how to learn what you really want to know in a job interview

Last week, I posted a link to my U.S. News column about questions that job-seekers wish they could ask their interviewers, but don’t feel comfortable asking. Since then, my editor there suggested that I do a second version explaining how you can get the information through other means— so there’s now an updated version of that column that contains that advice here.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    And here’s the previous post and comment thread. Not too many comments, but there was a bit of helpful discussion. :)

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    I’m wondering if Alison (or anyone else) has advice on how to suss out when an entire team is blowing smoke up your ass.

    When I left my next-to-last job for my last job, I was not unhappy where I was. It simply seemed like a great, can’t-pass-it-up opportunity. I asked about work-life balance. I asked about why the position was opening up. Etc., etc., etc. And I asked these questions of a lot of different people, not just the hiring manager.

    Turns out a lot of these people lied to me. My predecessor (who was still working at the company when I started interviewing) had said she was quitting to go freelance and be able to spend more time with her two young children. Later I learned she was fed up with how the client had treated her. Respect for work-life balance was a joke. But what really chapped me was when I was later asked to interview someone else (peer interview, not hiring manager interview), and I was specifically told, “We really want this person. Sell her on how happy you are to be here. Talk it up!” By that point, I was really not happy to be there, and I strongly suspect that everyone I talked to during my own interview process had been similarly instructed to make the place sound like sunshine and puppies.

    For what it’s worth, in 10 years in this industry, NO other company I’ve ever worked for has specifically told me to “sell” the place when interviewing someone.

    Is there anything I could have done differently that would have shown me that my interviewers were full of crap?

    1. Catherine*

      Were you able to talk to the peer interviewer alone, or was there a supervisor in the room? That is the only thing I can think of that YOU could have done, but even then, it may not have changed anything – she may have been under orders to give the sunshine and puppies dance even when one on one.

      Unfortunately I’m not sure there is much to be done to pick up on the lying. If you can talk to someone one on one, that is probably the best – you may be able to pick up on signals better that way, even if they say everything is awesome.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A couple of thoughts:
      – Ask to talk one-on-one, as Catherine said.
      – Ask questions that don’t have an obvious good answer — like what would you change about working here, what do you wish you knew before starting here, etc.
      – Use LinkedIn to try to find a few former employees, who might be willing to speak more openly (but be aware that they might have an ax to grind that you don’t know about).
      – Play on people’s natural sympathy. Say something like, “I’m really interested in the job here, but I also currently have a really great situation that I’m nervous about walking away from” or anything else that will remind them that you’re a human like them.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Thanks for the advice! To answer Catherine’s question, yes, I did get to talk to everyone one-on-one. They really needed someone for my role, so I bet they were just told to talk about unicorns and rainbows, just as I was told to do when interviewing someone else.

        I definitely like the idea of asking questions like “what would you change about this place if you could?” I’d be very suspicious of any “Nothing! Everything is just dandy!” answers and of course scared of any “OMG I’d change these 15 things” answers. :)

        1. Catherine*

          It is a great question and I’d like to try it out at my next interview. I’m curious as to how the interviews would react. I know if I was asked that in front of my supervisors I’d have a few safe answers but would be more honest in one on one (as I have been, in some previous interviews). Just be wary of “safe” answers – I liken them to those crappy stock answers people give when asked “What is one of your weaknesses?” and they responded with “I’m a perfectionist…” Not coming up with a good example for this situation but hopefully you will know what I mean. “I wish we didn’t have so many delicious treats in the break room! Gotta watch the waistline!”

  3. Jamie*

    From #5 – “Few people want to work for a company where co-workers pass the day in icy silence (or worse, open hostility).”

    I temped at a place once where I noticed on day one the only time anyone smiled was when someone else just screwed up. It felt so unpleasant and the nastiness was almost tangible.

    When I’m put off by the lack of social interaction you know it’s bad.

    When that assignment ended I was on the phone with my agent before I was out of the parking lot telling her that if they ever requested me back I would be regrettably, but forever, unavailable.

  4. some1*

    When I was leaving a horrible job mostly due to an awful boss and where 75% of the external people I interacted with treated me like crap, my then supervisor introduced me to a potential replacement and I noticed she didn’t leave the new woman alone with me or anyone else she introduced her to on our team. It was so obvious that the potential replacement must have figured out why and turned the position down.

    1. Guest*

      Reminds me of the time my boss’s new boss came to town to meet the new team. My boss didn’t leave us alone with his new boss for a second. I think his nightmare would have been one of us going into the ladies room at the same time as her.

  5. Elizabeth West*

    I had an interview last week at a place that was tomb silent. Seriously. I walked in and it was SO quiet I felt like talking in a normal tone of voice was screaming.

    My last job was like that, once things began to go downhill. The duties and responsibilities at this place were slightly different, but the rest of the job–front desk/sole clerical help, no backup, no chance for advancement either up or laterally–was exactly the same.

    If they offer me the job (which I doubt) and it’s decent pay I may take it, but I plan to keep looking. I already borked myself by not taking something that I couldn’t live on the pay but would have opened a few doors for me, thinking I would find something better by now. :(

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