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Can you share with me what final questions I can answer to help you come to an informed career decision?

Why Ask This Question?

This is the final setup before the salary negotiation. It gives you a chance to show yourself as a concerned and empathetic future employer. Such consideration will no doubt be very welcome to all candidates about to make a break with one company and make a commitment to another. As such, this benevolent posturing should be assumed in all final negotiations. More important, it invites airing of any issues or concerns that could botch the acceptance of the offer.

Analyzing the Response

If any issues other than salary beg for more consideration on the candidate s part, then go back to the drawing board and handle those concerns first before moving on to the final and most critical element of all—making the salary offer.

Candidates will typically ask for confirmations about the job responsibilities, reporting relationships, or benefits packages. Sometimes, they'll mention that they've got a four-day holiday already planned that can't be canceled. Maybe they'll need to give three weeks' notice instead of two. Now is the time for such ''incidentals'' to surface.

Caution

What shouldn't occur, though, is that the candidate's demands suddenly skyrocket. For example, if an individual states that he forgot to tell you that he has $15,000 worth of stock options that he expects you to include in his base salary, that smacks of extortion. Such ''take it or leave it'' propositions at the finish line are the ultimate show of poor negotiation timing. Be very leery of going ahead with an offer when such leveraging occurs in the eleventh hour.

At what dollar level would you accept our job offer, and at what dollar level would you reject it?

Why Ask This Question?

Well, if this isn't the $64,000 question! This is probably the most critical query in the entire employment process . . . and in this book!

Why so? Because this is the first time that you give all the power to the candidate. Up to this point, you've maintained control of the entire process: You've carefully guided the candidate and paced her through the interviewing process. You've pre-closed her on accepting your offer during the counteroffer drill. And you've shown yourself to be a caring employer by bending over backward to address any questions or doubts so that the individual could come to an informed career decision.

And now comes the showstopper. You've opened the curtain, and after the wonderful presentation you've done regarding the potential behind that curtain, the candidate finally comes face to face with the prize. So if she doesn't like it, it's all over. Still, you want to maintain as much control of this business negotiation as possible. Therefore, you phrase your question very carefully.

The key to the question lies in its tag: ''. . . at what dollar level would you reject [the offer]?'' The reasoning, quite logically, is that this particular phraseology poses a fear of loss. It is exactly that fear that will keep the candidate from becoming too cocky and unmanageable at the finish line.

You may be thinking at this point:

''Goodness, this is a lot of work to 'massage' a job candidate into accepting an employment offer. I'm in the plastic injection-molding business, not the headhunting business. Save this finesse stuff for the headhunters who make their livelihoods in staffing companies or finding people work!''

The appropriate response to your argument is:

''Hold on, there. Like it or not, you are in sales, and selling your company is the first order of the day. Furthermore, bending over backward to allay any candidate's concerns will only increase your reputation as a quality employer. And despite having emerged in the early 1990s from the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression, finding qualified people is hard work! Therefore, you owe it to yourself to spend extra time at the finish line. Don't let weeks of work and recruitment expenses be wasted because of your haste in making an offer. Salary negotiations need to be finessed, and it's your responsibility to ensure that the candidate learns that you're putting her needs right alongside your own.''

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Let's run through a few common scenarios that have been known to snag even the best-prepared employers. No doubt you've been caught in one of these situations yourself, so now s the time to give heed to the lessons you've learned.

• Situation 1: The malleable candidate. Let's assume you're very straightforward in your classified recruitment advertising or that the individual learned during the interview process that the salary range for technical writers at your company is $3,000 to $3,600 per month. The candidate is currently earning $3,200 per month (pretty much the midpoint of your salary range), and you plan to reward this new hire with a 10 percent increase in base pay.

When it comes time to make the offer, you explain two things to the candidate in consideration: ''First, Christina, I want you to know that we believe in making salary offers that reward new hires with a 10 percent increase in base pay whenever possible; second, please understand that we ve got to look at internal equity before making any final decisions. If, for example, a 10 percent increase in base pay would end up paying you more than an existing employee who has more experience, then that 10 percent rule of thumb increase would no longer apply. Does that make sense?

The candidate agrees, and the offer continues like this: ''Christina, we ve taken a look at your years of experience and your performance track record, and we re happy to tell you that we can indeed offer you the 10 percent increase that we were originally planning on. Therefore, we d like to offer you the position at $3,520 a month.'' Then Christina shrieks with excitement, accepts your offer, and wonders how she's going to be able to spend $320 more a month from now on!

• Situation 2: The law of inverse gravity. Sometimes the story doesn't have such an amicable ending. One of the dangers of letting candidates know the range of the position is that they hear only the top end of the range, while you only want to pay at the bottom of the range. And there you have it: You're upside down in the deal. Should you let candidates know salary ranges in general? Probably not. The extra information will typically do more harm than good. Christina in our former example was very understanding: She realized that just because the position had a maximum potential of $3,600 per month, that didn't mean that she was going to get that amount. She accepted that fact readily.

Caution

But what about Denise? When she was made the offer at $3,520 (and she had a very similar employment history to Christina), she felt insulted. ''After all, aren't I worth $3,600 per month? Who works harder than I do? If the salary range goes to $3,600 and I'm being offered only $3,520, this company obviously feels that I'm not the best person for the job. I can't believe they're making such a big deal about $80 a month. And if they thoroughly checked my references, they would have realized how much I'm valued by my current employer." Whoops! Now you're the bad guy, and the current employer is the good guy. Not an effective way to make employment offers.

