Asking about culture and how success is measured can help you figure out if this job is right for you
by Bethan Rees
A job interview isn’t a one-way street. It’s an opportunity to ask questions about the role and the company to make sure it’s a good fit for you. This means you should go into the interview ready with some questions to ask.
In an article for The Cut, workplace advice columnist Alison Green writes: “As someone who has interviewed probably thousands of job applicants … I’m always surprised by how some candidates handle the part of the interview where it’s their turn to ask questions. A strangely large number of people don’t have many questions at all – which is hard to understand when they’re considering spending 40+ hours a week at this job.”
Green explains that some people might be concerned with appearing demanding. “It can be hard to elicit the information you really want to learn (like ‘what are you really like as a manager?’ and ‘am I going to go home crying every day?’) while still being reasonably tactful,” she writes.
Here are some examples of questions to ask in an interview that will give you useful insights into the job you’re applying for.
Questions about the job
You could use this opportunity to find out what the day-to-day responsibilities of the job will be, says an article by The Muse. These may include “could you show me examples of projects I’d be working on?” and “is this a new role that’s been created?”
In The Cut article, Green recommends asking what a typical day or week in the job looks like, as it is important to know how your time will be split. For example, “If the job description mentioned a combination of admin work and programme work, it’s important to know whether 90% of your time will be spent on the admin work or if the split is more like 50/50,” she writes. If the interviewer responds with “every day is different”, Green advises asking what the last month looked like for the person in the job currently, and what took up most of their time.
You might also want to ask about the challenges someone might face in this role, which might not be given in the job description other than criteria that state the candidate should be able to work to deadlines and manage multiple projects at once. By asking this question, Green says, you might get insight into things like budget restrictions and interdepartmental politics, for example. She adds that this can create an opportunity for you to discuss how you’ve overcome similar issues in the past. However, she writes, “I don’t recommend asking questions just so you can follow up with a sales pitch for yourself – that’s annoying and usually pretty transparent.”
Questions about training and professional development
The Muse article recommends thinking of “each new job not just as a job, but as the next step on your path to career success”. So how will this role get you there? You could ask about training programmes available to employees, or conferences that are available to attend.
A Glassdoor article suggests asking what professional development opportunities look like and suggests that “stagnation is a big red flag, so be alert”.
Questions about your performance
Understanding how your success will be measured is important to know as it will help you understand the company’s priorities as well as managerial style, says The Muse article, and it will also provide insight into the job.
In The Cut article, Green says that by asking this, you will get “right to the crux of what you need to know about the job”, which is “what does it mean to do well and what will you need to achieve in order for the manager to be happy with your performance?”
She says that sometimes this might not be laid out in the job description and that “companies often post job descriptions that primarily use boilerplate language from HR, while the actual manager has very different ideas about what’s most important in the role”.
By asking “what are you hoping this person will accomplish in their first six months and in their first year?” Green says this will give you a sense of the pace of the team and organisation. “If you’re expected to have major achievements under your belt after only a few months, that tells you that they likely won’t give you a lot of ramp-up time,” she says, which might be fine for someone with a lot of experience, but could be an issue for those with less.
Questions about the interviewer
Asking questions about the interviewer shows you’re interested in them, which is a good way to build rapport, says The Muse article. You could ask about their role and how it has changed, or what they did before this job, for example.
Asking about their favourite part of working at the company is a good way to get your interviewer’s opinions about working there, says the Glassdoor article. “If enthusiasm flows easily, that’s a great sign. If it doesn’t, that is worth noting too.” In The Cut article, Green echoes this and says that people who enjoy their jobs tend to be forthcoming with information and will sound sincere. “But if you get a blank stare or a long silence before your interviewer answers, or the answer is something like ‘the paycheck’, consider that a red flag,” she writes.
Questions about the cultureCompany culture says a lot about a workplace – it essentially describes ‘how things are done around here’. “Is the office buttoned-up conservative or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of place? Learn the subtle, but oh-so-important, aspects of company culture,” says The Muse article. You can do this through asking about team events, work environments or office traditions.
You could ask “How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive here, and what type don’t do as well?” Green suggests in The Cut article. You can find out whether it’s a formal place to work with lots of hierarchy, or if it’s a competitive environment for example. “You’ll usually be happier if you know what you’re signing up for, and aren’t unpleasantly surprised after you start,” she says.
Questions about next steps
Before leaving an interview, it’s good to be clear about what the next steps of the process are. Will there be a second interview or test if you’re successful?
Asking about the timeline for the next steps is useful too, as it gives you an idea of when you can expect to hear back, Green says. “Otherwise, if you’re like many people, in a few days you’re likely to start agonising about whether you should have heard back about the job by now and what it means that you haven’t, and obsessively checking your phone to see if the employer has tried to make contact,” she says. It also means you can reasonably follow up if you haven’t heard from them after the time they stated.
Use the job interview as an opportunity to find out if this role is a good fit for you in terms of culture, responsibilities and how success is measured.
Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email email@example.com.