The only job interview question that really matters

Peter Harris|

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
Peter Harris on Twitter

Category: Job interviews
  • David Gay

    Usually I say “What is the next step?”, “When can I expect to hear from you?” or “When would be the best time convenient to follow up with you following this interview?”. All these questions work regardless of the position you apply for, plus express a genuine interest in the job.

  • Kay

    I am discovering that hiring managers don’t hire the people who are best for the job. They hire people who can prove that they’re great at navigating job interviews and that they know the “right” answers to the questions.

    • Jeanine Garlow

      Then they are not effective hiring managers. Hiring managers who have a proven track record are successful at choosing the right people. If they are not for whatever reason, then they should be held accountable. Also, it may not be the hiring manager at all. They may just be relaying the information elsewhere, and someone else is making the decision. I’m sorry you are having a rough go finding the right job for you.

  • Raj

    What a great article, one of the best ever.
    I always go in with at least 3 questions to ask (max. 5 questions), at least 1 about the role and at least 1 about the company/industry.
    When asked the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I assertively answer this question and then immediately throw the question back by asking “How do you expect/see this role/position evolving over the next 5 years?”
    Some of the questions I ask at the end include:
    “What are the upcoming challenges that you foresee the person in this role will face in the next 3 months and the coming year or two?” (If not already explained/discussed earlier)
    (After researching the company/industry beforehand) – “Recently one of your competitors did………… so how is this company planning to response to this challenge?” – (Wait for their response and then add a suggestion or two that may help)
    (If the share price is listed and there was a major movement up or down with no information given in the corporate website as to why, I always ask) – “I noticed that the share price of your company when from about $x to +/-$x, what is the reason for this?” – (Some of the responses I have had to this question, in the past include – “Ah, Good question………….” (sometimes followed by a “deer in headlights” look) to once where the response was “I don’t know, we don’t pay too much attention to the company share price”
    If nothing else just ask “What is a typical day in this role and/or company like?”


    Far too many people look to the Organization to become their welfare cheque producer…..others are looking for someone to fund their alcohol or drug habit…….only one in a Million North American Employees really want to make themselves rich by MAKING their Company rich. This is the primary reason North American Employers are choosing to go overseas. Alternatively, Employers will always attempt to subvert Canadian Immigration laws by importing cheap labour from the Phillipines for McDonalds or Tamils to work in the Big Banks…….History will teach us that this fundamental Principle of Economics goes all the way back to how business was done by the British East India Company in the nineteenth and twentieth century!

  • Simon Cohen

    Couldn’t agree more. The right questions can show that you possess curiosity, passion and (hopefully) insightfulness. As an interviewer, I actually prefer these questions to my own… because it’s usually the moment I get to see what’s really going on in the candidate’s mind. As a candidate, it’s the moment I’ve used in the past to demonstrate that I can already picture myself in the job–and strangely enough–the interviewer starts picturing me in the job too :-)

  • David Gay

    If you really are stuck for a question, ask “When can I expect to hear from you?”. This shows interest and enthusiasm in the position.

    I mean, of course you want it, but in this Age of Austerity and the jobless recovery, you actually have to show that to the interviewer.

    Another thing is ask about the company’s social position on subjects like the environment or charities. Companies like talking about how they contribute to society and it will make you appear not only interested in the company but also worldly in viewpoint.