What to Ask During an Interview — And What Questions to Avoid

Interviews are a great way for an employer to get to know more about you and determine whether or not you are right for an open position. However, all too often, young professionals overlook the fact that interviews are also a time to gauge whether they will fit in and find success at the organization. It’s not only a time for the interviewer to ask you questions, it’s also a time for you to ask the interviewer questions. Asking several focused questions can highlight your qualifications, demonstrate confidence, and reinforce your commitment to the job and company.

“Don’t go in unprepared!” says Elizabeth Haughton, a senior engineer at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. “Have more questions than you think you’ll need, and have them written down in front of you.”

Keep these four goals in mind to formulate some excellent questions for your next job interview:

Understand job expectations

Start by researching the company and the position prior to your interview. Then, determine a solid description of what you think this job will entail, and ask your interviewer to fill in any blanks. This will show your interviewer that you’ve done your homework.

“Try to ask questions that have the interviewer envisioning you in the position,” suggests Haughton. These may include:

  • If I were to start in this position right away, what is the biggest contribution I could make in the first few weeks?
  • What are some of the day-to-day tasks that I will be expected to accomplish?

From there, ask a few key questions on job specifics:

  • What are some of the most important skills this position calls for?
  • What projects are in the pipeline for this job?
  • Is there any potential for future relocation in this job?

Determine whether you will be a good fit

Asking questions about the company’s culture shows the interviewer that you want to fit in, that you are thinking about your long-term happiness in the job, and that you aren’t just interested in the position solely for a paycheck. First, try to learn about how the company is structured, suggests Haughton. “This may give you clues to the company culture,” she says. “Listen to what the interviewer says, and what they leave unsaid.”

You can get a good idea of the culture by asking the interviewer how long they have been with the company, and what they enjoy about their workplace. Many times, your interviewer may mention some perks that aren’t typically disclosed to job candidates — such as casual Fridays, fun office holiday parties, or sociable coworkers.

Evaluate whether you can succeed in this job and turn it into a career

You want to work in an environment that encourages growth and fosters success in its employees. These qualities may be reflected in the answers to:

  • What are the keys to success in this job?
  • What are the prospects for growth in this position?
  • When and how is feedback given to employees?

And, one of the most important questions you can ask is this:

  • “Now that we’ve talked in depth about my qualifications, is there any reason why I would not be successful in this position?”

If the interviewer has any doubts about your experience or qualifications, this will give you the opportunity to address those concerns.

Define the next steps in the hiring process

Before you leave any interview, get the card or contact info of the interviewer so that you can follow up with a prompt thank you email. However, you can ask questions such as these to clear up any confusion about what comes next:

  • When will someone be back in touch with me?
  • Who should I stay in touch with if any questions arise?
  • How quickly are you looking to fill the position?

What NOT to ask 

“How often do you drug-test employees?” is one of the worst questions you can ask at your interview. Although this is an obvious no-no, other questions such as “What are my working hours?” and “How did my interview go?” are less obvious, and can make you seem like a clock-watcher — or insecure — if you ask them.

Don’t ask questions that show you have not done your due diligence in researching the organization. For example, “How many workers does this company employ globally?” and “Who is the company’s CEO?” can be answered with a simple Google search. And, make sure that you don’t ask questions that have already been addressed or answered throughout the course of the interview.

Never ask about salary, compensation, or benefits during the interview. All salary discussions will take place after the company has chosen the best candidate for the job. If that candidate happens to be you, let the company be the first to bring up money. And, says Haughton, “You, as the job candidate, get progressively more leverage the longer you postpone that conversation.”

“You have a limited amount of time to make an impression with your questions and learn about the realities of your desired job,” states Haughton, “so avoid salary, benefits, and other things you can easily learn from HR, and try to figure out what your working life will be like with the people who will be your bosses and peers.” In other words, concludes Haughton, “Make the most of it!”

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of CEP, which can be found at www.aiche.org/cep along with an extensive archives of back issues.

If you are interested in learning more about interviewing, be sure to check AIChE Career DiscoveryTM, which is part of the Institute for Learning & Innovation. See upcoming instances of the Career Discovery Workshop on AIChE Academy and read more about the process here.