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The Reverse Job Interview

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As the global workforce scrambles in the wake of the current economic turmoil, more and more candidates are vying for a shrinking number of jobs. Competition is even fiercer in the corporate arena where employees have been laid off by the thousands. So it seems crazy to worry about what you're getting yourself into when you're applying for work. What do you care if your immediate supervisor is a raving madman or the guy in the next cube can hardly wait to glom onto your best ideas and present them as his own? After all, your main concern is to simply land a steady gig.

The last thing in the world you want is to call attention to yourself by being too nosy about your prospective employer. Right?

Wrong.

One classic mistake made by job candidates is to not ask many questions when they're being grilled. A majority of HR professionals and senior management actually welcome the curious and concerned applicant. It shows initiative. Interest. And guts.

That's not to say you shouldn't be concerned about timing. Don't start blurting out questions from the get-go. There's a protocol for the way interviews work. We've all been there, and we know what the score is when it comes to being engaging, looking the interviewer in the eye and having thoughtful answers at the ready. What you're waiting for is that moment after the person with your resume in front of them has finished their inquisition, looks up and says, "Do you have any questions?"

Make them count. "Where's the lunchroom at?" isn't the critical first impression for which you want to be remembered.

Remember the examples up above? The raving madman boss? The conniving cubemate? Time to find out what you're getting into. In I Hate People!, the book I co-wrote with Jonathan Littman, that boss is what we call a Bulldozer, ready to run right over anyone. And Switchblade is the name we give to associates happy to call your ideas their own and grab all the credit. They're all part of the Ten Least Wanted and the door's just been opened for you, the hard-working, self-motivated Soloist, to find out how deeply they've infested your potential new employer.

Tact counts. It not only can get you more information than a clumsy question, but you're likely to be valued for your discretion. So instead of asking, "Is the boss a jerk?", try "I'd like to know what kind of person I'll be working for -- how would you sum up his personality?"

"Oh, Mr. Jekyll is very outgoing," replies the interviewer. "He's gregarious, high-energy and always wants to make sure people understand their assignments."

Uh, oh. In reality Jekyll is likely to often morph into Hyde, a Bulldozer. Time to get out your Soloist decoder ring. "Outgoing" means "In your face." "Gregarious" translates to "loud and obnoxious." "High energy" usually means the guy refuses to stay in his office and may pop into your cube at any moment, while the last bit of information tells you that Jekyll is also a Minute Man who thinks people are boobs and need constant hand-holding to get the job done.

You're beginning to see how probing the Ten Least Wanted can help you preview the people at your prospective company.

Ask to see the company rules and your interviewer will likely hand you a three-ring binder crammed full with the company's employee policies. Is it filled with pages and really heavy? Then it's likely going to be weighing you down from the minute you get the job. And then there's always at least one stickler for the rules -- we call them Spreadsheets, who will be enforcing these rules like a referee. Try asking, "Who's the most cautious in the office -- the one who makes sure we stick to the plan?" If your interviewer says, "Ms. Nickerson is up to speed on corporate policy. In fact, she helped us compile them," then BAM -- there's your Spreadsheet. If you get this job, Ms. N is going to be watching you like a hawk.

The reverse interview isn't just about the people. Scope out the environment. If you ask, "What's the workspace set-up?" the words you want to hear have "office" and "privacy" mixed in. What you're likely to hear is "cubicle" or "team spaces" or "open office plan." These may be accompanied by the deceptive adjective, "friendly."

None of this is unexpected, but keep in mind that your neighbors' ongoing daily interruptions (around 73 a day, according to recent research figures) are likely to become your interruptions as well. Make sure you tag this bit of information with the follow-up query: "Is it cool to wear headphones at your desk to help increase productivity?" If you can't shut out the yammering, sound effects and ring-tones of your cubies' worlds, this may not be the gig you want.

Finally, float a few questions to find out if there's the potential to shave off a little time for yourself. The Soloist flourishes when there's the opportunity for a little alone time, or a chance to scoot out of the office once in a while -- either to leave early or for a chunk of time in the middle of the day. "Will the company support me getting a little outside education or activities to broaden my skill set?" is a safe way to break the ice. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that your new prospective employer not only supports, but encourages such initiative.

They may help to pay your way to conferences and symposiums. If you're given a cold "anything you do on your own time is fine," then you can bet just the opposite is true. Spreadsheets will probably be combing through your Facebook profile round the clock to make sure you don't have any naked party pictures that might embarrass the company.

Weigh how involved and engaged the interviewer has been by the questions you got to ask. If he or she seems like they have more they'd like to say, give them the chance: "Is there anything else about the company you'd like to tell me before we finish?"

You'll find out a little more that will tell you if this is the right place for you. Even better, you'll handily close out the interview on your terms.

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Marc Hershon is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Jonathan Littman.