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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Beth
Beth
5 years ago

The best piece of advice anyone has ever given me about job interviews is to think of them as conversations. Employers want to get to know you, you want to get to know them. You’re there to find out what each other is all about. I’m not sure why this article is framed in terms of “what not to do”, but I agree it’s really important to ask questions throughout the interview, not just at the end. It’s also important to really listen and reflect their words back at them, a la “It sounds like you’re looking for x, let… Read more »

Jamie V
Jamie V
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I’ve tried to do this in the past, as I’m trying to change jobs within the company. But it always turns into me having a conversation on my side, and the interviewer moving mechanically down a list of question he or she is required to ask and have an answer for on their side. There have been times when I’ve answered “X” with points 1, 2, and 3. The next question, “Can you tell me if you have ever done 2 before, and how?” I’m like..what did I just tell you?! So I repeat myself. Again. And again. It gets… Read more »

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

Make sure you balance your questions between benefits and work. If someone asked only about advancement, vesting schedule, flextime, and pay for training, I probably wouldn’t hire them. I want people on my team who find the work interesting and care about the projects they work on.

If you really want to learn about the company, ask your would-be boss what her favorite project is and why. Or what they like most about working there.

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Some of it depends who the meeting is with. The last time I had a job interview I met with an HR specialist, a potential supervisor, and potential team members/colleagues separately. I asked each group different questions — the HR person and I discussed benefits almost exclusively because she had no real insight into my potential role or day-to-day activities.

Kathryn K.
Kathryn K.
5 years ago

I agree with the two previous commenters about treating it like a conversation and that in the first round interview as many or more of your questions should be about the work itself rather than the benefits. In the most recent interview I had, I definitely went into it with the mindset that I had things I needed to find out to make sure the job would be a good fit for me. (Thanks to talking with some people who had worked for the company, I knew potential issues to ask about.) I think asking some tough questions didn’t do… Read more »

Rebecca@TheFamilyFinder
5 years ago

I think that when you are desperate for a job and need the money it is the worst time to interview. I will eventually go back to work when the kids go to school and will be able to find a place that is a good fit for me rather than taking the first offer because I need the money. I know we can make it without me working.
Having an emergency fund and low expenses = freedom to say no.

Wiggles @ FirstYouGetTheMoney
Wiggles @ FirstYouGetTheMoney
5 years ago

One thing I recommend doing is trying to feel out what the culture is like. A major factor of your happiness at your new job is if you fit in with the current employees. If you know someone that already works at the place you are interviewing, it’s worth a lunch or dinner with them to discuss the current culture and determine whether it’s a good fit for you.

Sherry
Sherry
5 years ago

One of the most useful things I started doing in interview situations was taking notes. In one instance, one of the three interviewers on the panel commented that she had never seen anyone do that and asked why I was. I replied that I was looking into a number of opportunities and wanted to be able to compare apples to apples. I had my questions written down and left space for their answers and this gave me the opportunity to see any red flags that arose. (for those who get nervous in interviews, this also gives you something to do… Read more »

Marc
Marc
5 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

Sherry,
That’s one of the most excellent suggestions I’ve heard in awhile. It makes sure you get what you are looking for as well as giving them the impression that there are other offers out there. Each of us are self-employed: we sell ourselves on a daily basis to our employer. The interview is as much an interview OF the company as an interview BY the company.

Fervent Finance
Fervent Finance
5 years ago

My last interview was for a position at my current employer, but the hiring process was treated just like an external hire as it was for a more prestigious role in the organization. I had a full day of interviews including a lunch with a manager. I had already networked within the group I was looking to join and therefore once I was sent my interview schedule, I called up the person in the group and they gave me a run-down of every interviewer. Therefore, I walked into each interview confident, feeling I already knew a little something about them… Read more »

Melissa Cooley @ The Job Quest
Melissa Cooley @ The Job Quest
5 years ago

The questions suggested in the article are not ones I would recommend that candidates bring up during the interview process. If, as Honey Smith talked about in a previous comment, you are meeting with HR and s/he starts bringing up various aspects of the benefits package first, then it’s fine to talk about them. But still, make sure the discussion doesn’t come off as self-serving if you are at an earlier point in the interview process. Compensation is important, and I agree that any offer that is significantly lower than what the going rate is should be rejected (if possible).… Read more »

Ely
Ely
5 years ago

The most valuable piece of advice about interviewing I’ve seen is to remember that YOU are interviewing THEM as much as they are interviewing you. They are as interested in filling the job as you are in getting it; they are hoping you are the person for them as much as you are. I’m back in the job market after nearly 10 years in one position. Now, I have an advantage in that I don’t need to find a job right now, and I can hold out for the right one. I am finding that my confidence is in a… Read more »

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