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Turning the tables in an interview

HR managers say it’s not just okay for candidates to ask questions in a job interview, it’s actually encouraged
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First Published: Sun, Sep 08 2013. 03 23 PM IST
Job interviews are not an opportunity to show off, but to learn more
Job interviews are not an opportunity to show off, but to learn more
Updated: Tue, Sep 10 2013. 10 43 AM IST
Preparing for a job interview can be stressful. Most of us spend the days and hours leading up to the interview reading about the company and its top brass, going through their website in some detail, and catching up on general and industry news. Our energies are geared towards being able to talk intelligently on any subject the interviewers may broach. What most of us tend to overlook, however, is the importance of preparing a list of questions we might have of the company and its management—things we are concerned about, issues we want to know more about before taking the job.
“It’s all information collection,” says Stuart Diamond, emeritus practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s The Wharton School, US, who was in India recently. And information, he says, is key to negotiating the best possible outcome to meet your goals. He indicates you might even be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t do some of the asking in a job interview.
“I want to know the company’s philosophy of treating employees. I want to know when people get promoted. I want to know what the company does when an employee performs well. I want to know how they decide whether that employee gets a raise. I want to know what the company does when an employee makes a mistake. I want to ask them, ‘How do you handle learning by employees?’ ‘What kind of improvement do you want employees to have during their employment?’” he says.
But what if the company you’re interviewing with does not offer you a chance to ask questions. What do you do if the human resource (HR) manager never gets around to asking if you have any questions for them?
According to Diamond, there is no harm in asking, “‘Is it okay if I ask some questions during the interview?’ If they say no, you know something is wrong”.
In his 2010 best-seller Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World, Diamond wrote: “I tell my students who are having a hard time with prospective employers on job interviews: ‘This is the nicest they will ever be to you.’ So if there’s a problem now, watch out!”
What to ask
HR managers in India say the tide is now turning. It’s not just okay for candidates to ask questions during an interview today, it’s actually encouraged. T.K. Mandal, vice-president, HR, JK Paper Ltd, Delhi, says: “In the good old days it was seen as a sign of arrogance on the part of a candidate to ask a question. Now it is taken as a positive sign if candidates ask questions about their career growth.”
To many hiring managers, questions about the candidate’s growth prospects in the company and the organization’s culture indicate that the interviewee has put some thought into their future at the company. It’s a sign that they are not just eager to land the job, but are thinking about what it would mean for them if they stayed with the organization for a few years. “It indicates a level of interest in the job. It shows whether the candidate is curious and analytical. After all, the interview is a chance for both parties to see if they’re a good fit for each other,” says Manish Sinha, director HR at Gurgaon-based Becton, Dickinson (BD) & Co. (India), a medical technologies company.
Delhi-based Savneet Shergill, head of talent acquisition, Dell India, agrees. “From such interactions, one can gauge if a person is serious or not, if he likes to keep himself abreast of the latest in today’s fast-paced environment. Smart questions around career growth prospects, etc., could indicate if the candidate is intent on a long-term career with the company.”
Most HR managers are, of course, happy to take questions about expectations on the job, on how the candidate can grow, about any skill enhancement or mentorship programmes, and even about benefits and compensation. But smart candidates are increasingly turning this into an opportunity to gain an edge.
Prashant Bhatnagar, director (hiring) at Gurgaon-based Sapient, says a recent hire from a premier business school actually scored points with him for asking an interesting, forward-looking question during his interview. The candidate had asked, “Is it okay for us to say no to a superior?” recalls Bhatnagar. To Bhatnagar, the question about whether the organization wanted only yes-men or supported an environment where it was okay to disagree with a team leader showed insightful thinking. It showed a degree of inquisitiveness; it showed that the candidate was likely to have a point of view rather than just agreeing with the leader. The candidate landed a job as a technology associate at Sapient, says Bhatnagar.
Something similar happened at JK Paper Ltd. Mandal says the company was wowed by a “gentleman in mid-management” who after exhibiting excellent knowledge of the sector in his interview asked “about the business outlook of the company, in terms of growth in the current economic environment”. Mandal says the candidate’s question was a window into his “focused thought process and his forward thinkingness”. Of course, the candidate was offered the job.
Clearly, the questions you ask in an interview can help address your doubts, but they are also another chance to sway the decision in your favour.
Earlier this year, an interview panel at BD was also pleasantly surprised by a question put to them by a candidate. BD was looking for someone in a business leadership role. A candidate, who did not have prior experience in the healthcare industry, asked why BD wasn’t exploring growth in a segment in which it already had “penetration”. It only made sense for them to work in it, he said simply. While Sinha declined to share more information on what this sector was, he says the question left the panelists stunned for a moment. It was something they had just begun discussing internally at the company. And here was this industry outsider to whom the growth stream was immediately apparent. The candidate scored over others who had spent years in the industry.
When to ask
Of course, how you ask a question during the job interview is just as important as what you ask. First, if the opportunity to ask a question does not seem forthcoming, wait till at least three-quarters of the interview is done before politely interjecting, says Sinha.
Bhatnagar says so long as you’re tactful, you may ask anything. And he does mean anything. For example, if you want to know how you did in the interview, he suggests framing the question to ask if there’s anything you could have done differently.
Diamond would agree with that advice. He says it’s important to figure out what your concerns are at the moment and what they’re likely to be in the future, and ask questions. If you are worried about layoffs by the company in hard times, ask: “‘If you’re downsizing, do you give employees the opportunity to change their skill level? How do you handle that? Do you have a programme’,” he says. It’s logic that he applies in getting an increment as well. “Don’t say ‘I deserve to get a raise for the past’, ask what you can do in the future to justify getting a raise,” he says.
Discretion, here as elsewhere, is the better part of valour. Of course, it may reflect badly on you if you ask questions that could have been easily answered by looking at the company website. Repeating questions or asking follow-on queries without listening closely to the interviewers’ responses is a no-no. Bhatnagar says it’s also very off-putting when a candidate makes a comment rather than asking a question. Just because you’ve done some research and looked at the company website does not mean you know more about the company than the hiring manager, he says. This is not an opportunity to show off how much you know, but to learn more. If in the process HR managers get a glimpse into how you think and what’s important to you, all the better for everyone involved.
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First Published: Sun, Sep 08 2013. 03 23 PM IST