Interviewing the Interviewer
May 22, 2018 1:25 PM   Subscribe

You're in a job interview. What are some tactics you use to determine whether the interviewer/manager is someone you like and want to work for? I'm looking for anything... subtle cues to look out for, questions to ask, etc.
posted by onecircleaday to Human Relations (27 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Whether it feels like an interview or a conversation is the only metric I have. Any time I've felt primarily like I was cranking out formulaic talking points to sell myself, the supervisory relationship hasn't been as good as when it seems like they read my application materials and had an idea I'd be good at the job and we were just sort of talking to make sure it was a good fit. This was a gut thing, I guess, so maybe not the most useful.
posted by Smearcase at 1:38 PM on May 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Vibe, for lack of a better word, is huge. Do you feel good talking to them? Are they listening? Are they cagey?

Be aware that many interviewers, particularly for large companies, have certain questions and even particular phrasing that they HAVE to use-- so don't judge them too harshly if the questions are trite or the tone seems formal. (For example, I HAVE to ask those "tell me about a time" qs, but I can then converse like a normal person.)
posted by kapers at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2018 [10 favorites]

This probably mostly falls under vibes as well, but genuine interest from the interviewer is a really good sign. I had an interviewer once the formal part of the interview was over ask a genuine question about something I mentioned in my resume that wasn't super related to the job, because they actually wanted to know me and how I would fit in as opposed to just if I knew my stuff. I got the job, and the work culture is the best I've ever experienced.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like to ask if there are ways members of the organization spend time together outside of normal work tasks. If they volunteer information like the ways birthdays are observed, annual celebrations, or casual gatherings at people's houses, that's a good sign. If they scoff and act like that would never happen or they loathed when it these things happen, well, that's also information.

I also ask about opportunities to be mentored, formally or informally. Same deal for responses there.

All this is, of course, in the mode of vibe-feeling recommended by everyone above, but I think these questions get at things that bring up the manager's particular feelings about the organizational culture.
posted by zem at 1:57 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is where the opportunity to ask questions really comes in handy. Like others, I'm bound by our formal interview questions, but once those have been asked, I am free to answer any of the interviewee's questions. Questions like, "What do you like best about working here? What do you like the least?", "Can you describe the workplace culture?", and "Can you tell me how priorities are determined and communicated", "What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for this position?" all give the interviewer a chance to be honest and for you to read between the lines. You're trying to measure culture fit, and you might find some other resources by googling for that.
posted by stellaluna at 2:19 PM on May 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

A lot of this is pretty personal. For example:

I like to ask if there are ways members of the organization spend time together outside of normal work tasks. If they volunteer information like the ways birthdays are observed, annual celebrations, or casual gatherings at people's houses, that's a good sign. If they scoff and act like that would never happen or they loathed when it these things happen, well, that's also information.

I would generally have the opposite set of responses. I like to do my work and go home; my office group isn't the center of my social circle, and if that would make me an outlier at a particular office, where the expectation is that I would go to office happy hour rather than spend time with my family, it's probably not a great fit for me.

Basically, I ask the question "How would I feel if I knew I would have to spend 6-8 hours with this person on a plane or in a stuffy conference room?"
posted by craven_morhead at 2:23 PM on May 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

Not so much the interviewer, but the employer's communication generally - how communicative they are, if they give timelines and meet them, if they're considerate of candidates' schedules, if they're super standardized or not, etc. - is a big tell of how the business will be about other process-type stuff throughout employment. It's not all "good" or "bad" but it's certainly informative.
posted by mosst at 2:26 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some questions I have asked in the past include:

- How do you foster a sense of team?
- How does the team make decisions?
- How do you measure success here? What kinds of goals do you set?
- What three words would you use to describe the culture here?
posted by brookeb at 2:27 PM on May 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

My favourite question to ask in interviews is 'What's the worst thing about your job?' or 'what's the most stressful thing you've had to deal with this week'. I usually preface this by saying that it's very important to me to get a realistic feel for the working environment and culture of places I'm considering working.

Both the way they respond to the question and to me asking the question tells me everything I need to know about a) what they're like as a person and potential colleague/boss, b) what the company culture is like (and if there's any festering issues and c) whether they will like my fairly direct and honest communication style. The responses I've had over the years have really helped me make good decisions about whether a job is right for me.

