February 8, 2009

What not to ... ask in an interview!

In a recent Yahoo! Jobs article, Liz Ryan discussed the top 10 worst questions to ask during an interview. And as someone who has worked in human resources for more than 25 years, Ryan knows what she is talking about - I'm sure she's heard some of the weirdest questions and answers ever given.

But after reading it, I did find myself not completely agreeing with all of the questions she has included - personally, I found some of them to be perfectly legitimate questions that I've asked before.

And so, I thought I would examine the questions she listed and see if it is applicable to students and youth looking for employment. I'll explain my views on each question and whether or not I agree with Ryan - if I don't, I'll explain why and offer an alternative way of phrasing the question or a way of introducing the topic into an interview discussion.

Please note that the original questions she listed are in bold.

1) What does your company do?

Like her, I agree that this question simply should not be asked. It shows you haven't done your homework about the company. However, there are still a few companies that do not have a website up and running - or if they do, the website does not provide enough information on what exactly the company does.

For example, there are two well-known Canadian companies that often hire students for direct marketing programmes - one is in the financial services sector, while the other deals with kitchen appliances. Both companies have a website but neither of them really provide substantial information about what exactly the company does and how you, as a prospective employee, fit into the equation.

In the end, try your best not to ask this question - use as many resources as you can to find out what exactly the company does.

2) Are you going to do a background check?

This is a question where I sit on the fence. On one hand, I see what Ryan is saying in terms of the flags that a question like this raises.

However, if you feel as though the interview has gone really well and the hiring manager talks about having you come on board, asking if they will be doing reference checks might be okay - provided that you explain to them that you would like to let your references know that they should (or should not) be expecting a call.

Then again, if you have done things right, your references should already be expecting a call and you should have forewarned them that you will be using them as a reference.

3) When will I be eligible for a raise?

I personally wouldn't ask this question - it's really tacky. And given the current economic climate, many businesses are looking to cut back and if it appears as though you're all about money, you likely be looking at the exit door instead.

4) Do you have any other jobs available?

Again, another question where I sit on the fence. In an interview, I'd stay away from this question. However, if during a follow-up conversation the hiring manager informs you that you were unsuccessful, you could ask this question.

Then again, a few companies do offer a number of jobs during a hiring fair. For example, I once worked for a gift wrap company and during the interview for the manager position, I asked them if I could also be considered for a gift wrap position. I only asked this question because the hiring manager mentioned that they were unsure of how many managers would be returning from the previous year.

In a case like this, try and find out what other jobs the company has available and see if there is a way you can be considered for both - sometimes it helps, especially if one job is a little more 'junior' as compared to the other one.

5) How soon can I transfer to another position?

This is a question I'd definitely steer clear of. It only reinforces that you're thinking about leaving at first chance.

6) Can you tell me about bus lines to your facility?

Again, another question where I sit on the fence. I mean, for one thing, you managed to get to the interview, so you'll likely know exactly how to get to the job - unless you were hired at a job fair and then this might be a legitimate question, especially if you are new to the city/town.

Then again, if this is a job where you could be working late into the night (think retail during the holiday season), then this is a legitimate question. Not that employers are responsible for how you get home, but after well-known cases, including that of Jennifer Teague, more and more employers are looking to ensure that staff get home safely.

In fact, while working for one particular retail company, I was offered numerous taxi coupons during late shifts that ended after all the buses stopped running. And this wasn't something I found in retail, as I had the same offer extended to me by a market research company I subsequently worked for.

Of course, I'd let a question like this flow naturally from a discussion on hours. If the hiring manager mentions that there will be late hours involved, you can ask if they provide any assistance in getting home - after all, it's not like a 16 year-old can drive him or herself home!

7) Do you have smoking breaks?

Again, not a question I'd ask - especially since we all know how dangerous smoking is. Instead, this might be a discussion you can have about working hours and expectations.

For example, during my brief stint in telemarketing, I asked the hiring manager about the working hours because it was not specified in the job description. It turns out that they offer 3, 10-minute paid breaks throughout the day. However, because I was working for the division that dealt with sales on the west coast, they asked that I take two of my breaks and my lunch before 1pm in the afternoon for staffing reasons.

And remember, most employers are keenly aware of what their responsibilities are under various employment legislation, such as Ontario's Employment Standards Act. Some even go above and beyond the act in the breaks/perks they give. So your best course of action might be to wait until this conversation is broached by the hiring manager, either during the interview or on your first day.

8) Is [my medical condition] covered under your insurance?

I'm not sure if many jobs that students tend to work at offer insurance - after all, we do have some form of provincial coverage. And most likely, if your parents have a plan, you're also included as a dependent child.

Besides, questions about pay and benefits are often better answered by staff in the HR department - it's their job to know company policy inside and out.

9) Do you do a drug test?

Another question that is a no-brainer - it's not even worth asking, as it will unnecessarily raise a red flag!

However, if you are working with vulnerable populations, such as children or the elderly, you will likely have to undergo a police record check and possibly a drug test.

If that's the case, you can ask the hiring manager what will be needed during the pre-screening phase and if you're keen for the job, offer to get it over with as soon as possible.

10) If you hire me, can I wait until [more than three weeks from now] to start the job?

For students, this should not be an issue. Most of the sectors that attract students are aware of previous commitments and I have yet to come across a company that's not willing to negotiate starting dates and scheduling - provided it is done well in advance.

If it looks as though this might be a problem, here's how I'd handle it. During the interview, ask what the hiring manager's recruitment time frame looks like. This way, you can find out what the business needs and how soon. This also provides an opportunity to explain to them your prior commitments. As a general rule of thumb, the more notice you give, the better!

All in all, I thought Liz Ryan's article was pretty good - although I disagree with her slightly on some of the questions. I really believe that some of them, worded differently or brought up during an open-ended discussion, might actually be useful during an interview.

However, at the end of the day, remember that an interview is your one chance to shine and really let the hiring manager know why you are perfect for the job.

And if you don't feel comfortable asking these questions, then don't ask them. They can always be discussed at a later time.

After all, since you only typically get one interview, you might as well be at your most natural and comfortable mindset. That way you'll really ace the interview and land that perfect job.

Good luck!

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