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4 Interview Questions Job Candidates Never Think About Asking Future Bosses (but They Should)

Forget questions about salary, benefits, or job responsibilities. This is what you really should find out first.

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BY Marcel Schwantes - 16 Oct 2018

4 Interview Questions Job Candidates Never Think About Asking Future Bosses (but They Should)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

So often we read about the types of interview questions employers need to ask to weed out potentially-bad job candidates.

Take Chieh Huang, co-founder and CEO of Boxed, who pops this question to eliminate, in his own words, "complete assholes": Tell me the story of you, but the thing you can't say is anything that's on your rsum.

What is he listening for exactly? If Huang hears too many examples of "I did this" and "I did that" and not enough "we," it's a good indication you don't fit the team culture at Boxed.

But what about the other side of the interview desk? What what about well-meaning job candidates serious about finding the right long-term fit? How can they weed out would-be jerk-bosses or bottom-line driven companies that put numbers ahead of people?

Ask these 4 questions.

In a New York Times op-ed, popular Wharton professor, Adam Grant, said it's critical that job candidates investigate a company's culture by listening to stories and gathering information to distinguish them from other organizations.

So instead of run-of-the-mill questions about job responsibilities, benefits or pay, job candidates should be tapping into a potential employer's values, norms and practices. In other words -- it's the culture that matters the most for your long-term happiness.

That's in line with one classic organizational culture study referenced by Grant, which stated that certain cultures "carry a claim to uniqueness" by way of the stories they tell that they're "unlike any other" institution.

That begs the question: what actual interview questions should you be asking to trigger those positive stories in potential employers? Here are four that I recommend, with help from Grant's research about what to listen for.

1. What are some good examples that demonstrate that you're human, like the rest of your team members?

What to listen for in the answer: Grant hints at listening for stories that showcase a potential boss' humility in action--that he's "one of us" and not someone with a superiority complex, like the executive who "doesn't let anyone use his parking spot--even when he's on vacation," says Grant. A good example of a human-centered boss is someone who may say, "I truly care about my people," and will back it up with clear examples of kindness, empathy, and relationship-building.

2. Can you tell me about a success story involving someone that started at the bottom and got promoted to a high-level position?

What to listen for: Stories about whether the "little people" can achieve great things, get promoted fast, and climb their way to the top. Grant mentions the uplifting story of Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines, who joined Southwest as a secretary and later became president. Job candidates should be keenly listening for mailroom-to-C-Suite type of success stories.

3. What usually happens to employees when there's a slow business cycle or a downturn in the economy?

What to listen for: Stories that will tell you whether you'll lose your job when things go south. If business is slow, will management lay people off? Will your position be targeted?Here's a great example by Grant: "What does the leader do? Contrast the former Walmart chief executive Michael Duke, who slashed more than 13,000 jobs while raking in $19.2 million, with Charles Schwab executives' taking pay cuts to avoid downsizing--and giving employees who lost their jobs a bonus when they were rehired."

4. Tell me about how management treats employees when they make mistakes?

What to listen for: Stories about how the boss will react to mistakes being made. Is the company fair to employees, or will they be fired for making mistakes? Is this a safe place to work and make your own decisions, or will you be harshly reprimanded for not toeing the line? Can you shape your own destiny and exercise influence, or does leadership rule by fear?

So make sure you listen to answers that come in the form of stories, nothing less. To do so, ask behavioral interviewing questions where a potential new boss shares specific examples about a time when something happened at their company that wouldn't happen elsewhere.

The last thing to do is to make sure the stories you hear match up with other people across different levels of the organization as you collect more stories. Do you hear common themes in their stories? If so, that's an excellent sign that people share the same organizational values.

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