While you're keenly focused on putting your best foot forward and asking smart and sometimes tough questions of a potential employer, it's oh-so-easy to say something that could knock you out of the running. When an awkward question slips through your lips, even the smoothest of interviews can go south. Here are some examples of questions you should steer clear of in interviews.
1. Does my age concern you?
When you're interviewing for a job and you're over 50, you're painfully aware that ageism is alive in many workplaces. There's that subtle sense that the hiring manager is seeing your expiration date, rather than your future potential. Or perhaps he or she is not sure you have the stamina and energy to keep up with the pace the position demands.
That said, even if you think age might be an issue, don't ask about it directly, advises Nancy Collamer, a career coach and author of Second-Act Careers. For many reasons, some related to age discrimination law, hitting the age question head-on might scare off a potential employer. "Instead ask a more general question," Collamer suggests, such as: "Do you have any concerns about my capabilities and background that I can clarify?"
2. Will I be working for someone younger than myself?
Employers often worry that older workers won't feel comfortable reporting to someone younger — and let's face it, there's a good chance you will have a younger boss. This question will immediately give the impression that you're not up for it, says Elizabeth Craig, a job search strategist at ELCglobal.com. Instead, as you get close to a job offer or at the time of a job offer, ask to meet your potential boss and the team you'll be working with. "This provides the information you were seeking in a positive way," she says.
If you are asked how you would feel about having a younger boss, talk about your experiences working with younger people in the past. For example, you may have mentored someone younger in effective sales techniques and, in turn, were mentored in areas that were new to you.
3. Can you tell me about your company's benefits?
This is a genuine job-seeker query, but hold your horses. "It's too early in the process to be talking about this," says Hannah Morgan, a career strategist at CareerSherpa.net. "Many times the hiring manager doesn't know how it works, or even has the scope of expertise to communicate it. You're putting the cart before the horse."
Of course, you want to know how much the company contributes toward health insurance and how much vacation you will get. "For the average job seeker 50-plus, vacation time, for example, is very important," Morgan says. These people are at the stage where four weeks of vacation is probably what they've had in the past, and the thought of having less is a concern, she says. Plus, the employee out-of-pocket cost of health insurance is increasingly a worry as you get older. You also want to know how fast you can get vested in a 401(k) plan and qualify for matching employer contributions.
But don't ask yet. Instead, Morgan suggests, network with people who currently work there to find out about their experiences with benefits. Benefits can vary by department and seniority, but this will give you an idea of what to expect. Save this question for when you are negotiating the offer.
Collamer says you might be able to get benefits information by taking a different approach. "It's fine to ask open-ended questions, such as 'Tell me what you enjoy most about working here,' that might lead to information about the company's benefits, but keep the initial interview focused on job-related questions and save the questions about benefits for subsequent discussions."
4. What training will be provided?
A lot of employers want self-starters and don't want to do a lot of hand-holding with new employees. "My experience is that workers who are 50-plus tend to want a very structured training program. They want to be walked through the process every step of the way," Morgan says. This can be a real turnoff to some hiring managers. "They think, 'Oh my gosh, we don't have the resources or time to bring someone up to speed,' " Morgan says. Instead, ask the interviewer how new employees get acclimated and learn the ropes.
5. Can I telecommute? Do you offer any flextime options?
This can be a red flag. Even if you know the company offers this option, don't ask about it in the initial interview. "This kind of question can make it sound like you're interested in getting out of the office as much as possible," says Darnell Clarke, hiring manager of the Clarke Group and the author of Employmentology. "Asking about it in the first interview is not appropriate."
When you're up front about wanting to work from home so early in the game, it suggests that you're uber-independent and might not work cheerfully with direct supervision, or that you have other demands that could interfere with giving the job your undivided attention.
Also, you risk causing your potential employer to think that you're not really committed to the job, says Morgan. He or she wants you to be captivated by the opportunity and eager to travel that extra bit and put in the effort necessary to appear in the office every day. Team players are often more appealing than lone rangers, no matter how dedicated and disciplined your work ethic.
"The question is not a bad one, but wait until you have an offer in hand and do your homework to find out if other employees do it and how it works," Morgan says.
6. How long will it take to get promoted?
This is one of the most common questions that applicants blurt out, and it should be avoided, says Clarke. "It's inappropriate mostly because it suggests you already have the job."
It's good to show you're eager to get ahead, but you don't want to dismiss the job in front of you. This question makes you sound like you're more interested in being promoted or are just biding your time until something better comes along, Collamer says. "A better way to phrase this question is to ask about potential career paths and growth potential, rather than specifically about promotions."
7. Can I bring my dog to work?
Sure, there are pet-friendly workplaces, but it's probably not worth bringing up the subject unless you see other pooches roaming the hallways.
"Many 50-plus job seekers have a loyal pet that's their best friend and companion, and they really do bring this up in interviews," Craig says with a laugh. "Would you ask if you could bring your spouse or best friend to work with you? This falls in the same category."
Kerry Hannon, AARP's jobs expert, is an award-winning author and nationally recognized authority on career transitions and retirement. Her latest book is Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. She has also written Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy…and Pays the Bills. Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering all aspects of personal finance for national media outlets. Find more from Kerry at Kerryhannon.com.
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