The only job interview question that really matters

Written by Peter Harris
Posted on December 1, 2015

Sometimes I think we need to step back and separate the stuff from the fluff.

For example, my house was on fire the other day, with flames shooting out of the doors and windows. As the firefighter came running up the walkway with the hose ready, I put out my hand to stop him for a moment.

“Hi, thanks for coming over,” I said. “Now before you get to work on this fire, I just want to make sure you’re the right firefighter for the job. Where do you see yourself in five years? What would you say that your biggest weakness is? How many dimples are there on a golf ball?”

Of course this isn’t a true story, but an exaggeration to make my point. If my house were on fire, the only things I would want to know about the firefighters would be, “Can you save the house – and more importantly anyone who might be trapped inside? Can you put out the fire? Can you put it out fast? ”

That is to say: Can you successfully do the job that you’re here to do?

When someone really needs something to get done, that’s what really matters most. Are you able to do it?

You can convey this in a job interview by being confident and knowledgeable. And it is actually easier to demonstrate your assuredness and competence with the questions you ask than with the ones that you answer.

And that’s the one question that the interviewer will always ask that you must not say ‘no’ to: Do you have any questions for me?

This is your opportunity. With well thought-out questions, you can convey that you are ready to take on the job.

To return to my house-on-fire analogy, if I asked the intrepid firefighter on the way up to the house if he or she had any questions for me, I wouldn’t be encouraged by a response such as, “No, I’m good,” or “How much vacation time do I get?” or “What does the job pay?”

I would want to hear, “Is there anyone trapped inside?”, “Are there any explosive or highly flammable materials that I should know about?”, or “Do you know where the fire started and if it has spread to the rest of the house?”

(Note: I don’t know what an actual firefighter would ask – these examples are just to illustrate questions that show you are an expert who understands the work situation and you’re already thinking about how to succeed at it.)

So while I would love to be able to include a list of questions that you could use in your next interview, they would vary too much depending on your industry or role. Have strategies in mind for succeeding at the job you’re interviewing for and ask if the company has tried them already. Think of some of the things you foresee as being potentially challenging and ask if they have come up and how the company has handled them.

In so doing, you are gaining information about the company and its work style at the same time as you are demonstrating your knowledge, interest, and critical-thinking abilities.

You can control the conversation and make a powerful impression on your interviewer. You may even get on like a house on fire.

Oh, and finally, be sure to ask what the next steps in the hiring process are. You’ll want to know the timeline so that you’re not sitting by the phone unnecessarily, and you also want to ensure that the employer knows you are keen to move forward. Apparently they can’t always tell whether candidates are actually interested or not.

Best of luck!

See also:

The best thing you can say in a job interview
The only skill that matters in your resume

Peter Harris
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