8 key questions to ask at every job interview

Graduates at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein | Getty Images
Graduates at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

Job interviews are often perceived as a one-way street. Interviewers are expected to grill you repeatedly about all aspects of your personality, skills, education, activities, jobs and much more. Success, as measured by a job offer, is dependent upon preparation and your ability to effectively communicate your value proposition and how your skills, accomplishments and life experiences will benefit prospective employers.

However, equally important is your ability to determine if the company is a place where you want to work. Given that entry-level turnover is high, often exceeding 50 percent or more within the first two years after graduation, it's clear that job seekers are often not doing adequate due diligence. The basic mentality often is: get a job, get a paycheck, and then figure out everything else later.

The problem, of course, is that you'll have to do another job search. More concerning is that your odds of success may not be that much greater. It's not uncommon to see recent graduates have three or more jobs in the first couple of years after graduation.

A better strategy is to develop your own questions to ask during an interview process to determine if the company where you are interviewing is the right fit for you. Here is a list of eight areas that you may want to research and good questions to ask for each of them:

  1. Initial Position/Job Duties: Make sure you understand the job duties and responsibilities of the position you are considering. If you accept a job requiring significant client contact and you are an analytically minded introvert, then you will probably hate the job and be miserable. You'd be surprised how often this mistake happens.

    Question: What are some of the key responsibilities and accountabilities of this position?

  2. Mission: Essentially, what is the company's stated reason for being and do the people you interact with during the interview process buy into and exemplify the mission as it's stated. Be cautious about companies where the employees seem disconnected from the mission.

    Question: How would describe the company's mission and what does it mean to you?

  3. Career Path: Ask for specific examples of how other hires have progressed after completing a stint in the entry-level position. Particularly attractive are those companies that promote people into a variety of new roles and responsibilities as an employee progresses. Siloed career paths focusing on a narrow functional area are not necessarily bad, as long as you like and can thrive in that functional area.

    Question: What are some of the career paths prior hires have followed after working in this position?

  4. Training: Clearly understand the training process. Is it classroom-based or is it delivered one-on-one by one person or a team of people? Is it modularized, meaning you will apply what you learn as you go? When are trainees typically able to work independently? Does this training approach work for you? Every individual learns and retains information differently, so the company's approach to training will have a significant impact on your ability to find success in the position you're offered.

    Question: How is the training program for this position structured?

  5. Mentors: Many companies assign subject matter experts to work with new entry-level hires. Mentors can often speed learning about the industry and the company's product or service, and can also be great resources for questions you may have. Mentors can be strong allies as you progress in your career, so understanding if a company uses this strategy is important.

    Question: Some companies team an experienced mentor with their entry-level hires. Does this company have a structured mentoring program and, if so, how does it work?

  6. Peers: Peers are former entry-level hires who have been with the company 2-5 years and are recognized as successful. Peers can help you with awkward situations, the company's social media policy, managers you may have trouble communicating with, etc. Learn if the company has a formal or informal way of matching new hires with peers.

    Question: I've learned a lot from some of my friends who are now working in entry-level jobs. Does this company provide a way for recent entry-level hires over the past few years to connect with each other and, if so, how does it work?

  7. Culture: The word "culture" can have a variety of definitions, depending upon who you talk to. What you want to determine is whether employees generally share a common perception of the company. Words or terms like entrepreneurial, team-oriented, inspirational, fun, family-friendly, work-life balance, etc. may indicate some shared philosophies that are important to you. Independent employee review sites of employers like glassdoor.com or yelp.com may also be helpful.

    Question: How would you describe the culture here at the company?

  8. Recognition/Reward: How are personal and team achievements acknowledged in this organization? In addition to promotions, learn if and how the company recognizes successes and whether there is a formal system for doing so. Everyone likes a pat on the back.

    Question: In addition to salary increases and promotions, what other ways are team or individual successes recognized?

You probably won't have the opportunity to collect all of these details during the first interview or any one interview. In fact, you should be tactical in collecting this information and look for convenient opportunities to get the information you are seeking.

Most interview processes will include at least two formal interviews, combined with or including facility tours, lunches, etc. Less formal interactions, like facility tours, can offer a great opportunity for asking questions. For instance, if you see an example of a team goal being measured in a certain department, then that may be a perfect time to ask about recognition programs.

Job seekers are just as much a potential "buyer" as the interviewer during the interview process. Make a list of the things that are important to you as you consider prospective employers. Then, look for opportunities to learn pertinent information as you progress through the interview process. In addition to being smart, pursuit of this information will often make you stand out as a strong candidate.

Commentary by Robert J. LaBombard, former CEO and current boardmember of GradStaff, Inc., an online career site that helps college graduates find jobs. Mr. LaBombard has more than 25 years of staffing industry experience.

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