6 Questions Every Job Candidate Should Ask in Early Interviews

In this blog series, we explore questions you should be asking as a candidate. We also go over answers and reactions you can expect from these questions, and what those answers may tell you about the next steps. 

Job hunting is incredibly stressful, and believe it or not, recruiters feel your pain! Especially if you are in between jobs, it may seem like the ball is never in your court. Recently developed automation technology puts the average resume in a much larger stack of competitors, so if you’re able to land an interview, we want to help you make the best impression possible. Usually advice articles and interview coaches put a lot of emphasis on how to answer typical interview questions, but did you know it is just as important to know how and what questions you should be asking in return? 

When you ask questions in interviews, not only does it makes you look like you have a genuine interest in the given company, but it also demonstrates you are being thoughtful and proactive about the direction of your career. 

Additionally, the questions you ask and the answers you receive give a clearer picture of the company you will be working for and what your experience working there will feel like. No matter how desperate your employment situation is, it’s important to evaluate your next employer with open eyes. 

First, let’s talk about questions you should be asking in the pre-screen interview or other early stage interviews phone interviews. 

Take a moment to consider the context and purpose of these early interviews. If you are speaking with a recruiter, they have already selected your resume as one that would warrant an interview with the hiring manager. Typically they are only calling to make sure you are in fact the human person, that you are actively looking for a new job, and to make sure there aren’t any glaring issues/conflicts that would disqualify you as a candidate. Your goal in early interviews is to show them you are a polite and pleasant human person, and gather information that will help you in future interviews. It’s also a good idea to keep a notepad and pen handy in case you have follow up questions they may be unable to answer. 

What you should ask at this stage:

1. How many employees work at this company? At this office? How does this company make money?

If you have applied to the company directly, then you likely know the answers to these questions already, but if you’re working with a recruiter or getting contacted based on your LinkedIn activity or profile, chances are you are getting an unscheduled called. Recruiters are not always allowed to reveal who their client is this early in the hiring process, but without them explicitly saying the company name, you certainly can and should find out some basic information. As a candidate, you may have a number of goals or limitations that are related to the answers you will get from these questions. 

2. Why is this position available? Why did the last person leave this position?

It’s important to know if this is a new role or not. If it is, expect a lot of ambiguity and maybe even conflicting expectations of what the responsibilities of the position may entail. If it’s not a new role, find out if the last person who held this position was successful or not. If they were successful, they might have been rewarded for their success with a promotion, or they might have become frustrated and moved to another department or another company. Try to find out the name of the last person to fill this role, and look them up. If they are still in the organization, ask if they will be involved in the hiring process, too. 

3. Who does this position report to? What division of the company is this position located in?

This probably goes without saying, but you are definitely going to want to know who your potential boss is. Get their name and look them up on LinkedIn and Glassdoor, just to make sure there aren’t any glaring problems. Asking information about the position relative to its place in the organization’s structure is also a way to find out how this role or its duties are valued by the company, but keep in mind that the recruiter does not have those specifics. Whatever you are unable to find out, just write it down for a follow up. 

4. How soon does the company want this position filled?

Don’t be surprised to receive a boilerplate answer here, such as “immediately,” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. No matter what, it’s good to ask just in case they surprise you by saying this role is budget-dependent or something equally revealing. 

In the likely event that you are asked or even pressured about your starting availability, don’t sweat it. It means they like you! If you’re schedule is tight, congratulations! You’re a competitive candidate which looks great to hiring managers, even if scheduling interviews gets tricky. If you’re availability is wide open, you have nothing to be ashamed about and you will be able to leverage that availability to get the best interview slots. Having a sense of urgency means they value the work product, and you’ll still have plenty of time down the road to discuss flexibility on your start date if both parties decide you are the right candidate down the line. 

5. What are the highest priorities for selecting the right candidate?

You’ll actually want to ask this question at every stage of the interview process. You’ll be amazed how different the answers can be, depending on who you are speaking with. At this stage, the recruiter should be able to tell you what they know is important to the hiring manager - information that may not be apparent from the job posting. 

6. What about my qualifications or experience appealed the most to you?

Again, this should be asked at every stage of interviews, and take careful notes on the differences in answers you receive from one person to the next. Try to get at least three specific details from your interviewer, and don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions! It’s possible there is something about your background that was a previously unidentified priority or advantage. 

7. What is the next step in the process?

In all likelihood, you won’t have to ask this question because they will let you know anyway. If they don’t, ask so you can prepare yourself for the next step. It’s also useful to know if you might be expected to come in for a half or full day of onsite interviews, so you can keep a mental note of your availability and scheduling concerns. If the process could involve you having to travel, it’s no problem to ask if they will cover the cost of travel/lodging when it comes to that point (this will not reflect poorly on you).

What you should not ask/do at this stage:

DON’T pressure this person about the budget, salary/rate, benefits, or PTO. You absolutely want to know this information, but the person you are speaking with likely has little-to-no influence on these decisions. It’s true that they may pressure you to commit to a certain salary or rate upfront, but we’ll save our advice for how to handle that conversation for another article. No matter what your minimum requirements may be for compensation and benefits at your next job, it’s always worth it to get as far as you can in the interview process. Negotiate as much as you can once you’ve decided you actually want this job at this company. Even if you ultimately have to turn down the position, it’s never a bad idea to get as much practice interviewing as you can.

DON’T get too caught up with questions about flexible scheduling, availability, perks, company policies, etc. until you’ve solidified you’re interest in the actual work. If the company has incredible perks they will be sure to flaunt them, don’t worry. Just remember that this stage is the perfect time to talk turkey about the actual job duties, and you get the benefit of doing so with people who are a little removed from the reporting structure. Don’t waste the opportunity to get all that juicy information by distracting the recruiter with questions that may give them the wrong impression about your ultimate value as a qualified candidate.

Hopefully this has been helpful, insightful, or validating to you in some way! If you are looking for that next opportunity, be sure to freshen up your LinkedIn page and contact us about your career goals. 

Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll discuss the best questions to ask at an in-person interview and at the offer stage.