Questions to Ask in the Initial Interview

I n this Chapter, we'll address the questions you might ask in an initial interview. Depending on who is doing the interviewing, you can learn a lot about the job, and, more importantly, sell yourself to the next level of interviews. The level of responsibility and authority of the people who conduct initial interviews can vary dramatically. As you will see, you will want to vary your level of questions to the kind of person you are interviewing with.

Questions to Ask an Internal Recruiter, Human Resources Representative, or Third-Party Internal "Screener"

Your plight in being interviewed by any one of these "interviewing" authorities could range anywhere from excellent to disastrous. I have experienced "screeners" who have run the professional gamut from the daughter of the president of a firm, who, home from college, was tasked with doing the initial screening for a controller, to experienced H.R. leaders who knew more about hiring than the hiring authority did (and should have been listened to more often).

Most of the time, if you are being interviewed by a person who does not have direct, personal responsibility for the job—i.e., the hiring authority— you are being interviewed by someone who is more concerned with how he or she appears as a screener than finding the best candidate. The tendency is to screen you out rather than screen you in.

These people have the responsibility to help identify the best candidate, but they rarely have enough intimate knowledge about the job and the hiring authority's real "pain" (i.e., need) to understand or know the gives and takes of the kind of person who could be hired. They have no real authority, just the responsibility. They screen candidates from a wish list that may be realistic or not, given to them by a hiring authority, or even worse, a hiring committee.

These people don't want to personally look bad to the people they are screening for, so they will try to screen for the "safest" candidate. They don't want to run the risk of looking inept. If a hiring authority, for instance, decides that he or she would like to have a candidate who has a degree, even though a degree may not be necessary, a screener without a lot of experience will eliminate an excellent candidate who can do the job but doesn't have a degree. Or when a hiring authority arbitrarily decides that he or she would like to get someone with five to ten years of experience, most screeners will eliminate a perfectly good candidate who only has three years of experience or one with fifteen years of experience because he or she doesn't "fit" what the hiring authority asked for.

Your mission is to get beyond the screener to the people who are they real decision makers. You need to sell yourself well enough as a quality candidate to get passed up the interviewing chain.

So, you really want to be careful if you are initially interviewed by a third-party screener.

You should ask many of the same questions that you would ask an external recruiter.

How long have you been here at the company?

If you get an answer like "fifteen years . . ." then you might be in really good hands. If you hear "fifteen days (or months)," unless you are a perfect candidate (and who is perfect?), you really have your work cut out for you. Good luck!

Why did you come to work here?

People love to talk about themselves. It is a great way to break the ice and get them to talk.

Why do you like working here?

Notice the metaphors. This question gets people to talk again and tells you about them. It gets the spotlight off of you.

Now ask all of the questions (from Chapter 13) that you would ask an external recruiter that make sense. Stay away from asking any questions that might put these people on the spot. Your goal is to get beyond these screeners and get interviewed by the hiring authority—the person with "pain." If you get the sense that the screener really doesn't know much about the job or the hiring authority or his or her job is to simply "check the boxes" on someone else's criteria page, don't embarrass the person by asking, "How many people on my level have you hired here?"

Likewise, if you are an accountant with twenty-five years of experience, and you are being interviewed by someone young enough to be your daughter who talks to you about getting her braces off, don't act paternalistic, egotistical, or superior. You have to get this person's support to get to the next level of interviews. In fact, you want to get the support of this screener, to not only promote you up the interviewing ladder, but to actually tell the hiring authority that you are the best candidate.

There is a real strong tendency to want to dismiss these screeners, especially if you have been looking for a job for a while, have been to umpteen interviews, have a ton of experience, and feel like you are being interviewed by a very inexperienced know-nothing intern. I have had some of my own candidates get up and walk out of the interview when they found out that they were going to be initially screened by an H.R. person. Bad move!

Don't let your frustration show. Interview well, just like your job depended on it. Gear your questions to ones that will sell you but also make the screener feel comfortable. If you ask, "What are my strengths relative to the job and the person doing the hiring?" and you get a blank stare, you know that questions like that aren't going to get you promoted to the next round.

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