8 questions job-seekers wish they could ask employers

When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s important to interview the employer right back, to make sure that this is a job you want and a company you want to be a part of. But there are some questions that most job seekers don’t feel comfortable asking — even though they’d love to know the answers:

1. How secure is this job? No one wants to leave a secure job for one that’s in danger of disappearing. If the new company is having financial troubles, new hires could be on the top of the list if lay-offs happen – but all too often employers don’t warn prospective hires that this might be coming.

How to find out: You can often find information online about a company’s financial position – but it’s also not taboo to ask an interviewer outright about the company’s finances and how safe the position is in case of cutbacks or strategic changes.

2. What do your employees think of you? Managers have an enormous impact on workers’ day-to-day quality of life at work. Yet it’s often hard to tell in an interview if a manager is going to turn out to be unreasonable, or a wimp who can’t get things done, or a jerk, or even outright abusive.

How to find out: Peek behind the curtain by asking to talk to some of the other employees who you would be working with. A good company won’t mind arranging that, so it’s a red flag if they balk.  You can also check the company’s reviews on sites like GlassDoor.com (although take these reviews with a grain of salt since they’re anonymous).

3. Can I really use those benefits? Some companies offer generous vacation time on paper, but not in practice. If you can never get your time off approved and your manager frowns on taking vacations, it won’t matter how much paid time off you’re supposedly earning.

How to find out: Talking to current employees can help you learn the truth about benefits too. Try asking about what time people typically leave work, when they last took vacation time, and how they feel about the company’s benefits package overall.

4. Why do most people really leave jobs here? In some offices, it’s a poorly kept secret that turnover is high because the company won’t give raises or offer opportunities for promotion, or simply because the management makes employees’ lives miserable. But as a job-seeker, it can be impossible to tell this from the outside.

How to find out: Ask what kind of turnover the department or organization has had recently. You can also ask what the company does to retain good employees.

5. How do people get along here? Few people want to work for a company where coworkers pass the day in icy silence (or worse, open hostility). And on the other side of the spectrum, most people don’t want to work for a company where they’ll be expected to attend nightly happy hours and participate in forced bonding either.

How to find out: Pay attention to the energy of the office when you’re there to interview: Do people seem cheerful and focused, or miserable and counting the hours until the day ends?

6. How often do you give raises? A proposed starting salary might seem generously high – but if it will be years before that number is revisited, it might suddenly be a lot less appealing. A good starting salary could turn into a below-market thorn in your side in a few years. Speaking of which…

How to find out: As with most things money-related, wait until you have a job offer to inquire about this one. Once you have an offer and you’re negotiating salary, ask how often salaries are typically revisited. Is it an automatic annual process tied to performance evaluations or is it more ad hoc?

7. When is the last time you fired someone? Most people know how frustrating it is to have a coworker who the company obviously should have fired but who instead was allowed to languish on. Just as good workers want to work for a company that will reward great performance, they also want to work for a company that will get rid of people if they deserve to be fired.

How to find out: This question can be tricky, because you don’t want to sound as though you’re hoping to slack off without any consequences. You can get around that by explaining why you’re asking. For instance, you could say, “I’ve seen first-hand the impact on a team when someone isn’t pulling their weight, and so I know how important address that when it happens. How does the company handle performance concerns?”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Pamela G

    Love it! Would you raise an eyebrow if a candidate asked you any of those in an interview, Alison?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      With some of them, it depends on how they’re asked — tone will make all the difference in how they come across. And of course, ith others, you can’t count on getting a real answer from most interviewers (such as “what do your employees really think of you?”).

    2. Girl

      I believe some of these questions should be provided by the interviewer automatically.

      However, I know anything about pay until the offer is taboo.

      What about responsibilities. I’d also like to know if you’re hired for a specific job description but end up doing that only 50% of the time and end up doing something else, usually a lower level. It’s one thing if you do these other tasks some of the time but for it to take up 50% of your time. VERY demeaning. I’m hence looking for another job.

  2. Eric

    I asked number 4 in all of my recent interviews. I also asked number 1 in a roundabout way, by asking a few questions about the earnings and business practices of the company. I was too chicken to ask any of the others, though they did cross my mind.

    1. sam.i.am

      I changed jobs in 2008 and I definitely asked about the firm’s financial security. Unfortunately, I still got laid off six months later.

      I’ve also asked a version of #4. I usually phrase it as, “What does the career path for someone in this position look like?” or “If I take this job, what opportunities does this open up for me within the industry?”

      I think there are questions you can ask that get at some of the answers without asking them in an inappropriate way.

  3. cf

    “What time do people really leave work? Are you expected to work until 9 p.m. every night?”

    That’s what I want to know. Once burned, twice shy.

    1. Joe

      I do ask a variation on that, which is how many hours a week people work on average. My job is important, but so is my personal time, and I want to make sure I’m not getting into a situation where my job demands I sacrifice my personal time.

  4. Josh S

    Is there a reasonable way to ask #8?

