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How to answer the often neglected interview question: “Do you have any questions for me?”

Aug 17, 2017

Applying for a job is a daunting process. It requires extensive research into multiple companies and industries, deep self-reflection on one’s own interests and an objective assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses.

While all companies and industries have their own quirks, the process is typically similar. There is an initial screening, where a candidate is assessed via a CV and cover letter; this may be followed by some form of testing dependent on the skill set required and should a candidate manage to progress through these initial filtering stages; it is on to what most consider the most important step in a successful application: the interview. We have another blog post about interview tips and ideas here, but this blog will focus on an aspect of the interview that many highly accomplished candidates neglect or underestimate at their peril.

At the conclusion of an interview, typically, the interview roles are reversed and the interviewer asks, “is there anything you would like to ask me?” This is often the point at which the interviewee breaths a sigh of relief knowing that they have faced and responded to the questions as best they can and, mistakenly, tend to relax and switch off slightly. Countless HR managers and experienced hiring professionals will say that this is a big opportunity for the interviewee to standout and make an impression and they are able to do so, based on the calibre of the questions they ask at this moment. Clearly a terrible answer at this point is, “No, I have nothing to ask you”. This suggests that the candidate has an exhaustive knowledge of the role they are applying for, the company, its culture and, almost most noticeably, that they are not interested in finding out more.

Naturally there are many great questions to ask your interviewer. One can ask about the highlights of their time at a firm or the aspect of their job that they most look forward to tackling. Yet, Becca Brown, a Harvard graduate who spent 6 years at Goldman Sacks and assumed multiple roles, also interviewed over 100 potential candidates for the Bank. In an interview, she explained that there was one question she had always hoped a candidate would ask her, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” But unfortunately, no one very did. Becca explains why, to her, this was such a great question, “I like this question — and yet no one ever asked it — because it’s difficult to answer,” she says. “It’s an important question for anyone to be asking him or herself, and so if ever a candidate were to ask this question, it would have stood out.” She goes on to say, “I think this is a good question for interviewees to ask because, as a candidate, if you see where the person interviewing you is headed, you can decide if that trajectory is in line with your career objectives. While they don’t have to be completely correlated, it’s helpful for the candidate to have some indication of the interviewer’s direction”.

In conclusion, we suggest taking a feather out of one of the brightest minds in the tech world today, Peter Thiel. The enigmatic founder, venture capitalist, author and famous contrarian, describes the two questions he most likes to ask people he is interviewing, “What do you believe that nobody else does?” and “what great idea/company/product/service is not being built at the moment, but should be?”. The second question is rather more approachable, but, as Thiel describes in his book, Zero to One, what makes the first, contrarian, question difficult, is that a good answer is a disagreeable answer; a good answer is one that the interviewer will not agree with you on. This is naturally counterintuitive and whenever Thiel has asked about these questions in interviews, he often reverts to the example following answer, ‘a bad answer is that the education system is broke or there are structural issues in the economy, these are bad answers as everybody knows them to be true’.

Our suggestion is that a candidate reverses the roles here and asks the interviewer the palatable versions of Thiel’s questions, and that may impress one’s assessor. What Theil and Brown both have in common is that the questions they would like candidates to ask them, are questions that are difficult to answer. Our feeling is that it’s not about the answer the interviewer gives, but it’s more of an insight into the mindset of the candidate and that fact that they have the self-confidence and are forthright enough to ask a brave question. That is what would distinguish these candidates and as Brown says, ‘would have allowed them to stand out from the crowd.