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Column: Ask the Right Question

Job seekers' questions typically fall into one of three categories. To impress and learn about an employer, it's important to know the protocol for each

Savvy job seekers have learned that it's important to show up at a job interview armed with smart, pithy questions. A few years ago, it was perfectly fine to ask, "Who are your company's competitors?" But these days, employers expect you to know the answer to that—and a dozen other company-specific questions.

The first thing to know about job-interview questions is that there is more than one kind. In my experience, job seekers' questions fall into one of three categories, and it's good to know the difference—and the protocol for each.

This Is Your Brain in an Interview

The first type is the one most job seekers are familiar with. I call them the "Here's My Brain Working" type. These are questions based on your research into the company and informed by your insightful brain. You may be interested in the answer, but at its core, this question shows an employer what a sharp and clever fellow (that's a unisex term) you are. An example of a Here's My Brain Working question: "What effect do you think the Seagate acquisition of Maxtor will have on your firm's storage business?"

You have to go to an interview with three to five of these questions ready. If you're thwarted—that is, if the interviewer steals your thunder by addressing one of your topics before you have a chance to ask the question—you need to have a backup question to insert in its place.

But Here's My Brain Working questions probably won't get you through the entire interview process. You must have two other kinds of questions in your quiver.

Take Your Turn

The second type is designed to help you evaluate the employer. In your zeal to impress an interviewer, it's easy to forget that half the purpose of the interview series is to help you learn as much as possible about the job and the management team to decide whether you'll take the job if it's offered.

So make sure you have a couple of questions that you've composed in a quiet moment before the interview. These should be questions for which you'd kick yourself after the interview if you didn't get answers. And write down these questions—and the answers you get.

These Type Two questions, hereafter known as "My Turn" questions, are critical. You'll get a more detailed and solid answer while looking an interviewer in the eye than you'd ever get on the phone or in an e-mail afterward. Ask: What became of the last person in this job? Who is my prospective boss's boss (name and title), and what has been his or her career path? How much, and what sorts of, travel does the job require? And so on.

Now, you'll immediately notice that the second type of question, the My Turn variety, has a bit more cheek to it. You don't want to pepper an interview with a long string of "I need to know!" type questions. That's why you must decide, from your list of questions, which ones are Here's My Brain Working questions intended to impress (and ingratiate yourself to) an employer, and which are questions purely to satisfy your curiosity and, indeed, to give the employer the chance to impress you.

So mix 'em up. Come armed with a few of each type of question, and ask more Here's My Brain Working questions early in the process and more My Turn questions later on, as you've (presumably) gained some juice. But there's still one more flavor of question to know about.

Now What?

The third type, of which you get just one per conversation (or physical visit to the employer site) is a question about the interview process itself. I call these "What Happens Now?" questions. Early on, it's perfectly appropriate to inquire what the next steps will be, but you don't want to a) appear too anxious or b) appear too presumptuous as you do so. So one forthright question like "Assuming you'd like me to continue in the interviewing process, what would the next step be?" is allowed per job seeker-employer interaction.

Bear in mind that in addition to one confidently asked What Happens Now? question during each interview, you are allowed one subsequent phone call. So make your one question count! But you can see how your list of questions should be based on Here's My Brain Working queries, salted with My Turn questions, and topped off with one solid What Happens Now? question.

Each flavor has its place, and its proper proportion. For instance, too many My Turn questions early on pegs you as self-centered; too few shows a lack of business maturity. An overdose of Here's My Brain Working questions signals "sycophant," while too little shows that you haven't done your research, or don't know how to integrate what you're hearing today with what you learned earlier on. The fun is mixing these questions together toward the perfect recipe. Food for thought!

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive. She can be reached at

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