4 Ways to Handle Those Awkward Questions You Really Want to Ask in an Interview
How many other candidates are you interviewing?
What is your budget for this position?
Why is this job open to begin with?
As a job seeker, there are tons of questions you’d probably love to ask your interviewer but can’t without feeling like you’re coming off rude.
Or can you?
Your gut instinct that a potential question might be too forward is generally not something to ignore. That said, there are ways to approach the situation that can help you get away with more than you’d think. Here’s what I mean.
1. Assume the Best
Often times, these more sensitive questions feel too blunt because you expect the answers to be negative in some way. You might be wondering what happened to the person who formerly held the role. Given that the job sounds so good, the boss must be a nightmare or this position wouldn’t be open, right?
If you’re approaching it from this angle, then yes, it’s probably going to feel like a touchy subject to bring up. But, if you flip it and assume the best—maybe the employee was promoted or it’s a new role because the company is growing—then suddenly you won’t sound or feel like you’re poking at a sore spot.
Instead of asking, “What happened to the person who was previously in this role?” try, “Is this an established role or a new one?” If that doesn’t get you the answer you’re looking for, you could follow up with, “What is the typical career trajectory for this role? What did the previous person move on to?” In short, assuming the best helps you to change the tone of your questions, making them fair game.
2. Cover the Logistics Later
There are two times you get to ask questions during the job search process: during your interviews and after you get the offer. When you’re still interviewing, remember that your goal is to show your skills, enthusiasm, and fit for the position. Even the questions you’re asking at the end of an interview should still be serving this purpose.
Meaning: You can save your inquiries about things like salary and vacation days for later. This is all information you’ll either get eventually or can ask about without any discomfort once you have the offer in hand. In some cases, it’s actually more beneficial to ask certain questions when you have more leverage (read: when the long interview process is over, you’ve come out on top, and you have the option to turn down the job offer). Waiting until the hiring manager is actively selling the job to you rather than evaluating you for it can change the tone of the conversation completely and give you more room to push back.
In the meantime, use your questions to show interest in position and the company. Save the logistical stuff for later.
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3. Own the Research You’ve Done
Before any interview, you’re hopefully doing your homework and researching the company in-depth. During this process, you’ll occasionally find some red flags, typically in the form of some less-than-stellar reviews on Glassdoor. How do you address this?
If you turn up questionable information in your research about the company, it’s usually okay to ask about it. The hiring team probably already know it’s out there (or if they don’t, they probably want to), and the fact that you’re doing research at all shows your genuine interest in the company.
So while you don’t want to be too blunt—a la “Why are there such bad reviews of this company on Glassdoor?”—you’re more than welcome to say, “I was really excited to get the call back for this role, so naturally I did some homework to prep for today and noticed that some reviews weren’t as positive as I was expecting. I know there are two sides to every story, so I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about the company culture.”
Showing that you care enough about the job to do research on it usually compensates for any weirdness in the conversation. Just make sure you’re keeping your language positive and leading with the research, not the question.
4. Avoid “Just Curious” Questions
Finally, there are topics that you really don’t need to be asking about at all. If they don’t serve the goals of making you a more attractive candidate or helping you decide whether this position is the right one for you, then what is the point exactly?
If the answer is that you’re “just curious,” then that’s a pretty clear sign that you shouldn’t be asking it to an interviewer. Questions like how many people the hiring manager is talking to or if there’s an internal candidate can often make you come across as more concerned about getting the job than doing the job. As much as you’d like to know, voicing these queries won’t help illustrate your strengths or show your enthusiasm for the company and can even make you seem like you’ve been burned by too many unsuccessful interviews—not a good look.
The questions you ask will be interpreted as the kinds of things you care about when it comes to your career. Focus on the important matters, like professional development or the growth of the company, and try not to fall into the trap of asking questions simply to satisfy your curiosity.
Overall, it’s a good idea to listen to your initial gut reaction when it comes to asking questions that might come off as rude. But before you do, check three things. First, examine why you want to ask something. If the answer is that you’re “just curious,” skip it. Then, consider whether this question illustrates the kinds of things you care about in your next job. If so, try rephrasing it under the best assumptions. Check in with your instincts again, and if you no longer feel uneasy—go for it!
Photo of woman in interview courtesy of Antonio_Diaz/Getty Images.
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Lily Zhang serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT where she works with a range of students from undergraduates to PhDs on how to reach their career aspirations. When she's not indulging in a new book or video game, she's thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author