how many questions can you ask in a job interview?

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A reader writes:

My question is about … questions. How many are OK to ask in an interview while being respectful of time? I usually try to squeeze in as many as I can while monitoring how much time my interviewer seems to have available for questioning (usually allowed at the end).

I have asked as many as 5-6 before, but I usually have more — and not necessarily about pay/benefits, which may not take as much time to answer, but aspects of the work and organizational culture that can take longer for the interviewer to answer. I find that even if I have other contact(s) at the organization who I can learn from and have researched the organization online, I still like to ask the interviewer some of the same information to get a second viewpoint, which makes the number of potential questions to ask very long. Is there a good rule of thumb?

Some of this depends on what stage you’re at. If it’s an initial phone screen, they have less time and are going to expect fewer questions than if it’s an in-person interview. Generally in phone interviews, most candidates ask fewer than five questions. In an in-person interview, when it’s closer to the final stages, you might have many more than that.

The key thing is what type of questions you’re asking, more than it is the number. If you ask 12 questions and they’re all thoughtful queries and clearly things that could impact your level of interest in the job, I’m not going to have a problem with that; I’m going to appreciate that you’re trying to figure out if this is the right role for you. But if you ask three questions and none of them seem designed to help you understand key things about the job and the workplace, I’m going to wonder why you’re wasting my time. And that’s a good marker to use here: Is the question something that will determine your level of interest in the job?

(For instance, I always wonder about this when a candidates only asks, say, three questions, and one of those questions is something highly unlikely to impact their interest in the job, like “How did you come to work here?” — which for some reason is a semi-popular question for candidates to ask their interviewer. Really, this is one-third of what you want to know to help you decide if this is a job you want?)

Now, it’s certainly possible that we might not have time for all 12 of your questions, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want you to get answers to them at some point, if you continue in the process. So you might start with a smaller number, but remain alert to the interviewer’s cues about how much time she has. If you’re getting the vibe that she wants you to wrap it up, it’s fine to say, “I do have more questions that I’d want to ask if we move forward, but I want to be respectful of your time, so I’ll hold them for now.” You can also just ask: “I have a ton of questions for you, but I’m not sure how much time we have. I can ask a few of them now, and hold the others for later if we move forward, if you prefer?”

And if you’ve had an interview and didn’t get some important questions answered, and they call you to come in for another interview, and you’d really like your questions answered first so that you don’t waste your time interviewing if the answers aren’t to your liking, then it’s totally okay to say: “I’d love to come in and talk to you again. Before I do, there are two things that are really important to me that I’d love to find out before I take up any more of your time.” But you’d only do this if their answers might make you turn down the second interview; otherwise, you’d just hold your questions for the in-person meeting. (If you do this with idle curiosity things, it’s going to be annoying.)

And if you get offered a job before having had all your questions answered, it’s completely fine to say that you still have some questions about the job and ask to set up a time to have them answered (or ask them on the spot, if it seems like that kind of conversation).

The main thing to know is that no good employer would want you to take a job that you hadn’t had a chance to ask all your significant questions about, even though it might need to happen in a different conversation. And if an employer seems to be expecting you to take a job without getting all your questions answered, consider it a danger sign.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. AdAgencyChick

    This! I’m nearly always asked to interview candidates over the space of a half hour. There’s just no way that I can find out everything they need to know about me/the job, and that I need to know about them, in half an hour.

    If someone is asking me intelligent questions, not only is it neutral (s/he’s trying to evaluate the position and make sure it’s right), it’s a downright positive (can be an indication that the candidate’s mind works in a way that would be helpful on the job).

    On the other hand, if a candidate doesn’t ask me anything about the challenges and interesting aspects about the position, and asks me only self-serving questions (such as “what are the hours like?”) or asks questions that make it clear s/he doesn’t have the knowledge necessary to succeed in the position, that is a definite negative. I’m not saying don’t ask ANY self-serving questions, because goodness knows I like having a life outside of work, and I don’t blame anyone who interviews with me for wanting one too. But they should be the sprinkles on the cupcake of questions that display your enthusiasm and worthiness for the position.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    I would say that the “how did you come to work here” is a (poorly-worded) version of something designed to get at the organizational culture. Better might be, “please tell me your impression of the organization’s culture,” or “what do you like best about the job” (if it’s a peer colleague interviewing you), etc. I find that the WAY the person answers the “org culture” question tells me at least as much about the place as the content of the answer.

