How to interview a prospective employer

Speaking about building wealth, J.D. Roth felt that he could never make this point emphatically enough: “Frugality is important, but if you want to make real progress, increase your income.” It’s in this context that being able to ace an interview becomes a very important skill. And certainly part of the interview process should include your asking questions of a prospective employer to make sure that the job and the company are right for you.

If you are early in your career, though, it is natural to approach a job interview as if it’s a test that you might or might not pass. But this perspective could lead to some undesirable results:

  • Firstly (and ironically), it may prevent you from highlighting your strengths.
  • Secondly, it may keep you from finding out the things that you need to know in order to properly consider a job offer if they do want to hire you.

Here are three more ways having a test mentality can affect how you conduct your interview and some strategies for how to avoid potential missteps.

Getting Anxious Instead of Being Confident

Thinking of an interview as a test is an easy way to make yourself overly anxious going into the experience. I definitely had test anxiety when I was in school, and I’m not sure it’s a healthy way to approach this part of your job search. However, if any aspect of the job interview is a test, it’s the résumé and cover letter.

If your brain simply can’t think of the job hunt in any other way, think of reading job ads as studying. Read each ad carefully and ask yourself: What do they really mean when they say things like “flexible,” “team player,” or “proven track record”? Are there hard skills like having a particular certification or knowing a programming language that are minimum qualifications for the position? Typically, if something is listed as a minimum qualification for the job, there is no point in applying if you don’t meet the criteria. This is especially the case with so-called hard skills.

However, many of the other desired traits will actually be transferable skills. That means as long as you can make a good case for how you possess those qualities, you are in the running. So tailor your résumé and cover letter to demonstrate this. If you are called in for an interview, that means they are already confident you have the skills required to do the job, so you should be confident too! Your focus shouldn’t be on defending yourself. (No one is attacking you — and if they are, do you really want to work there?) Instead, you should concentrate on acting like the friendly, competent colleague you are and plan to be.

Trying to Give the Right Answers Instead of Being Honest

Another unintentional side effect of the test-taking mindset is trying to figure out the right answer to the questions you are being asked.

The interview process is (or should be) as much about you finding a company that is a good fit for you as it is about proving to the prospective employer that you can do the job. Being honest up front will help avoid problems down the road, even if it means you aren’t offered the job.

Ideally, the expectations of a particular job will be clearly outlined in a job ad so that you are not put in a situation where you are interviewing for a job that doesn’t actually meet your criteria. However, sometimes language in a job ad leaves something to be desired in the clarity department. Additionally, sometimes there are things going on behind the scenes that mean job responsibilities have shifted a bit since the ad went live.

But telling a prospective employer that you are willing and able to travel when you’re actually not, or that you can work evenings and weekends when you can’t is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes these aspects of the job are more flexible than they appear. If they decide you are the best candidate for the job, they may find a way to make it work for you even if you say no, you can’t travel or work late. You are actually negotiating even before you begin to negotiate. And if the position doesn’t meet your criteria, it is better to decline the job offer gracefully than to take the job only to quit or be fired in six months.

Not Asking Questions of Your Own

Finally, and most importantly, a test mentality may prevent you from asking the questions you need answered! As I mentioned when I talked about what else to consider when accepting a job offer, the company representatives are putting their best foot forward, so you need to interview them to explore what they are saying as well. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • If they tell you that it is possible to advance quickly, ask: “Can you give me an example of someone who started in a similar role who has already advanced? How long did it take and what did they do to facilitate that process?”

  • If they say that work schedules are flexible and/or that it’s possible to work remotely, ask: “Can you give me examples of current employee work schedules that have incorporated flextime or remote work? What is the process for requesting these things, and what are the criteria and timeline for approval of such requests?”

  • If they say that you are eligible for overtime, ask: “How common is it for employees to have to work overtime, and how much advance notice are they given? Is overtime ever mandatory?”

  • If there is a vesting schedule for retirement contributions, employee stock purchase plans, or profit-sharing, ask: “How long before I become vested? How many current employees have been with the company long enough to become vested?”

  • If the company pays for training, certification, or continuing education, ask: “How many employees have taken advantage of this opportunity? What specific trainings, certifications, or degrees has the company covered in the past? How far in advance do such requests have to be made? Would I be reimbursed or would the company pay such costs directly?”

By asking questions, you may discover that perks on paper don’t match reality. If a company touts a particular policy, they should be able to give you specific examples of that policy being used by their employees. If they can’t, that may be a sign that things aren’t what they seem and you should proceed with caution.

Staying Calm Will Help You Listen

Of course, you should also ask any other questions that come to mind during the interview process. Being scared or trying to figure out what they want to hear can prevent you from really paying attention to what’s being said (and, sometimes, what’s not being said). Instead, be confident and approach the interview as an opportunity to find out as much as you can about the position and your prospective employer. That way, if you are offered the job, you can make an informed decision.

But I’m sure I haven’t listed all the questions that are good to ask, and some of this may vary by industry. What do you think is important to ask when interviewing a prospective employer? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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