Faced with one pointed question after the next regarding your career, a job interview can quickly take on the feel of an interrogation.
But employers aren't the only ones who get to poke and pry during the sit-down. At some point, job candidates can make inquiries that flesh out everything from expectations to why their prospective boss enjoys working for the company. By asking thought-provoking questions, you can not only collect valuable information but also distinguish yourself from the pack.
"It means that you're thoughtful about the process and that you're very interested in the position because you took the time to think of questions that would be substantive," says Cheryl Palmer, a career coach and founder of the career coaching firm Call to Career.
Here are some questions you can ask and tips for interpreting the responses from your interviewer.
1. How has this position evolved since it was created?
Getting a brief history on the role should clear up whether the position has expanded over the years or has been a dead end for employees, Palmer says.
Interpreting the response: If the interviewer says the position has expanded beyond its original scope (and is continuing to do so), that signifies an opportunity for growth within the company. If the position has stayed static for years, don't expect to blossom there. Depending on your career ambitions, the latter response isn't necessarily bad, Palmer says.
2. What have past employees done to succeed in this position?
Knowing how the organization measures achievements will help you understand what the expectations will be and whether you have the skill set to meet them, Palmer says. But don't undermine your past accomplishments just because your route to success doesn't match up with the one embraced by the company. "You also don't want to be too narrowly defined by what other people have done. Because you're a different person, you may approach things a little differently," she says.
Interpreting the response: You may hear a description that highlights the positive and negative attributes of your predecessor. That could be a good indicator of the company's culture. "Typically, what one person has done to be successful is what the organization tends to do to be successful," Palmer says.
3. What have you enjoyed most about working here?
Your prospective boss can relay what he or she values most and what led to his or her personal success with the organization. Then, Palmer says, you can internally ruminate about whether you share the same values and can envision yourself working there.
Interpreting the response: Your interviewer may commend the company for everything from benefits to year-end bonuses. On the other hand, "if they're struggling to come up with something positive about why they like working there, chances are good that you're not going to be able to come up with anything positive after having worked there either," Palmer says.
[See: The ABCs of Interviewing.]
4. What is the top priority for the person in this position over the next three months?
This question is helpful so you know what to focus on if you do get the position, Palmer says. Without a clear expectation, she adds, you won't know what to accomplish or how to make the right impression during your first days on the job.
Interpreting the response: You may be told that you need to complete 15 tasks rather than two or three. "If these are all big initiatives that they want you to handle, probably not that doable," Palmer says.
5. What are the qualities of successful managers in this company?
If you're interviewing for a managerial position, you'll want knowledge of the skills and core competencies the company treasures in a leader, says David Lewis, founder and president of OperationsInc, a Connecticut-based human resources outsourcing and consulting firm. If excellent people skills and multitasking top the list, emphasize how you've demonstrated those traits throughout your career.
Interpreting the response: According to Lewis, you may get a response along these lines: "The best managers in our organization are independent thinkers, are good teachers and completely aligned with the direction the company is going in." If he or she can't name a single star in the managerial stable, that's problematic and speaks to an organization short on progress and promotions, Lewis notes.
6. If offered the position, can you give me examples of ways I would collaborate with my manager?
As an entry-level staffer, you may want to work with management as a means to showcase your skills and move up. But there's a distinction between simply taking orders and actively working with a superior who is grooming you for something better. "[Finding] out how an organization utilizes people at the staff level is key," Lewis says. "Is it a dictatorial environment or a collaborative one?"
Interpreting the response: The employer may be short on examples or dismiss the notion of working with management altogether. Prod further, Lewis says, and find out why that it is. There may be a legitimate reason behind why the company doesn't promote collaboration.
7. What are some challenges that will face the person filling this position?
You owe it to yourself to know what you're up against. "It just gives you a reality check," Palmer says. The drawbacks may differ depending on whether the position is managerial or entry-level. As a manager, you may oversee a department that runs on a shoestring budget. As a lower-level staffer, you may work odd hours or get stuck with assignments that lack substance.
Interpreting the response: The interviewer may point out the least offensive parts of the job. But if he or she denies any downside whatsoever, that should raise doubts about his or her credibility. "Any boss that tells you there are not challenges, they're lying. It's just that simple," Palmer says.
8. Do you have any hesitations about my qualifications?
Asking a question like this lets the interviewer know that you're secure enough to openly discuss your vulnerabilities. It also signals confidence and the ability to be coached, says John Kador, author of "301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview." "Coachability is a hugely attractive attribute as far as interviewers are concerned," he explains.
Interpreting the response: At your urging, the interviewer may voice concerns about a lack of training in certain areas or gaps in employment. Rather than gloss over your shortcomings, address them and put up a respectful and reasonable defense. "You may be able to come up with a satisfactory response, you may not," Kador says. "But at least you have the chance."