So, how do you avoid the law of inverse gravity? The answer is simply to not mention ranges to candidates at all. Instead, once you've asked the person what her salary requirements are during the interview, say to her, ''This position is in your salary range.'' This way, no target salaries are established and the individual keeps an open mind throughout the negotiations.

Let's take this one step further. What if the candidate already knows the high end of the range despite your efforts to keep it secret? How do you convince this person that $3,520 is a fair offer and that you're not a cheapskate? Well, it does indeed put you at a disadvantage when you have to defend your offer. Still, there is a commonsense way to objectively explain the reasoning behind your decision. It's called internal equity.

Internal equity simply means that employees with like amounts of experience, tenure, and skill sets earn similar rates of pay. It wouldn't make sense to hire a new employee and pay her more than an existing employee who holds the same position unless there were extenuating circumstances (like the new worker having ten years of experience when the existing staff member has only three). Therefore, explain to the candidate:

''Denise, we don't make salary offers in a vacuum. Although our ranges from low to high for a given position could be very far apart, when it comes down to making the offer, we match the new hire's years of experience, skills, and abilities with the experiences of our existing staff members. Your final salary offer closely matches the salaries of the existing employees to whom you're benchmarked.''

Such reasoning is clean, concise, and, most important, objective. It is absolutely critical that the candidate not perceive that there were any personal issues involved in your decision-making process. This strategy works 95 percent of the time. In situations where it doesn't work, the reason is because the candidate is unable to look at the issue from an objective distance and realize that the offer is based on valid business fundamentals. Losing that type of candidate at the finish line, however, may bode well for your company in the long run.

• Situation 3: Making offers for newly created positions when you're not sure how much to pay. Creating new positions in your company and adding expertise because of the demands of increased business is exciting indeed. Don t feel, though, that you re the only employer who has ever run an ad in the Sunday Times without any idea of what that job would be paying. It happens all the time! But what happens when you' re down to the finish line, the vice president you're looking at hiring was making $165,000 a year in base salary at her last company but was laid off two years ago and hasn't been able to find work since? In other words, how do you decide how much to offer when all the rules of compensation law fall by the wayside?

The only solution to such a quagmire is to involve the candidate in the creation of a compensation package. No candidate will shy away from telling you off the cuff how much she should be paid. (It s usually a fairly high number relative to her past salary history!) But by engaging the candidate in developing a compensation plan relative to the position s impact on the corporate bottom line—its reporting relationship, scope of authority in terms of supervision and budgets, and the projected increases in company profitability that will result because of it—you'll get much more objective feedback from someone who probably knows that position s market worth better than anyone at your company.

Let s take an example. First, you've got to give the candidate some parameters. Your position is paying in the $80,000 to $100,000 range. The candidate knows that coming in to this negotiation. (Note that you should always tell someone the salary range if it' s significantly below what she has been making. That s only fair since you don t want to waste anyone s time.) She s hungry to jump back into the market after two years on the sidelines, however, and she knows that she won't get the $165,000 base she had at her last company. She also knows that your company has done only retail home equity mortgage lending and that it desperately needs to gain access to the profitable wholesale market. Because she took her last company into wholesale and understands the pressures and pitfalls of developing new business lines, she's exactly what the doctor ordered as far as you're concerned. So step one sounds like this:

Dorothy, now that you've studied our annual report, met with all the players in the decision-making process, and understand where we want you to go with this new wholesale product line, I'd like you to map out specific details regarding your expected base salary, bonus, options, perks, or whatever else is important to you. Bear in mind what our original salary range is, then make a case for your specific package. Fax me an acceptable compensation package for your first two years so that I can bring it to our senior management committee.''

In explaining that this compensation proposal will be shared with the board of directors or executive committee, there is a lesser chance of exaggerated demands. Furthermore, sometimes executives will be fairly flexible in terms of base salary requirements when other nonmonetary or deferred compensation issues could instead be added. It never hurts to ask, and you may learn of noncash perks that the person values at this point in her life that could cost you little in terms of up-front cash and gain you lots of negotiation leverage.

The candidate's proposal looks like this:

Base Salary Year 1: $100,000 Year 2: $105,000

Bonus

10% first year 20% second year

Options

1,000 options @ $50 each 1,000 options @ $50 each

Total Comp.

$160,000 $176,000

In making this proposal, the candidate has set out to put a substantial portion of her pay at risk. After all, bonuses are discretionary on the basis of corporate and individual performance, and options may expire worthless if not exercised. So, in terms of pure payroll output, this individual is within your range.

Armed with the parameters that would make this candidate happy, you then have the option of perhaps cutting 10 percent off the first-year base but increasing the number of awardable options at the end of the second year. Whatever your final allocation, you're not shooting in the dark. Without this candidate's roadmap, you risk personally alienating the individual by making an insulting offer. Worse, you run the risk of coming off as a naive employer because you're not familiar with wholesale compensation practices. On the upside, you may occasionally learn that certain noncash rewards carry a lot of weight in a candidate' s mind, and that only helps to keep your payroll expenses down.

Therefore, involve the new hire in every aspect of the compensation plan creation. Few things in corporate America will work as well to build a shared sense of openness in information sharing, a greater sense of partnership, and increased accountability.

 
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