In the same way we focus on our own name during introductions, job applicants have only one thing on their mind during an interview: to convince the interviewer that they are the best fit for the role.
Everything else is a lower priority, so, just like not being able to remember another person’s name right after shaking their hand, applicants don’t get all the wiser after a job interview. Often they’ve missed red flags, even the more serious ones that could have caused them to withdraw their application altogether.
During a job interview, it’s better to err on the side of caution because interviewers can learn a lot about us from our questions. An innocent inquiry about working hours might signal to the interviewer that there’s, quite literally, nothing more important to the applicant than to get out of work on time.
We spend a big part of our lives at our workplace, which makes it important to get these decisions right. And there aren’t many touch points between companies and applicants before the decision is made, so both parties have to make the most of every single conversation.
But how do we get the most information out of a job interview — without making a fool of ourselves?
A job description is not a binding contract, nor is anything that’s said during the interview. For example, an interviewer might mention that the company’s running at the “bleeding edge” of technology when it is not actually true. Watch what the company appears to be doing — not only what the hiring manager says it’s doing.
And while an interview is a great place to get answers to questions, it might not be wise to ask too many of them yourself. It looks odd to interviewers when candidates take over the mic and move into rapid-fire questioning.
What works better is letting interviewers talk about their own jobs. People like to talk about themselves, and this might be one of the times when you can show interest without faking it. Some interviewers might work in a position similar to the one you’re currently interviewing for, so their experience is especially important. Plus, simply being curious about someone will build rapport and even help you earn social credit.
One useful skill to learn from journalists and CIA agents is how to truly listen during a conversation. Our first instinct is to fill the silence while an interviewer talks or thinks about what to say next. This is the time to stay silent and listen for the answer — and “listen” for nonverbal clues as well. For example, if you just asked a question, did that question make the receiver uncomfortable? Perhaps there’s something they don’t want to tell you? Are they telling the truth?
You don’t have to get all your information from hiring managers — recruiters or Human Resources are great sources of information as well. Generally, they are outside of the decision-making process, but they know a lot about things like the training budget, dress code, and all the basics you might be interested in. Asking these questions ahead of time means you can make the best use of your time with the hiring managers.
While you’re on the company’s premises, use that time to talk to anyone. Chat up people while you’re waiting in the lobby for the interview. Perhaps you’ll run into chatty employees in the parking lot after you leave. “Hey, I’m here for a job interview” piques most people’s curiosity, and often there’ll be a huge amount of useful gossip to take home with you.
The question is the answer
A good place to start is to ask the interviewer about some projects they are proud of. This is usually a welcome question that tends to spark discussion — and more importantly, allows you to infer a good deal about the company. Celebrating good work should be part of every great team’s culture, so a lack of conversation here is a big red flag.
Phrasing matters too. For example, instead of asking whether you can work remotely, ask whether you’ll be working with remote team members regularly. The answer is almost always the same for both, but the latter reveals less about your own ambitions.
And instead of asking about work-life balance, you can ask whether others will respond to your Slack messages on weekends. This way, you’ll know whether you can relax after 6pm, and you’ll still sound like a go-getter in the process.
To learn the specifics of what a workday entails, you can ask an interviewer to walk you through what a normal workday or work week would look like. This doesn’t signal inflexibility the same way asking “How early do I need to start?” would, and it will get your “real” question answered.
When asking questions, a lot depends on word choice, and it’s always better to be more down-to-earth than theoretical. Interviewers also have an easier time answering more concrete questions. Rather than asking them something like, “Is the career progression good here?” ask them if they know of a senior team member who started out as a junior employee at the company.
Yes, applicants have to look great at a job interview, but they shouldn’t forget to take a good look at the company they’re interviewing with. At the end of the day, this is the dedicated time for both parties to figure out whether to move to the next stage.
Voltaire wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers,” but remember that asking questions is a powerful tool that cuts both ways. One’s questions let people access information they wouldn’t otherwise have, but their questions also reflect them too.