The only job interview question that really matters (and the one question you must not say ‘no’ to)

Peter Harris|

Sometimes I think we need to step back and separate the stuff from the fluff.

For example, my house was on fire the other day, with flames shooting out of the doors and windows. As the firefighter came running up the walkway with the hose ready, I put out my hand to stop him for a moment.

“Hi, thanks for coming over,” I said. “Now before you get to work on this fire, I just want to make sure you’re the right firefighter for the job. Where do you see yourself in five years? What would you say that your biggest weakness is? How many dimples are there on a golf ball?”

Of course this isn’t a true story, but an exaggeration to make my point. If my house were on fire, the only things I would want to know about the firefighters would be, “Can you save the house – and more importantly anyone who might be trapped inside? Can you put out the fire? Can you put it out fast? ”

That is to say: Can you successfully do the job that you’re here to do?

When someone really needs something to get done, that’s what really matters most. Are you able to do it?

You can convey this in a job interview by being confident and knowledgeable. And it is actually easier to demonstrate your assuredness and competence with the questions you ask than with the ones that you answer.

And that’s the one question that the interviewer will always ask that you must not say ‘no’ to: Do you have any questions for me?

This is your opportunity. With well thought-out questions, you can convey that you are ready to take on the job.

To return to my house-on-fire analogy, if I asked the intrepid firefighter on the way up to the house if he or she had any questions for me, I wouldn’t be encouraged by a response such as, “No, I’m good,” or “How much vacation time do I get?” or “What does the job pay?”

I would want to hear, “Is there anyone trapped inside?”, “Are there any explosive or highly flammable materials that I should know about?”, or “Do you know where the fire started and if it has spread to the rest of the house?”

(Note: I don’t know what an actual firefighter would ask – these examples are just to illustrate questions that show you are an expert who understands the work situation and you’re already thinking about how to succeed at it.)

So while I would love to be able to include a list of questions that you could use in your next interview, they would vary too much depending on your industry or role. Have strategies in mind for succeeding at the job you’re interviewing for and ask if the company has tried them already. Think of some of the things you foresee as being potentially challenging and ask if they have come up and how the company has handled them.

In so doing, you are gaining information about the company and its work style at the same time as you are demonstrating your knowledge, interest, and critical-thinking abilities.

You can control the conversation and make a powerful impression on your interviewer. You may even get on like a house on fire.

Oh, and finally, be sure to ask what the next steps in the hiring process are. You’ll want to know the timeline so that you’re not sitting by the phone unnecessarily, and you also want to ensure that the employer knows you are keen to move forward. Apparently they can’t always tell whether candidates are actually interested or not.

Best of luck!

See also:

The best thing you can say in a job interview
The only skill that matters in your resume

Peter Harris
Peter Harris on Twitter

Follow Workopolis

Category: Job interviews
  • David Gay

    Usually I say “What is the next step?”, “When can I expect to hear from you?” or “When would be the best time convenient to follow up with you following this interview?”. All these questions work regardless of the position you apply for, plus express a genuine interest in the job.

    • Roustam

      Hello David Gay. I have just read your comment which included the questions such as “”When can I expect to hear from you?” and “During my research, I read that (whatever), so I was wondering …”. I don’t remember if anyone asked me those questions before during the interview. I actually like them.

  • Kay

    I am discovering that hiring managers don’t hire the people who are best for the job. They hire people who can prove that they’re great at navigating job interviews and that they know the “right” answers to the questions.

    • Jeanine Garlow

      Then they are not effective hiring managers. Hiring managers who have a proven track record are successful at choosing the right people. If they are not for whatever reason, then they should be held accountable. Also, it may not be the hiring manager at all. They may just be relaying the information elsewhere, and someone else is making the decision. I’m sorry you are having a rough go finding the right job for you.

    • ssety

      A truly great hiring manager can actually see through the potential candidate as the interview progresses, one factor would be to be able evaluate his or her personality,apart from her ability to work on the chosen job or role.

