have the interview end on a high point for them – they want to brag about what they can offer and how it is a good fit for you. So if relevant, I gave them a chance to do so. However, I never asked if I were not truly interested. I would also mention a course that I had developed in the past and asked if it fit (but I already knew it did because I saw their list of courses, type of courses, and they didn’t offer it). As a data point, I almost always got invited from the phone interview to go onsite (95% of the time). So I do think that it works. I am also going to say that when I interviewed people one on one, if I were interested in his or her research, I would ask questions that I had after reading his or her paper – I viewed it as a time for me to learn something that I was interested in and it was how I connect to people.Or how I can project enthusiasm -- the ideas are neat, and I use the chance to learn about new things.

Now I am going to switch to another type of job (medical communication companies). Because I’ve worked at some (and had info interviews before I even set foot in one), I knew the problems. I also know that the companies want to present the job in the best light, and someone may or will alter the truth, especially a potential manager. So my goal for those questions is 1) is this job a good fit, 2) will it meet my needs for what I want to learn, and 3) can these people (such as a manger) be trusted and is he or she lying to me during the interview (and if so, in what way). So I ask the same set of questions to several people and compare for inconsistencies so that I at least know what I am walking into. For example, in my industry, I know that that job turnover is typically high and that people are sometimes not promoted from within and are bitter. So, I asked the exact questions that rhizome asked (turnover and promotion within). But again, I asked several people, including different managers and a potential peer. I also sometimes fed an answer that I was given from one person back to another. For example, a potential manger said “to decide promotion, we have a list of things that you need to have done and then once you have accomplished them, we promote you; we tell you this plan during your evaluations.” So if a potential future colleague states that they rarely to never promote from within, I ask “isn’t there a list with characteristics and things that you need to do…” and the so-called future colleague will be surprised and say “I have never heard of that, it is news to me.” The person may even admit for a moment that he or she is really not happy about the fact that they never promote from within, and someone may have just quite because they were not promoted. To be honest, I really did not care about being promoted and my plan was to learn skill sets and move on, but I wanted to know the environment and what someone would mislead me about. Worked for my, but YMMV. I was often looking to see if a job was a good fit for whatever goals that I had at the time, and this was truly the purpose of my questions, butYMMV.

posted by Wolfster at 6:17 PM on April 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

I happen to have a list of questions I asked in a recent interview for a writing job. (I try to write some down beforehand and then jot notes to remember any that spring to mind during.)

- What is the exact reporting structure? (This is important in this case because writers can report to a variety of departments and people within the department. It had also changed recently so it was extra relevant.)

- Who generates the assignments? Do they come from the direct manager or from other teams?

- What is the approval path? (I was able to emphasize here that I was familiar with complex approval processes, which was very much relevant to this job.)

- How many hours a week are required? (May be industry-specific - yay, crunch!)

I interviewed with a couple of non-manager types - the people who would be my coworkers - and I asked them different questions. I brought up some of the things that sounded complex or challenging and asked about them, I asked the new guy how he liked the company and then the vet, I asked the person who was moving out of the role they were hiring for why she was changing roles. All of this stuff is pretty specific and was not only genuinely useful to me in building a mental picture of the work environment, but gave them the impression that I knew not only what was in the job posting but the way this kind of team worked.

(I didn't get that job, but they called me back two days later with an offer for a related one. Which... I turned down to work here. So it goes.)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:25 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, best case, you ask questions about how to do the job well or about the organization/department that demonstrate that you've really been thinking about it and without (a) being insulting [ideally not "how secure is the budget for this position?"] or (b) sounding stupid by asking something really basic that you should be prepared to figure out once you're in the job. Second best, you ask something generic in a very heartfelt way, like "what do you think it will take for a person to really succeed in this role?" or "what do you all like about working here?" Third best, ask no questions.

As noted above, question 1 is weird because you as the interviewer don't want to comment on someone else's performance, especially negatively, and because it makes them look overly competitive ("what did the predecessor do in this role that really helped them succeed that I could learn from?" would be much better). Question 3 is weird because it's lazy and sounds like you're playing games.
posted by salvia at 6:31 PM on April 24, 2011

Best answer: The third question, "What question do you wish I had asked that I haven't already asked?", strikes me as a little odd or mindgamey. It sort of assumes that there is a Set Of Correct Questions To Ask in order to Pass The Interview, whereas if there were such a straightforward way of determining whether or not to hire someone we probably wouldn't bother with interviews at all. As an interviewer (in quantitative finance), I'm mostly trying to scope out whether the candidate is likely to be able to do the job, and whether they'll make a good addition to the team. I do not come into the interview with a list of Questions I Expect You To Ask. (Maybe I should? I dunno..)

