Just a thought on being interviewed - especially on internal interviews, I wonder if a lot of people disadvantage themselves by not asking questions about content [b]in advance[/b] of the interview. It's a mistake I've made - just wanted to share a summary of the situation, and the advice I got about it after the event.

I successfully went for an internal promotion at a previous company, but I turned what should have been a "slam dunk" result into a bit of a struggle during the interview.

This was at an organisation which applied a strict "competency based" approach, so that the interview format was extremely formal, and every question & answer had to revolve around examples of your behaviour which demonstrated particular competencies. (I can just picture the MT guys shaking their heads that any interview would [i]not[/i] be on this basis, but I've certainly seen a wide mix!)

The main catch was that only 3 of the competencies would be directly tested in the interview, whereas the position ad could list any number of desirable competencies. I think my ad listed about 7, in fact. (I've seen many examples since then where the person posting the ad simply dumped the entire list of possible competencies into the ad, which is a bit sad.)

Anyway, I duly printed and read all available company info on all 7 of the listed competencies, including background info, which amounted to about two dozen sheets of 10-point print. Naturally this was quite an ineffectual approach, and come interview, I struggled with a couple of the questions.

Feedback from HR was pretty interesting. They said that on a strict comparison I still won the role on my merits, but also said that given my skills and experience, I should have been able to present a "bulletproof" case. They felt that an aggressive interviewer, or someone with an agenda against me, would have found some weaknesses to attack.

When I explained how hard I'd found it to digest the massive amount of info about the competencies, one HR rep asked:

[b]Why didn't you just ask which ones we were going to focus on?[/b]

Well I was quite stunned! My assumption was that asking this kind of question would be a complete breach of protocol, and/or be perceived as trying to gain an illicit advantage over other candidates. Whereas HR's view was that the specific competencies being targeted in the interview (vs. the broader set in the job ad) was completely public info, and that asking about it would actually show a bit of initiative.

I've slated this one as a very useful thing to remember for future interviews, as well as more support for the mantra "don't ask, don't get".


jhack's picture

There's another way of looking at the situation. If you follow the preparation steps described in the interview series, you'll be ready for pretty much any interview: you'll know what you've done, and how it demonstrates any number of skills.

So even if you can't know in advance, you can be prepared.

There are hiring managers who would consider your asking for the questions ahead of time to be an attempt to game the system. How can you know beforehand if you're going to alienate or impress? (that's not a rhetorical question).


arc1's picture

That's definitely a valid point, and I'm not sure there's a perfect answer.

I would think though that even an interviewer who'd react negatively to the question about content itself, still wouldn't have a problem being asked a preliminary question - eg. "is it possible to seek further information about content?"

ie. rather than just jumping in with what they might perceive as "cheating" questions, make sure to explore the rules beforehand, just to be certain you're clear on the process. That's where I felt I dudded myself in the above example.

I'm curious to explore this a bit - eg. do you feel the risk of alienating someone would discourage you from taking this approach? Or would it be situation-dependent?


jhack's picture

Perhaps it's a matter of what you're asking. If you ask (prior to the face to face interview) for more about the role, that would be legitimate. Asking about the format of the interview is legit, too. If you're asking to be told the questions you'll get in the interview, that might be a gray area.

I'm also curious about the "competencies" - are these specific subject areas of expertise? If so, how is that "behavioral"?


thaGUma's picture

Asking questions on format is a good idea (make sure you can deal with 'format? what do you mean? - we ask, you answer - have you ever been to an interview before?).

At the very least the interview is likely to know that you took the trouble to call. While she may not 'know' you, your name is already familiar and you get a point for initiative. A small point and you never know when that is enough to set you apart.

Most often you will gain knowledge that will assist you in some way. Knowledge others may not have = 10x more valuable.


wendii's picture
Admin Role Badge

People do ask... and I endevour to answer where I can.

In my current role I can't tell you the format of the interview - I only find out about it about 15 minutes before hand.. but we do use competencies and we send out information about them in advance to candidates.

If we're doing something other than a straight interview (for example testing, a presentation or an exercise) we try and tell candidates before they arrive - not least because we've had cases where they turn up and say 'I've only got an hour'! and our process takes all morning.

Particularly for internal candidates I'd probably go as far as giving them hints about the hiring manager - Fred likes to make it more like an informal chat, Bill follows the competencies very strictly, Adam likes examples which are very recent.

I definately wouldn't tell you which questions I would ask - but asking 'can you tell me a bit more about the format' or 'is there anything I should concentrate on in my preparation' would definately get you ahead of other candidates and be seen as proactive rather than cheating.


garyslinger's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

My two-penn'orth would be it depends on whether you're asking HR, or the hiring manager.

If you got some general information from HR (and their responses may vary by country as well, from what I've seen), that's one thing. If you got through to me, and asked questions about the interview... Well, it's entirely possible that particular interview might be "rescheduled".

To borrow a phrase, "it just isn't done" - some creativity and "getting ahead of the crowd" is one thing, but I think sometimes that stuff can backfire.

Just a thought.


arc1's picture

John - the "competencies" at that company were a weird selection of things which they felt represented leadership.

I struggle now to recall what they all were - one of the more arcane ones was called "restless curiosity". (I think the idea being that if you take a very blinkered view and just focus on your subject area, you mightn't be the best candidate to move up through management, vs. someone who is curious about the bigger picture).

So if they decided to "test" for that one in the interview, you might get questions probing what you have done recently to inform yourself about the company and industry, vs. just 'doing your day job'. Thus me getting myself on an industry roundtable was considered a good point.