  • Raj

    What a great article, one of the best ever.
    I always go in with at least 3 questions to ask (max. 5 questions), at least 1 about the role and at least 1 about the company/industry.
    When asked the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I assertively answer this question and then immediately throw the question back by asking “How do you expect/see this role/position evolving over the next 5 years?”
    Some of the questions I ask at the end include:
    “What are the upcoming challenges that you foresee the person in this role will face in the next 3 months and the coming year or two?” (If not already explained/discussed earlier)
    (After researching the company/industry beforehand) – “Recently one of your competitors did………… so how is this company planning to response to this challenge?” – (Wait for their response and then add a suggestion or two that may help)
    (If the share price is listed and there was a major movement up or down with no information given in the corporate website as to why, I always ask) – “I noticed that the share price of your company when from about $x to +/-$x, what is the reason for this?” – (Some of the responses I have had to this question, in the past include – “Ah, Good question………….” (sometimes followed by a “deer in headlights” look) to once where the response was “I don’t know, we don’t pay too much attention to the company share price”
    If nothing else just ask “What is a typical day in this role and/or company like?”


    Far too many people look to the Organization to become their welfare cheque producer…..others are looking for someone to fund their alcohol or drug habit…….only one in a Million North American Employees really want to make themselves rich by MAKING their Company rich. This is the primary reason North American Employers are choosing to go overseas. Alternatively, Employers will always attempt to subvert Canadian Immigration laws by importing cheap labour from the Phillipines for McDonalds or Tamils to work in the Big Banks…….History will teach us that this fundamental Principle of Economics goes all the way back to how business was done by the British East India Company in the nineteenth and twentieth century!

  • John Kottappurathu Chacko

    Hey, What is that question which the candidate need to say ‘No’ to ?

    • MT

      The question that you should not say ‘not’ to is when they as if you have any questions for them. It is in the article.

      • Darcy Hudjik

        If they’ve answered all of my questions, I generally ask them to describe a typical workday for me, if there is, in fact, is such a thing.

  • Michael Kersey

    Hello, what are some good examples of questions to ask in an interview? I can not think of any questions to ask the employer other than when do I start? I am young and looking into an entry-level sales job, what types of questions should I ask? I lack experience and my last interview for a sales job this week did not go well at all, but I know with the right training and experience I can be great at the job.

    • Matt

      Are you selling a product or is it retail?

      • marc campagna

        Good question very good question.


    • MT

      Hi there – you need to research the company before your interview. With the internet today, this is an expectation from the hiring managers that you know about them when you walk in. You have to learn about the company from their website or the internet before you walk in for your interview: 1. what is their organizational structure 2. are they North American, are they international? 3. how many employees? 4 Who would you report into? 5. What are their product lines? 6. Who is their competition? 7. Has their company been in the news and why? 8. other locations, and what do they do at their locations? If this information is on their website, you have to know about it (you don’t have to have it memorized) when you walk in. As you research the company, you may not be able to find everything, so those become the questions you ask. If you are new to the job hunting scene, it will also help you if you can ask someone you respect to give you a mock interview. If you video record it, it will learn and see how you appear to others. It is really eye opening!

    • Dawn

      Hi Michael, unfortunately companies are not looking to give you ‘training or experience’. They want plug and play. You need to be doing the training on your own and then apply it in the interview. Start reading more on sales – get informed – join groups or organizations that will develop your skills such as public speaking. Let the interviewer know that you are self motivated and a strong self learner. you are not looking for them to invest in you – you want to invest in them and grow their bottom line.

  • Bronc_Eke

    Inane. Really freaking inane.

    • orsidigital

      what is silly exactly?

  • Roustam

    What a great article! I have so much to learn from it. Thank you for posting.

  • Santosh

    thanks…..a very useful write up…..!!

  • Mairaj Qidwai

    Very well written article and equally good posts, I cannot add more flesh to them, however was just wondering do vibes also play a role in hiring. Having and sending positives vibes sometimes is a challenge, but mind conditioning could do the trick.

  • Brent

    It’s really stupid to hire people who learned to handle interview questions well and disqualify highly qualified applicants because they were tripped up on the interview. If a person has the experience and references, and they seem like a normal person they should be given serious consideration for the job.

    The best person for the job doesn’t usually get it. The only way to cope with the situation is to learn how to play the game and tell the interviewer what they want to hear.