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Questions Make the Candidate

by Paul Falcone, Vice president of human resources at Time Warner Cable

Paul Falcone

Standing out in the interview process doesn’t typically come from one “wow” response to a question or magic answer that acts like a silver bullet. Instead, it’s a combination of a number of factors, including the match of your industry and functional background to the job at hand, education or technical training, and most important, “likeability” factor. After all, people tend to hire in their own image, and when things that people have in common generate a spark of interest or familiarity, a natural sense of camaraderie often results. But there’s one particular area that job candidates appear to neglect, and that’s asking the right questions at the end of the meeting when invited by the interviewer.

Questions demonstrate your sincere interest in the role you’re applying for. And as they say, people can often tell more about a candidate’s “depth” by the questions they ask rather than the statements they make. Therefore, asking no questions, or asking “filler” questions that add little value to the conversation, represent a lost opportunity to stand out as a rarity from your competition and close the employer on your interest in the job.

Think of this scenario: You’re interviewing a candidate who appears to have an excellent background, is well spoken, energetic, and genuinely interested in the job opening at your organization. At the very end of the meeting, you ask, “Janet, what questions can I answer for you in terms of this role or our company?” The candidate’s response: “Oh, I think you’ve answered everything-I’m good to go at this point.” You interviewer is now thinking, “Really? You mean you want to work here for the next five - ten years, and you can’t even think of one question to ask me about your future with our company?” And voila - your impressive skills and background, along with everything else you’ve invested in the interview up to this point, were all just diminished. Not only that, but your failure to engage is the last impression that you’re leaving with this interviewer as you walk out the door.

“Filler” questions are another problem: “So, what year was the company founded? How large is the company in terms of revenue and employee base? And what are your primary product lines and revenue streams?” are all questions that you should know walking in the door. The Internet has certainly made researching companies that much easier, so beginning an interview without a basic knowledge of the company’s specs will arguably lessen your perception in the employer’s eyes in terms of someone who’s done their homework and came in prepared to make the most of the meeting.
So what questions lend themselves well to an interview and can be used on a fairly regular basis? Try these on for size, and feel free to customize them to fit the moment as necessary: “Actually, I do have a few questions, if you wouldn’t mind providing me with a little bit of additional background . . . “

  1. What do you see as some of the immediate challenges facing a new hire in the first 90 days or six months?
  2. I think I have a fairly thorough understanding of the role in terms of the primary duties; what would be some of the secondary responsibilities that happen on more of an occasional (say quarterly) basis?
  3. I saw on your Linked In profile that you’ve been here for about four years now. What initially attracted you to the firm, and what factors in general do you feel account for your company’s success?
  4. I’ve taken the liberty of researching your company before the interview, and I was wondering what two or three things you feel make the organization special or unique?
  5. I know there are differences between a company’s culture and a particular department’s personality. How would you describe the culture or personality of your department?
  6. How would you define your team’s work style? I know that fitting in right from the start is very important, so how would you describe the pace of the office, the overall communication style, and the general sense of camaraderie among the group?
  7. What would you add or subtract to the backgrounds of people who have held this role in the past that could have made them more successful in the position?
  8. Are there any particular immediate challenges you’re facing or trying to solve in hiring someone for this role?

Two or three well-placed questions will not only help you get a better feel for what it’s like working in that position for that supervisor at that organization, but they will also demonstrate your genuine interest in the opportunity. Adding this element of smart questions to the tail-end of your interview will leave a lasting impression as someone who’s genuinely interested in the role, naturally inquisitive, and selective about managing their career wisely.

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Paul Falcone is an HR executive and former contingency recruiter who's held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of several best-selling books, including├âé├é┬á96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, one of the Society for Human Resource Management's "Great 8 of 2011" bestsellers.