A question like "what qualities does a successful person have in your organization" also seems to presuppose a The Correct Answer, which kind of bothers me because a lot of the time I'm looking for someone who's not tied into one way of thinking like that. There are lots of different sorts of successful people in the organization, who work in very different ways. If a candidate were to ask this question while giving the sense that they were trying to get a feel for what it was like to work here, then that's fine; however I'd find the slightest whiff of "I am asking this question because it's what I was taught to ask in B-school" or whatever rather offputting. I'd prefer a more direct question like "What's it like to work here?", and I'd prefer to ask questions like that if I were on the other side of the table. I probably get more questions like the ones you describe than usual, given the field, but I'm not impressed by them. Other interviewers very possibly are, but it's a large and diverse organization.

Also, if you were to ask me that sort of question I'd probably feel compelled to give an anodyne response about how we value dynamic, highly motivated employees with excellent technical and interpersonal skills. This tells you nothing.
posted by doop at 2:25 AM on April 25, 2011

As an interviewer for entry-level post Bachelors degree positions, these questions would all feel weird and forced.

However, I also hate it when people say "no questions". I don't care if you did your homework and already know everything about my company, ask me a question you already know the answer to then. Saying "no questions" leaves a sour taste in my mouth that makes me assume they don't really care about the position or my firm. That might be unfair, but it just makes the interviewee seem disengaged.

This could also be because the way interviews in my field (management consulting) work is less conversational - they are case interviews, where the interviewee is solving some kind of quantitative or qualitative business problem, so there is limited interpersonal interaction aside from the part where they can ask me questions.
posted by CharlieSue at 8:09 AM on April 25, 2011

The one question that I've used that has usually be somewhat productive is "what qualities would differentiate someone who is awesome at this job versus someone who is adequate?" The answers are often at least somewhat telling about an organization's structure or culture.

"What reservations do you have about me as a candidate" can also be illuminating, but I've only used it with interviewerers who are obviously up-front.

Otherwise, I ask questions that I want answers to.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:58 AM on April 25, 2011

Where I work, we generally do all-day interviews in which the candidate has several mini-interviews with multiple groups, as well as a tour of the facility. If you can do all that for 7 hours and can't come up with 2-3 intelligent questions about the organization or the position, then we don't have anything further to gain from each other.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:25 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hire people for a living, and any candidate who waits until the end of our meeting to ask questions has basically failed the interview. You're meeting someone for the first time -- try to treat the meeting as a conversation where you're really getting to know the other person and there's a nice flow: Interviewer asks question, you answer, then you ask a pertinent question.

Basically, if you're interviewer asks if you have any questions at the end of the interview, what they're really telling you is, "Is this over yet? I'm bored out of my mind and I've got lots of shit to do."

You want there to be as natural a back and forth going on as possible, and this will force you to ask much more genuine questions that allow you to get to know your interviewer and the role you'd be assuming. I also strongly advise that you ask about any potential red flags you may have noticed during the pre-interview phase. Is there something about the job description that worries you? Have you heard they just went through 10 rounds of layoffs? All of this issues should be raising important questions in your mind and you really want to ask them to prove you're truly invested in the role.

Canned questions sound canned and won't really help you (although at the very end I do like it when people ask what the next steps are because it demonstrates urgency) but you definitely want to go in there prepared with a lot of thoughtful and courageous questions.

posted by ohyouknow at 1:36 PM on April 25, 2011

I dislike questions like "What qualities are you looking for" for several reasons. Asking what it takes to be a good (or great) widget maker sounds like an admission that you don't know, and therefore probably don't possess, what it takes to be a great widget maker.

Secondly, these sorts of questions feel like requests for post-mortems of the interviews, delivered to the interviewee, while the interview is still on-going. It turns the employer's attempts to fill a job opening into a career counseling session for the applicant's benefit. I've only ever asked this sort of question after it became clear that I was underqualified for the job and had given up any hope of getting it. I asked more to satisfy my curiosity about who they were looking for, because it was obvious they weren't looking for me.
posted by hhc5 at 2:04 PM on April 25, 2011

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