Ask Annie

6 questions to ask a job interviewer

March 16, 2012: 12:23 PM ET

To stand out from your competition, says an executive coach, you need to start a real, memorable conversation. Here's how to do it.

Dear Annie: I've only been out of college a few years, and I was hired into my first real job (which I still have) by an on-campus recruiter at a career fair, so I don't have much experience with interviews. Now, I'm looking around for something a bit more challenging. I have some tech skills that happen to be in demand right now, so I'm getting interviews, and they've mostly gone pretty well so far.

My problem is with the part of the discussion, usually at the end, when the hiring manager says, "Do you have any questions?" I research each company online beforehand, and can usually think of a few things to ask about industry trends or particular moves the company has made lately, but I keep feeling like my questions are too predictable (kind of boring, actually). What should I be asking? — Just Jerry

Dear J.J.: "If you talk to recruiters and executives who are actively hiring, they will tell you they get three types of questions: no questions, bad questions, and -- very rarely -- memorable questions," says Andrew Sobel. "The candidates asking the memorable questions are usually the ones who get job offers."

Sobel, co-author of a new book called Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, Influence Others, is a longtime consultant and coach to senior managers at companies like Citigroup (C), Xerox (XRX), Cognizant (CTSH), and Ernst & Young. He says a recruiter for a fast-growing tech company told him recently, "You'd be surprised at how many job candidates have no questions at all, or they ask dumb questions like, 'So what do you do?'"

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That's too bad, because asking the right things is "how you create a thought-provoking conversation, which puts you a cut above the average candidate," Sobel observes.

While there is nothing at all wrong with what you've been asking interviewers so far, he suggests adding a few of these to the mix:

1. Why? Questions like "Why did you close down your parts business rather than try to find a buyer for it?" or "Why did you decide to move to a product-based organization structure?" -- which it sounds as if you're already asking -- not only show you've done your homework on the company and put some thought into it, but are open-ended enough to spark an interesting conversation. As a rule, Sobel advises avoiding any question someone could answer with a "yes" or "no."

2. What has been your experience here? Without asking anything intrusive, you want to form a connection based on some understanding of the interviewer's situation.

Sobel recommends something like, "I understand you joined the company five years ago. With all the growth you've had, how do you find the experience of working here now compared to when you started?" Or try: "What do you like most about working here?"

3. Show your value. In the interest of making the discussion a two-way street, think about mentioning a technique or process you've learned from your current job that a prospective employer might benefit from adopting. Obviously, with this approach, you have to be careful not to reveal proprietary information or give away any secrets.

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4. Focus on the future. Ask something like, "You've achieved large productivity gains in the past three years. Where do you believe future operational improvements will come from?" or "Looking ahead to the next couple of years, what are the potential growth areas that people in the company are most excited about?" Not incidentally, the answers could give you a sense of where your own career path could lead if you get hired.

5. Find out about the culture. You can learn a lot about what it would be like to work at a company, Sobel says, by asking, "What are the most common reasons why new hires don't work out here?" or, conversely, "What kinds of people really thrive in your organization?" Along similar lines, "Why do people come to work for you rather than a competitor, and why do you think they stay?" could yield some valuable insights.

6. What are the interviewer's selection criteria? Sobel says you should ask, "If you were to narrow the field to two final candidates for this job, with equal experience and skills, how would you choose one over the other?" You may not get a totally candid answer (the truth might be, for example, that the candidate with the lower salary requirement would win out), but you still might learn something worth knowing.

The right questions, Sobel says, "allow you to demonstrate your knowledge without sounding arrogant, and they greatly improve your chances of hearing the best question of all -- 'How soon can you start?'"

Talkback: What questions did you ask in your last job interview? If you're a hiring manager, which questions from candidates impress you most (or least)? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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