How to Interview a Company

You’ve got a job interview. Great! A little nervous? That’s good. Some anxiety will serve you well. Too little or too much anxiety hinders performance in an interview. You can control your degree of anxiety by how you think about the interview.

Suppose you think: “They hold all the cards. If they don’t want me, no one will. I have to please them.” You’re in trouble. Coming at the interview from such a one down position will invite intense anxiety. Intense anxiety interferes with our ability to think clearly.

Alternatively, someone could think: “I’m the best person going. They would be a fool not to want me.” This is just arrogance. Having so little anxiety may keep you from doing your homework, learning about the company, thinking through what questions you should ask. When job candidates ask no questions, savvy interviewers lose interest.

To achieve just the right level of anxiety, equalize the playing field a bit: “So far, this looks like a great opportunity. However, it’s not the only opportunity in the world. Also, the company has a need or they would not be hiring. I must be a serious contender, or they would not bother to interview me. They hold many cards, but I hold some too.”

Your duty to yourself in the interview is to get information about whether the job, the company, and you all fit together well. A moderate amount of anxiety will give you impetus to anticipate what your questions should be. A bit of anxiety also will help you stay focused during the interview.

This brings us to how to interview the company. Interview them just as they are interviewing you. Ask two sets of questions. First, explore the fit between the job demands and your skills. If your skills don’t match up well with the demands of the job, you will be miserable. Such mis-fits happen all the time. Second, learn about the company culture.

Job Questions: Begin with a general question. Then proceed to specifics. The best general question is simply “Tell me about the job.” Anxiety might tempt you to add qualifiers, i.e., “Will I be doing XYZ?” After all, you may reason, you don’t want to look stupid. The problem is that this qualifier will focus the company interviewer on job duties when there is a dicey problem with reporting relationships that he’s a bit nervous about. By directing him to duties, you have rescued him from having to discuss that problem. He may never get back to it.

Follow up the general question by responding to the interviewer’s answers with a phrase like: “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” Or you can use reflective listening to get more information (and you will sound brilliant.) Interviewer: “This position is going to be critical to shaping our new marketing campaign.” You: “So whoever gets the job will have influence over how your products go to market.” Interviewer: “That’s right!” You have said the same thing, using different words, proving that you listen. Listening is so rare that you will sound, again, brilliant.

Specific questions will flow naturally from the interviewer’s responses to your general question. However, you will want to be certain to ask questions such as:

  • “Please describe the ideal candidate for this job. What skills are going to be most important to success?” Be sure to listen for both technical and psychological/interpersonal skills. For example, some customer service jobs might emphasize empathic listening while others might emphasize assertiveness.

  • “Specifically, what would I be doing on a day to day basis?” Don’t settle for general responses.

  • “Who will I report to and what can you tell me about that person?” Here you are listening for how experienced the person is as a supervisor and what other direct reports might say about that person. Of course the interviewer is unlikely to be openly critical, so it will be important for you to read between the lines.

  • “What resources will I have to do the job?” This is a good time to find out if you are going to be set up for failure. Again, listen for what is not said. Vague responses are signs of danger.

Company Questions: Here you want to learn more about the culture of the company. Company culture is analogous to someone’s personality. It tends to organize how the company sees the world, gets its work done, and treats its employees. A great job in a destructive company culture is a lousy job.

If possible, talk with several employees. The most powerful question you can ask is “How does it feel to work here?” Do not add qualifiers. You will get the most information from people when they are asked the question in this way. If you are able to get answers from several people, you will be able to begin to identify themes. If several people respond with some version of “This is an exciting, upbeat place” you are likely to feel upbeat and excited when you come to work. If several people say “It’s OK I guess,” find another job. Of course, don’t let one sourball response color your thinking.

Other questions include:

  • “What is the turnover like here? What reasons do people usually give for leaving? Who tends to leave, i.e., the more senior and talented or the more junior and less skilled?”

  • “People in all companies disagree sometimes. Tell me about how conflict gets handled around here.” Predictably they will say that it is not a problem, so follow-up “Tell me about how a particular conflict got handled.”

In short, interview the interviewer and the company. Doing so will present you in an intelligent and self confident light. This increases the chances that you will get an offer, i.e., you get to be the one to decide whether to “hire the company”.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc. He offers coaching and consultation services to those who are determined to achieve high success. He can be reached at 774-1927, or by e-mail at dana.ackley@eqleader.net.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.


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