    Reply
    1. AdAgencyChick

      I actually don’t think “how did you come to work here” is always a bad question, but that’s because I work in a subspecialty of advertising that is almost always a career change. (It’s not a profession you hear about when you’re five years old the way you hear about doctors and lawyers and firefighters.) When I get that question, it’s usually in the context of the candidate trying to find out how our backgrounds would go together.

      Let’s say most people either come to the chocolate teapot industry either because they used to be chocolate specialists or they used to be teapot specialists. In that case, if a candidate is coming into the job after a successful career in teapot management, she might want to know, am I a former chocolate guru who could help her expand her understanding of the chocolate aspect of the business, or am I a fellow teapot expert?

      I think if the question is coming from that kind of place, it’s not bad, although it’s perhaps not well phrased if the real object is to get at “In what areas would I be best positioned to learn from you as my manager?”

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    2. Abby

      I would word that question as ” Would you be able to share with did you personally choose to work for this company”. I think it is a very interesting question. It would give you information about what’s important for that specific person, and what they value about the company and the position itself.

      Reply
  3. VictoriaHR

    Asking the interviewer how they came to work there – that’s yet another example of horrible advice offered by job-seeking coach websites and blogs. I’ve seen it.

    I take 3-4 written questions with me to interviews, gleaned and figured out from the company website usually, about the company culture and the job itself, and if the interviewer answers them during the session but then asks if I have questions, I just say, “I did have questions about X and Y, but you’ve answered them for me, so I am good!”

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  4. Ann

    I’ve had both sides of the coin, where I’ve come in with questions or thought of questions during the interview and didn’t have time to ask them all. And then, I’ve had interviews where the “interviewer” barely asked me any questions and I ended up doing all the asking, and my 6 or so well thought-out questions weren’t enough.

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  5. Jane

    It never occurred to me that asking how the interviewer came to this particular job was a bad question. I have learned a lot of useful information by asking that. I guess it depends on the industry/job but in my experience interviewers light up and are excited to speak about it and might mention similarities they perceive between us and specifically between what motivated them to apply for and later accept the job and what motivated me to apply.

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    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s not that it’s a bad question per se — it’s that if it’s one of only 3 questions you’re asking, it’s a bad question. There’s so, so much more that you’d want to know beyond that, and which will have a significant impact on your fit for the role and your happiness there. It’s a case of skewed priorities.

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I’ve found IME that asking the interviewer that question tends to give me a very clear indication of the office politics. They generally let down their guard just enough that I can pick up on a lot. I’ve had people who were clearly frustrated, people who were still enthusiastic after 20 years, and people who I could tell felt threatened by my background based on how they talked about themselves. (I have high level experience in my field but moved to an area where most people don’t have much). I also can tell if the company gives opportunities to grow or not. I find that the “job” questions are often less insightful because the hiring managers usually remember that they need to put a positive spin on those answers.

        Reply
  6. Rose

    I absolutely love this response! Additionally, I was wondering if anyone has some tips for an interviewer on how to wrap things up when an applicant’s questions get too time consuming, or when their questions are not appropriate for me to answer. For instance when I am interviewing Account Managers, often times they have questions for me about specific named accounts, or specific challenges in these specific accounts… both questions that I would not be able to answer as an HR Manager and would be more appropriate for our Director of Sales to answer if it got to that step in the interviewing process. I don’t want to come across as rude, or make a candidate feel like their questions are not important.

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    1. UK HR Bod

      I sometimes have that. I would simply say something on the lines of “I’m not best placed to answer those questions, but X will be able to give you much more clarity if we move forward with you”. For candidates who are taking up too much time, I’ve gone with “I’ll have to call a halt after one more question, as we do have other people to see, but do keep hold of those questions in case we move forward with you” – or occasionally I will say email if there are any questions, but that tends to be when people haven’t had any at the time.

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    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I sometimes will say something like, “That’s a lengthier answer than I can do justice to right now, but would be glad to get into it in detail if we move forward.” Or “Bob can speak to that with a lot more nuance than I can, so if we move forward, definitely ask him that.”

      Reply
  7. De Minimis

    I’ve often asked about the interview’s history with the company [or agency.] I don’t know if that is the same as asking “How did you come to work here?” but the question has usually been well-received and usually has given them a chance to discuss possible long-term career paths.

    It’s funny, the question that I have *never* had success with as far as asking during an interview is “the magic question.” It has usually resulted in blank looks, and responses like, “Well, I don’t really like to compare people like that….”

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You are literally the only person who’s ever had a bad response to that question, so I wonder if there’s something about the tone or the way you’re framing/presenting it?