I've never failed to get a job offer after asking this question, for what it's worth. I'm also a middle class white male in a skilled technical career, so your mileage may vary.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:37 PM on May 22, 2018 [18 favorites]

I ask questions like:

"Tell about the last time a direct report was late with their work for you. What did you do?"
"Tell me about a time you had to tell your boss that your work for them is going to be late."
"Tell me about a time you had two direct reports that had a conflict between them. What did you do? Were you able to resolve the conflict?"
"Describe your management style."
"Why is this position available?"
posted by Rob Rockets at 2:40 PM on May 22, 2018 [10 favorites]

I've gotten some good responses from "What has surprised you/was unexpected about working here?" Good surprises and bad surprises (and the way they spin bad surprises) are both very informative.

Maybe a better question for HR/recruiter, but "how are bonuses decided" is a good one. I've interviewed at places that had clear metrics/equations for what percentage of profit you generate would come back to you, and others where it was "boss's discretion." It's a good way to get at "fairness and equity in the workplace" issues.
posted by basalganglia at 2:41 PM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

"How many people have been promoted to their current position from the position they were hired into," or words to that effect, tells you how much they invest in the future of their employees, whether they hire or promote people to senior positions.
posted by rhizome at 2:43 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

My go to question is always, "Tell me one thing you would change about the company." Feels a bit less negative than asking for dislikes, and is open enough to interpretation that I think it gives a good sense of the interviewer and the company. If they say something like, "Nothing, everything is great here!" then I am immediately suspect.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:45 PM on May 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

I realize this is not super specific, but think about how you feel after your conversation with them. Are you excited? Did you like them? When I interviewed for my current job, I clicked with the hiring manger after the first call. I was sorta "meh" on the job going into the call because it had been a long time since I applied and my enthusiasm had really wanted. But after talking to her for 30 minutes I was really pumped. I liked her even more in person. I can't explain it, it's just a feeling. You have to trust your gut.

On the flipside, I interviewed once at a place where I couldn't stand the attitude of the hiring manager. I removed myself from that hiring process even though I thought the company and job were really cool.
posted by radioamy at 2:49 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also bear in mind all the stuff they can't ask you, so a normal back and forth social conversation is impossible.

"Why is this postion available?" as suggested by Rob Rockets is a great one for checking for land mines, when being hired into a particular job.

I worked at one startup that (it turns out) had a long history of luring tech leads with slighltly low pay and a giant stock package, then firing them just before they vest, and then repeating the process with the next guy. I had seen a line of my 11 month predecessors in the Git logs, but didn't put the picture together til it happened to me.

Unforunately it's often not useful to ask a big company like Google, why they are hiring, since they hire people every day and decide what to do with them later.
posted by w0mbat at 3:47 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of these kinds of questions will be pretty specific to the industry and type of role you're looking at. The way I usually approach it is to think about the patterns that have and haven't worked for me in previous positions, and then try to design questions around those patterns. I also usually lean, probably a little too hard, in the direction of asking questions about whatever thing it is made me want to quit my previous job. In general, I've found more success by asking overly specific questions with follow-ups, rather than more general, open-ended ones. With broader questions, I think you're more likely to get a more pat or polished answer, rather than making the interviewer think on their feet and respond more genuinely

I work in software, so I might ask a series of questions like "What's the most frustrating piece of code you work with on a regular basis? What makes it so difficult to work with? Why is it still like that?" rather than the more general "How do you prioritize working on technical debt vs. new features?" With the second question, you're likely to get an answer about how the process is supposed to work, but with the first you've already zeroed in on a particular piece of tech debt before you start asking about the process around it, so you'll get a more concrete answer instead of the idealized version. There's also a lot more opportunity to turn up interesting things you wouldn't have thought to ask about once you've got someone talking about the real projects and decisions they're working on.

