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What’s the Value of Questions?

By Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CAE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, President & CEO
Published January 24, 2033

hands holding up paper cutout of speach bubble and question mark against solid blue background

When coaching HR professionals, hiring managers, recruiters, and job seekers, I always emphasize the importance of asking questions during interviews. To ask good questions, preparation is vital. Interviewers who fail to take time in advance to develop a list of unique questions for each position put themselves at risk of making poor hiring decisions or discriminating against qualified job applicants. In today’s competitive job market, it’s increasingly common for candidates to ask prospective employers tough questions more frequently and earlier in the selection process. There is simply no doubt that asking questions leads to better decisions for employers and job seekers alike. 

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “How to Jerk-Proof a Job Search” caught my eye. The author, Tara Weiss, focuses on the challenge faced by job seekers of determining what their future boss is really like when most interviews are now conducted via a screen as opposed to in-person. Ms. Weiss advises candidates, “To jerk-proof your job search, arm yourself with skillful, direct questions … ,” which is universally helpful guidance applicable in most situations. Note “arm yourself” equals preparation. In the article, she recommends that candidates request in-person interviews and the opportunity to meet with future colleagues who also report to the same manager. I fully agree that there is much to be gained from including either or both options before moving to a hiring decision. Employers who include these steps as part of their selection process will reap the rewards of improved hiring decisions and give themselves a competitive advantage over other employers.

One of the primary reasons I changed my college major from Psychology to Human Resources years ago was because I love getting to know people and naively thought HR mostly involved the “fun” responsibility of interviewing people and offering them jobs. As a 19-year-old, I asked myself, “What’s not to love?” During my decades in the HR profession, I have interviewed hundreds of candidates and learned a lot about interviewing, people, and about myself along the way. I continue to hone my interview skills and incorporate new techniques to help candidates feel more comfortable talking about themselves so I can learn more about their experience and qualifications. Early in every interview, I offer the candidate the opportunity to ask questions at any time, in addition to reserving time at the end for any additional questions. I consider it a red flag when someone does not ask any questions or clearly has not prepared questions in advance. In these situations, I wonder if the applicant lacks interest in the job, did not take time to prepare for the interview, is not particularly curious, or worse yet, is not open to learning.

Questions are an essential part of a full life. According to a study by the University of Arizona, preschoolers average 100 - 200 questions per day. As people mature, several factors stifle natural curiosity, including fear, insecurity, and unfortunately, the human impulse to spend more time talking than listening. Questions create connections, build bridges, inspire action, and so much more. In the absence of questions, individuals and organizations will never achieve their full potential. The value of even a simple question can be powerful. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites, from poet Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” While this question is probably inappropriate for a traditional job interview, I hope it inspires you to incorporate more questions and listening into all aspects of your life.