How to ask touchy interview questions
Unless you belong to a select group of people, you need a job in order to survive. Oprah Winfrey doesn't need to work another day in her life. The rest of us would have a hard time paying the electric bill without a job.
Yet, when we're going through the song and dance of interviewing for a job, we pretend as if money isn't on the top of our list of priorities. Job-search etiquette dictates waiting for the employer to bring up salary, benefits and vacation. Conventional wisdom says that if you bring it up, you appear more focused on the perks than on doing the job, which sends a bad sign to employers. So you interview over the phone and in person, and after days or weeks of conversation about the job, you don't know how much it pays or if you would be able to leave early on occasion to pick up your son from school. These issues can be deal breakers for many job seekers, but they're taboo topics during the interview process.
If time is money, then both the hiring manager and the job seeker should be happy to get the basics out of the way before wasting time with interviews that might not matter if the salary is too low. We decided to find out if there is a way to bring up these touchy subjects in a more timely manner.
Should you do it?
Before job seekers can even ponder how to bring up these issues, the primary concern is whether they should even broach the subjects or if they would be making a heinous misstep. For many employers, as long as your approach is reasonable and tactful, you don't need to worry.
"It's definitely fine to ask about the salary, benefits and perks early in the process," says author and corporate recruiter Vicki Salemi. "Think of it this way: Sometimes recruiters will push candidates to give them a ballpark salary requirement and they'll say they can't proceed without knowing so everyone's on the same page. Shouldn't you also feel entitled to knowing information upfront to not waste anyone's time? You're doing everyone, including yourself, a favor by asking and getting an overall idea of the complete package."
You certainly can ruin your chances of being hired by asking the questions the wrong way, Salemi says, but the topics alone won't overshadow your résumé and experience. Workplace expert Lynn Taylor, CEO of Santa Monica-based Lynn Taylor Consulting, also views these supposedly taboo topics as essential information for job seekers.
"You have every right to know what you will and won't get, so don't be afraid to ask before the end of the second interview," Taylor advises. "During the first interview, you'll want to get a general idea, ideally from the human resources department (assuming you were interviewed by HR), as these are more administrative questions."
That said, Taylor does suggest making this line of questioning one of your last orders of business, but not because it could harm your chances of getting hired. Instead, Taylor says, waiting can help you receive a better salary offer.
"Often there is room for negotiation on everything. The more valuable you are as a candidate, the more leverage you have. You are best served to determine how well-suited you are for the job before you begin asking about perks," she explains.
How to do it
Now that you know that you can safely bring up sensitive topics during an interview on your own timeline, you need to know how to do it. After all, asked in the wrong way, any question can be damaging during a job interview. Here are five guidelines from career experts on how to raise the questions, get the information you need and stay on the interviewer's good side.
Be assertive but reasonable
"Simply ask in an assertive way," says Salemi, author of "Big Career in the Big City." "You can couch it with a statement such as, 'I don't want to sound presumptuous as if I expect to already get this job, but I would like to know the salary range before proceeding.' Or, 'I am actively interviewing and evaluating offers right now which include evaluating not only the salary but personal time off and benefits, as well as perks. Would you be able to share this information with me at this point in time?'"
Prove why it's in their interest, too
"[Recruiters] don't want to waste their time, so remind them of that fact," says Alex Buznego, business development and marketing services manager for marketing organization Inktel. "'Mr. Recruiter, I know your time is valuable and that the last thing you'd want to do is waste your time on a candidate who wasn't a perfect fit. With that in mind -- and I acknowledge these questions are difficult to discuss upfront -- would it be OK if we discussed some uncomfortable questions today?'"
You want to know about this information so you don't waste your time, and the interviewer probably feels the same way, too.
When you want to bring up an uncomfortable topic, whether it's benefits or work schedules, you can ease into it by asking for the interviewer's permission to ask the question, Buznego says.
"It's a simple gesture and somewhat of a rhetorical one," Buznego asks. "'Do you mind if I ask a couple of uncomfortable questions?' Don't worry, they are going to say yes, and it starts to break down the tension."
Wait for the right moment
Syndi Seid, founder of Advanced Etiquette, a business and social etiquette consulting organization, suggests job seekers wait for a chance to ask their question rather than force it into the interview. When the interviewer asks if you have any questions at the end of the interview, Seid suggests you take this as your cue.
"You then say, 'Thank you for asking. There is one item I realized we didn't discuss ...'" Seid says. "Always couch and sandwich difficult situations by saying something good and nice to start, hit them with the hard stuff, then end with something uplifting and positive."
Ultimately what matters is that you read the cues of the interviewer and ask what makes you feel comfortable and what suits the mood of the moment. As long as you're polite and ask your questions in a reasonable manner, you can walk out of the interview without any regrets.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.
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