Interviews and Questionable Advice

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A friend of mine recently reposted this Forbes Coaches Council article on LinkedIn:

Seven Things To Never Ask About During A Job Interview

I do not normally spend much time critiquing the works of others in such a context, but I found the given advice to be dreadful and remedial enough that I am expending my own valuable time to write down why I thought it to be so.  We’ll go piece by piece.  I’ve removed the author names, because nobody cares.

Disclaimer: my opinions normally come with a slant towards technology snd knowledge work.  So, sensible interview practices in your industry vertical may vary.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

1. Paid Time Off And Work-Life Balance

Many employers publicly tout their work-life balance, paid time off and other “lifestyle” perks, but you should tread carefully when asking about these. An unsympathetic interviewer may perceive that you are planning to take time off before even starting. A better approach is to ask questions about workplace culture and expectations so that you can build your own picture of the situation.

We’ve all heard the joke: “40 hour week?  Yeah, I remember my first part-time job.” While you probably should not bring up the amount of PTO as your first or only question in an interview, let’s assume we are conversationally astute here.  Work-life balance or integrating one’s personal life with one’s work life is a common issue these days.  I remember interviewing at a popular internet business in the late 1990s.  When I noticed that my interviewer was wearing socks (no shoes) and wrinkled pants, I asked him how many hours he had spent in the office that week.  In a moment of reflection, he said “Oh, I don’t really remember. Eighty I think.” I didn’t sign up for that job, and I was grateful for his honesty.

Any interviewer that is unsympathetic to this concern is making a statement about their own company. Who would want to work for such a callous organization?  You can glean some meaningful information from how they handle this question.  One way to explore this further is to ask your interviewer how the organization balances schedule intensity with cultural and retention concerns.  Pay close attention to what is said….and also what is not said.

2. Compensation Or Salary

Job seekers should not ask about compensation or salary prior to the organization making an offer. For example, asking about salary before the applicant understands the job well and has received an offer is premature. Job seekers should be patient, knowing that they have will leverage once the offer is made. They will then be in a position to negotiate a salary that is far different than one stated early in the process.

It’s hard to believe that any expert or coach would say this, it seems badly out of context.  It is very normal to at least have a ball-park conversation on salary long before an interview process even begins.  If a small startup is trying to hire a CTO at the rate of a junior software engineer (plus a dream and a bunch of sweat equity, of course) it would be better to set the expectations before time is wasted in conversation that goes nowhere.

3. Things You Already Know

Don’t ask questions that you already know the answer to. The reasons for asking questions during an interview are to show that you’re prepared and know how to seek out valuable information and, more importantly, to make sure you want to work for this company. Ask tough questions, engage the interviewer and add value to the conversation. After all, they are trying to win you over too.

I definitely agree that one should engage the interviewer and ask meaningful and useful questions, but there is a very valid reason to ask questions to which one already knows the answer: to vet out assumptions.  At senior levels, it is common to have several different interviewers.  I will often ask multiple interviewers the same question so that I can hear their own words, their thinking, their logic, and whether the interviewers contradict each other.  It can be very revealing.  So, this rule seems rather naive and simplistic.  Come on, Forbes.  You’re better than this.

4. Why The Position Is Open

I know this is a popular question that coaches often suggest job seekers ask, but I don’t. Let the answer to this question come out if it needs to. You may be curious, but unless you suspect something negative, don’t make this a part of your interview lexicon. Listen, ask questions about the role and be curious about expectations, but stay away from this topic.

If you are reading this post, you already know that you need to be savvy with your soft skills in an interview situation – this is self-evident.  On this specific topic, I would expect the hiring manager to express the context of the position.  However, if that is not done, I recommend ignoring this advice and asking about the role.

Ascertaining the context in which you are interviewing can only help you better understand if you are a fit. Is the company expanding and needing 200 more engineers?  Was the last VP not a culture fit, and they are looking for someone that is?  This could be a very revealing topic to dig into.

5. Personal Information

Sometimes, a job seeker can ask questions that are too personal in the spirit of trying to connect with the interviewer. Never lose your corporate front when choosing questions to ask the interviewer. Along similar lines, if you learn personal information (e.g., the hiring manager has a dog, kids, etc.), don’t parlay that into premature questions about perks or work arrangements.

“Never lose your corporate front.”  What a dreadful thing to say.  Certainly you must certainly be mindful of asking personal questions, but you also don’t want to appear as an empty suit, spewing corporate jargon and little else.  How would the company even know who they are hiring otherwise?  The exception might be if you are interviewing for a role in the Corporate Drone Department.  If so, all the best to you!

In defense of the point, I recommend not asking about personal things having to do with your interviewer; but, for example, if a sports topic comes up, and you are passionate about it, by all means use that to establish common ground, whilst keeping your savvy wits about you.

6. Promotion Timelines

Having interviewed thousands of people, I’ve heard all kinds of questions. One that I think candidates should avoid asking is, “How quickly can I get promoted?” While it is important to understand the growth of the company and opportunities for personal growth and advancement, the focus of the discussion should be on determining whether the interviewee’s background is a fit for the role.

I found this to be laughably naive, yet timely and relevant.  It is common for small and medium sized companies to have paid zero attention to their career progression framework.  So, while the question “How quickly can I get promoted?” should not be asked by any self-aware human, I would expect a reasonable and sensible question or two around what the career path actually looks like.  Bonus points if there actually is a career path.

7. Yes-No Questions

Avoid asking “yes or no” types of questions. In preparing for an interview, a candidate should take time to identify two or three open-ended questions in areas where they need more information to evaluate their alignment and make a final decision. The preparation helps identify areas where the candidate is seeking further insight into the job, the company culture, specifics of the role and the hiring process.

Another piece of horrifyingly rudimentary advice from the otherwise competent Forbes sources, but I think open-ended questions do tend to get the conversation started, so it is difficult to disagree here.  However, in the tech world, there are some very easy yes or no questions that can bear fruit, if you follow them with a request for an explanation:

  • “Do you have a cloud strategy?” (no = full stop, run the other way)
  • “Do you know who your customer is?” (no = full stop, run the other way)
  • “Is there clear accountability for requirements?” (no = full stop, run the other way)

You can see how yes or no questions can lead into meaty discussions with little effort.

Summary

In defense of the experts quoted in the article, I suspect that the given advice was probably taken far out of its original context, because I doubt that any “expert” would truly espouse these principles in the above article.

I find interviewing to be like personal relationships. It is part exploration, part give and take. Both sides are obliged to determine if the relationship will work for them, given their current objectives, culture, and operational structures. Leaving assumptions on the table by avoiding basic topics will increase the risk that things won’t work out.

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