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      1. De Minimis

        I think it’s more about the places I was interviewing. The place where the owner said he didn’t like to compare people that way was really terrible as far as how they treated me as a candidate and I found out later I’d really dodged a bullet by not being hired there.. I think a lot of the others had already more or less made a decision about me beforehand.

        Some of it may also just be that accounting is not really a big field for thoughtful questions, either from interviewers or interviewees. They usually were not interested in much other than what types of work I’d done, what software I’d worked with, and whether I could get started with an absolute minimum of training.

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    2. diane

      I’ve asked the magic question, and I’m beginning to see a pattern. If the interviewers look confused or can’t answer it, it’s a bad sign. I understand needing time to reflect, but when I’ve gotten a non-answer, it’s usually part of a larger pattern showing that the hiring manager or the culture as a whole is reactive, not particularly reflective, or doesn’t really know what they want.

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          1. Zahra

            I’ve asked the magic question recently when interviewing for a new position (i.e. not an existing one where you’re replacing someone). While I did have to put that question in hypothetical terms and the hiring manager did go “Er.. that’s a good question…”, he came through with a proper answer and it did tell me what they are looking for in the position and a little bit about the company culture.

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            1. Anonymous

              I’ve used the magic question before and it usually elicited a good response. I think the only time it didn’t was at an interview I had that was going south rather quickly. Otherwise people were generally pretty impressed.

              Reply
  8. AnotherAlison

    Asking the interviewer how they came into their role:

    By the time I interview with someone, I’ve already googled them. Most of them have a LinkedIn profile, so I know their history.

    I personally don’t see a huge benefit in asking this question because it’s not necessarily relevant to my future career path or my fit in the role. (For example, a job I’m currently in late-round discussions for will work closely with a former communications coach and was previously held by an MLIS person. I have an engineering degree/MBA. I don’t think it’s not the job for me because their backgrounds are different. It’s a strategy job – people come into those from all angles.)

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    1. amandamonkey

      I’ve heard some great insights by asking my interviewers a slightly different version of this question – “how long have you been working here and what makes you stay?”

      Reply
      1. ThursdaysGeek

        Yes. I want to know if this is a place where people like to work, and often stay a long time, or if it’s a place that people leave as soon as they can.

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    2. Jamie

      I also don’t see the relevance in asking an interviewer about their own career path or how they came to work there.

      One – how people end up where they are and why they choose to stay is so individual I don’t see how it’s helpful – it’s also feels oddly personal in a way I can’t articulate.

      Interviewee: How did you come to work here?

      Me: I impulsively quit my last job with nothing lined up and so when Current Employer offered to let me do what I do in exchange for money I jumped at it.

      Interviewee: How long have you been here and why do you stay?

      Me: I’ve been here almost 5 years and I stay because I love the work, I like and respect the people with/for whom I work, and I dislike change. Maybe this is the best place for me, maybe I’m just so resistant to transition that I refuse to see if there is anything else out there for me. Besides I finally memorized all the potholes on the 33 mile trek between my house and the office and I don’t want to have to do that with another location.

      Also – sometimes I get so overwhelmed and stressed that I don’t particularly want to stay as much as I do want to keep paying my mortgage and the kids are used to daily meals. And I know the stress will pass and overall I’d rather be here than elsewhere.

      (honestly wouldn’t work – that would need a whole lot of editing)

      Interviewee: How did you move into your position?

      Me: Worked really hard. Long hours. Got a reputation for being a workaholic psychopath who is also a total control freak. And I’ve never come across a business function I didn’t want to weasel my way into learning about.

      Yep – not answering that to a stranger either.

      Now the magic question? I’d love to speak with anyone in detail about the attributes that would take someone from good to great in a position. I can talk about the work place, what we offer, even the downsides…and what is needed all day long. That’s totally different than asking about my personal journey.

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  9. Liz T

    Any academia folk here have insight into some questions I might ask in my upcoming grad school interview?

    I hope that doesn’t constitute a thread-jack; my interview’s Friday and I’m really nervous!

    Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I used the Magic Question in my own grad school interviews (in a STEM discipline) and it was positively received. I got a good sense of how much independence in research was typical at each program and the pace at which the best students tended to work. One professor, who was fairly new to managing grads, hadn’t thought about the question.

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  10. YMA

    Hi,

    To the person who said 12 questions,

    Can you please share those questions here?
    What are they? If you ask questions as why is this position open, is it offensive? also, why can interviewer get to ask for .5 hours and I get only 5 minutes, how is this a fair exchange of information?
    Thanks email me or post here the 12 questions , it would be appreciated.

    Reply

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