    I mean, it gets to the functionality of the business/team. If underperforming/non-performing people are kept on, it drags down morale of everyone else (especially the high performers). It’s tacit encouragement to slack off, basically.

    Could you ask, “How does the company reward high performers?” and then follow it up with, “When was the last time you had to deal with a low performer, and what did you do?”

    I think it’s gotta be couched in terms of “I want to make sure I’m not getting into a dysfunctional workplace” or else the employer will think that you are looking to find out if you will be able to slack. Any thoughts?

  5. Long Time Admin

    We *could* all ask these questions, but the interviewers will just lie, so why bother. The only real chance we’ll have about finding out these things is if we know someone who works there, and who would tell us the truth. This is where networking can be valuable.

    A couple of years ago, I steered a good friend away from a job in my department because I knew she would hate it as much as I did. She interviewed for a different job instead, which she got and loved.

    1. Unmana

      That wouldn’t necessarily work though. Yeah, you might learn about some big red flags, but unless the office is outrightly dysfunctional, it might suit your personality and not your friend’s. For example, I’ve been warned about my bosses when I joined new jobs and then got along swimmingly with them.

      Also, interviewers might not necessarily lie. After all, they (okay, the smart ones) don’t want you looking for a job in three months because they misled you about the work environment!

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, not all interviewers lie. It’s far from universal! Long Time Admin, if you’re interviewing with that attitude, I’m concerned it’s going to show through and keep you from getting jobs — it’s worth reconsidering!

      1. Long Time Admin

        I do wobble back and forth on that. I blame menopause for the mood swings.

        I haven’t been interviewing for more than 7 years, and considering my age, if I get laid off from this job, I probably won’t look for another admin job. There’s a limit on how much money I could earn after going on social security, so some kind of p/t job that I might actually enjoy would be my goal (maybe something at my church).

  6. Lee

    If you have the opportunity to talk to people in the same team you would potentially be working with and not just the hiring manager, I think it is a lot easier to gather this type of information. I discovered interesting information about the work schedules, work loads, work/life balance, and how they prefer to get things done day to day.

  7. Kelly O

    I have asked about turnover before, or how long people tend to stay in positions. It can give you insight into a lot of things, not just length of tenure. The way someone answers that question, or even the way they respond to it, can tell you a lot about them. Biggest red flag I ever had in an interview was when I asked that about a position I’d seen advertised more than once over the course of a few months.

    When I asked about that, mentioning it in the course of asking about turnover, I got a hugely defensive response about the awful people who’d been hired and how none of them worked out because they were just horrible fits.

    I look at it this way, much like a company, I’ll give you a few bad decisions. I’ve made plenty of those myself. But when you have nearly a dozen in the course of a few months, it raises a huge red flag, particularly when you lay all the blame at the other party’s feet.

  8. GeekChic

    I always ask about turnover and I also ask a version of Josh S’ questions above about high performers and low performers. As Kelly O pointed out, often the reaction gives me as much information as what is actually said in response.

    One of the reasons I took my current position is because my interviewers arranged for alone time with the people who would be my co-workers so they could talk to me about how things really worked. Two of them went to dinner with me to tell what was good and what wasn’t so good. It was clear that they had been encouraged to be brutally honest. My interviewers were equally honest about the downsides of the position.

    1. Sophie

      My company did that when my boss first started including us on the hiring team. He left the room and we talked openly with the candidate. It went great – the candidate accepted out offer and was grateful that we spoke honestly with him. But now my boss is no longer doing that, and I really wish he would. We’ve had a few people quit early into the job because of fit issues and I think if we had talked with them honestly, that would have been avoided.

  9. Suzanne

    Glassdoor.com is a good place to go for employees reviews of the companies in which they work. I’m sure it’s not 100% reliable, but if all the employee reviews are one way or the other, it does give you some indication of the work environment.

    1. SW Engineer

      That’s not a bad place to start, but you have to take a lot of the reviews with a grain of salt. Many of them are clearly posted by HR to make their company look better, while others are useless rants from former/current employees.

      I generally look for consistency in the reviews, and try to read between the lines from there. I also like to find people via LinkedIn who are related with that company or networking to get really useful information.

  10. sab

    I’ve actually asked question 1 (security of job) on the advice of a contact in my field — I was on the hunt for academic librarian positions, and she assured me that although it seems like a daunting question to ask, relocation is so common in academia that it’s perfectly acceptable to inquire about the position’s security. After a positive test run with one phone interview, it became one of my standard q’s for the phone interview. None of my interviewers acted weirdly about it, and while most people did say, “yes, it’s secure,” I got some good and illuminating answers about the relationship between the library and its college or university (one of my favorite answers was “the provost strongly supports the library and will put up a fight if any cuts to our staff are suggested”). It really is about how you ask it though, because I try to keep my questions during the phone interview as conversational as possible.

  11. Shauna

    Yes, I’d love for you to turn each of those items around to show how they should or could be asked.

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