I'm usually trying more to figure out the organization and culture, rather than the interviewer individually, so YMMV.
posted by duien at 3:55 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I ask interviewers two questions that tell me a lot about a company and I think really have helped me build a rapport with them:

1) How long have you worked here and what makes you keep coming back? (Gives a sense of turnover and what is valued at that company - particularly for your supervisor if you can identify them on the panel.)
2) What's a challenge that you haven't solved yet but have been working? (Often times this will give you a hint as to some big problem or issues that might cause you some grief.)
posted by notorious medium at 4:14 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am a manager on an IT Security team. I hire people. Things I like to be asked by people interviewing:

"What's the day to day environment like?"
"How does the company approach work/life balance?"
"How do you handle conflict?"
"How are budgets managed and negotiated?"
"What is the team's organizational structure?"
"what are the expectations for on-call work?"
"How is your team perceived by the rest of the organization?"
"What's the one thing you would change immediately if you could?"
"What levels of executive support do you have for your initiatives?"
posted by nikaspark at 4:23 PM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Things I hope people get from me during an interview are:

That I support my direct reports.
That I give them time to solve problems effectively.
That I have developed a solid working model for my team that is measurable and effective.
That I respect each person as an individual.
That I recognize and value each person's specific talents and place them on projects that align with what they excel at.
That when I have to put them on a challenging task that runs contrary to "what they are best at" I am here to help, that success is reasonably measurable, and that I will not use such projects as a way to make them feel like they are somehow inadequate.
That when we have to do shit work that no one wants to do and everyone hates, that we are in it together as a team and we all pull the weight.
That the individuals get to shine in the spotlight of the wins, and we take the lumps as a team, sorting out the areas of improvement privately as a team. That I will never throw an individual under the bus to escape my own failings a leader and mentor to protect and guide my team to success.
posted by nikaspark at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I always ask “if I talked to your team, how would they describe working for you?”
posted by ersatzkat at 5:59 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I usually ask what's the process at the company if I need to spend $100, 1,000, and $11,000. While it's mostly a measure of the company rather than the manager, their reaction to the question is often telling. The one that more or less told me not to worry my pretty little head about such things was one of the worst managers I had.
posted by Candleman at 7:33 PM on May 22, 2018

I recently asked a startup I was interviewing with how much PTO the team took since they’re on an unlimited plan. While the VP had a metric for every other question I asked, there was no idea on that one. So I asked how much they’d taken personally. None for three years, two weeks this year...not much. In another conversation it slipped out that most people take a week, and a day here or there as needed for appointments and the like, so “unlimited” means “<2 weeks.” Trying to get away from or detect scripted answers is always my strategy to see if I’d like them.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 7:39 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Definitely ask "Why is this position available?" and/or "Why is the current person in this role leaving?" And if there are multiple people leaving, you want to know about that too.

A boss who turned out to be extremely toxic answered the "Why are two people leaving this role?" question with some variation of "Because they're leaving," if memory serves, and they looked briefly annoyed.

Also, trust your gut. Vibe is indeed huge.
posted by ziggly at 9:13 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Look around when you walk into the room. What books are on the shelves? If you know some of the books ask what the hiring manager thought of them. How does the office "feel" which is what a lot of other responses would call vibe maybe. Who is this person, how do they present themselves, their offices etc and etc. It's possible that the person you'll be interviewing with won't be your manager -- that makes it a more difficult read. I walked into a womans office, shook her hand while walking right past her to look at this beautiful painting, I sortof enthused about it, who painted it etc -- she told me at the end of the interview that I was hired before I even sat down; she said that my resume told her I could write code but very few tech ppl would talk to her about much aside from computers.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:53 AM on May 23, 2018

It depends on whether the interviewer is an HR person I will never see again or if it's someone I'll be working with/for. If it's a potential co-worker/boss, all I care about is whether they appear to be engaged in the interview. I know these can be boring and they have other things to do, but do they appear short-tempered/annoyed/pissed off? I've had interviews where potential co-workers/bosses were on their phones, looking down at their notes the whole time, on their computer or otherwise clearly tending to matters more important than engaging with me.

A few years ago I had a panel interview where a few of the attendees looked at me, smiled, nodded and demonstrated active listening strategies. THAT was the job I accepted and I really loved working with those people. If interviewers can't be bothered to actively pay attention during the interview, they're not going to be great to work with.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:53 AM on May 23, 2018

Ask what a typical day or week looks like. And ask about work-life balance. Asking "what's the work-life balance like?" is when you find out if you'll be expected to work every weekend or not.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:30 PM on May 23, 2018

I like asking questions around how the organization handles mistakes.
- Like, if you botch something big your second week by accident, does it count against you?
- What about your second year?
- What if the mistake was literally unavoidable?

Summing that into one question:
- "What's the biggest mistake you've made here, and is there process for something like that, or how did your manager treat it?"

Everyone makes mistakes. Some organizations learn from them. Some organizations crucify the person who just got unlucky.
posted by talldean at 3:44 PM on May 25, 2018

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