The Interview Questions You Should Be Asking

Some “dangerous” questions that are worth the risk

Deirdre Hirschtritt
Apr 6, 2018 · 4 min read

There are a million things I want to find out when I’m interviewing with a company. I want to know about opportunities for advancement, how staff are treated, and company “culture,” to name a few.

I’ve developed a set of questions that I ask to get at some of these concerns, including:

  • How do team members collaborate across the organization day-to-day?
  • What does your on-boarding process look like?
  • How do you evaluate employees for success?

Managers and HR reps usually answer these questions with standard responses: “we communicate openly” and “evaluations take place semi-annually.” While these questions help me understand how the company operates on a high level and can tell me how current practices are organized, they don’t get at the deep, interpersonal structures that govern how employees feel at that company.

As a potential member of a new team, I want to get a clear understanding of how I’ll be treated when I’m struggling or when something goes wrong. I want to know how diverse the decision makers are who will determine the future of the company and my role within it. And I want to understand the nuances that make this company unique and that would determine how well I’d fit there.

When I was applying for jobs at the end of grad school, I interviewed with a manager who made me feel very uncomfortable. He asked me a litany of questions without giving me the opportunity to answer any one of them. He grilled me on methods that I wouldn’t need to use in the position and chastised me for not having mastered them. I felt deeply unsafe and powerless. Thirty minutes in, he asked me if I had any questions, and I asked some from my standard list.

Then I asked something new: “What’s your maternity leave policy?” I felt his eyes shift down toward my belly. In this single moment, I knew I would never work at this particular company. The manager stuttered out some answer, unsure of the company policy and appearing uneasy with the question itself. It felt like no matter how well the interview had gone, the possibility of me getting pregnant nullified my qualifications and expertise.

My list of standard questions has grown since then. I still ask about maternity leave, and I’ve added a set of questions that help me determine what kind of company I’m interviewing with beyond the annual reviews.

My standard interview questions now include:

  • Is the interview committee reflective of the diversity of the company as a whole? How diverse is the rest of your team, and the rest of your leadership?
  • Do you talk about diversity and inclusion in your company? If so, how? And how are those conversations translating into concrete actions and policies?
  • What are your policies and procedures for workplace harassment? Is there documentation that explicitly addresses it, and if so, can I see it?

In asking these questions, I have learned so much more about potential workplaces than I had before. The tone of the answers I receive are as telling as the words used. The hesitations or the head nods tell me how much a manager is invested in supporting their employees and the environment in which they work — or how little they care. These answers send a strong signal about whether I’m walking into a culture that resists diversity and inclusion or embraces it.

For the past 8 months, I’ve been working as a User Researcher at EchoUser, a small UX consultancy in San Francisco. I asked about maternity leave and female leadership in my interviews, and received long, thoughtful answers, filled with a mix of what’s been done, what’s in the works, and concrete goals for the future.

Within the first few weeks in my new role, I started an internal Design Justice Reading Circle (DJRC), where my colleagues and I meet to discuss design justice issues in the workplace and in the work that we produce. We’ve been steadily meeting since the group’s inception, sharing readings, feelings, and beliefs in biweekly meetings and in our Slack channel.

The questions I asked in my interview helped me determine the climate of the company, and readiness for tackling uncomfortable subjects like the ones we address in DJRC. They helped me understand how supportive my manager and colleagues would be of my whole self, and how much my personal life would be honored as much as my work contributions.

I hope that others, too, will bravely and unapologetically ask these questions and demand answers.

I come from a particular background and set of circumstances that allow me to ask hard questions and wait for an employer that meets my set of criteria. I know what not all have this privilege. I encourage us all to proactively create diverse, inclusive, safe, and accessible workplaces that make it so these questions don’t have to be asked.

Deirdre Hirschtritt

Written by

User Researcher at Code for America. Passionate about diversity and inclusion, ethical research & design, and puppies.

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