When applying for a job, it’s easy to feel like you hold none of the cards. The company has an open position and tons of interested candidates; you’re trying to attract their interest and prove you’re the best one.
Even though it might seem like you don’t have any power, the reality is very different. Put yourself in the employer’s shoes for a second—it’s hard to find qualified people willing to work for the right salary, in the right location, and with the ideal work style. If you’re a good fit for the job, culture, and team, you’re actually pretty rare.
That doesn’t mean you should treat the process any less seriously or spend less time preparing. It means two things: first, you should give yourself a little confidence boost by reminding yourself they probably want you just as much as you want them (if not more), and second, that you can and should interview them back.
What does that translate to? “Interviewing them back” entails asking questions that reveal their company culture, the true nature of the job, and what opportunities might come from this role. Essentially, you’re trying to figure out if this position is right for you.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure what to ask. These five questions will help you obtain honest and accurate info—and, as a bonus, they’ll help you feel like the thoughtful, experienced candidate you are.
1) Can you describe your (the hiring manager’s) management style?
There are no wrong answers here; it all depends on how you like to be managed. Maybe the interviewer says, “Dani is a pretty hands-off manager. She likes to give her team members high-level goals and let them figure out the details. Of course, she’s there if you have questions or need support, but in general you’ll work autonomously.”
If you love doing your own thing, that’s great news. If you’d rather have more direction and oversight, it’s something to take note of.
2) How does (the company, the team, the hiring manager) celebrate success?
Recognition is an important factor in feeling motivated and engaged. If the response is, “Well, we don’t do much,” or even “To be honest, the team could be better about celebrating its victories,” you might want to add that to potential drawbacks of the job. (Unless you know that recognition isn’t high on your list of priorities, in which case, it might not be that big of a deal!)
On the other hand, if you hear something like, “We give a monthly MVP award to someone who went above and beyond. And each team has their own unique traditions to recognize special achievements and milestones,” you know the company probably does a good job of commending both individual and team-wide wins.
3) How long have the current team members been working here?
If the hiring manager is constantly replacing people who have moved on, that’s a red flag. A team might look great from the outside—but you don’t want to find out after the fact that a toxic culture exists, unreliable expectations are held, or that there any other factors that cause people to flee.
Of course, a “normal” tenure will change based on the position, team, location, etc. If most of the team members are relatively new to the work world, they’ll probably look for a new job—either at the same company or elsewhere—fairly quickly. However, if you’re working with people at higher rungs on the ladder who have been in the workforce for a while, high turnover spells trouble.
4) What’s the last big project the team tackled? How did you get it done?
This question is helpful for a few reasons. It’ll give you an inside look into the type of work you might be doing and how you’ll be collaborating with your coworkers. It will also tell you the hiring manager’s approach to important projects. Was the team successful because they pulled several late nights in the final stretch? Did the team lead come up with a detailed plan with mini-timelines to make sure they were on track from beginning to end? You’ll get a sense of the problem-solving methods the team uses and whether they’re compatible with your own.
5) Where could the team be stronger?
The most important part about your interviewer’s answer is how honest they’re willing to be. Just like they want you to give an authentic response to the “biggest weakness” question, you’re looking for a genuine answer. Every team is lacking in something—usually a few things—so if they say, “We’re strong across the board,” or “I can’t think of any area where we’re missing anything—you know they’re either unaware of their team’s weaknesses (never a great sign) or aren’t being fully transparent.
It’s good when a real answer is provided. It’s even better if the weakness happens to match up with one of your strengths. For instance, perhaps the interviewer says, “It’s a really formidable team, but we don’t have anyone who’s skilled at documenting our processes and results and making sure we can scale what we’re doing.”
You, on the other hand, happen to be highly organized, and happy to write documentation to boot. That gives you powerful ammo later in the interview when you inevitably get the question “Why should we hire you?” or “What makes you a good fit?”
If you can, try to ask every hiring manager the same questions. This lets you compare their answers and figure out which company or position is the closest to what you’re looking for. And to make sure you don’t forget who said what, write down your impressions and any important moments as soon as you can after the interview ends. Reviewing these notes will be incredibly helpful during the decision-making process.
The final (and most important) takeaway: You have power during this process; after all, you deserve to find the right fit. Feel empowered to ask the questions that are important to you.
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