Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
How many questions are OK to ask in a job interview while being respectful of time? I usually try to squeeze in as many as I can while monitoring how much time my interviewer seems to have available for questioning.
I have asked as many as five or six questions before, but I usually have more about aspects of the work and organizational culture that can take longer for the interviewer to answer. I find that even if I have other contacts at the organization who I can learn from, I still like to ask the interviewer some of the same information to get a second viewpoint, which makes the number of questions to potentially ask very long. Is there a good rule of thumb?
Alison Green responds:
Some of this depends on what stage of the interview process you're in. If it's an initial phone screen, your interviewer will have less time and will expect fewer questions than if it's an in-person interview. Generally, in phone interviews, most candidates ask fewer than five questions. In an in-person interview, especially when it's closer to the final stages, you might have many more than that.
The key thing is what type of questions you're asking, more than the number. If you ask 12 questions and they're all thoughtful queries and things that could impact your level of interest in the job, I'm not going to have a problem with that; I'll appreciate that you're trying to figure out if this is the right role for you. But if you ask three questions and none of them seem designed to help you understand key things about the job and the workplace, I'm going to wonder why you're using our time this way. And that's a good marker to use here: Is the question something that will determine your level of interest in the job?
For instance, I always wonder about this when a candidate only asks, say, three questions, and one of those questions is something like, "How did you come to work here?" -- which is a semi-popular question for candidates to ask their interviewer. It's not that it's a bad question, but it's probably not one-third of what you want to know to help you decide if this is the right job for you.
Also, it's certainly possible that there might not be time for all of your questions if there are 12 of them, but that doesn't mean a good interviewer won't want you to get answers to them at some point, if you continue in the process. So you might start with a smaller number, but remain alert to the interviewer's cues about how much time she has. If you're getting the vibe that she wants you to wrap it up, it's fine to say, "I do have more questions that I'd want to ask if we move forward, but I want to be respectful of your time, so I'll hold them for now." You can also just ask: "I have a ton of questions for you, but I'm not sure how much time we have. I could ask a few of them now, and hold the others for later if we move forward, if you prefer?"
And if you've had an interview and didn't get some important questions answered, and you're invited to come in for another interview, you might really want your questions answered first in case the answers end up meaning the job isn't for you. In that case, it's OK to say: "I'd love to come in and talk to you again. Before I do, there are two things that are really important to me that I'd love to find out before I take up any more of your time." But you'd only do this if their answers might make you turn down the second interview; otherwise, you'd just hold your questions for the in-person meeting. (If you do this with idle curiosity things, it's going to be annoying.)
And if you get offered a job before having all your questions answered, it's completely fine to say that you still have some questions about the job and to ask to set up a time to have them answered (or to ask them on the spot, if it seems like that kind of conversation).
The main thing to know is that no good employer would want you to take a job that you hadn't had a chance to ask all your significant questions about, even though it might need to happen in a different conversation. And if an employer seems to be expecting you to take a job without getting all your questions answered, consider it a danger sign.
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