NEW YORK — You may think you know what it takes to nail a job interview — how your cover letter should look, what to wear, how to make your greatest weaknesses sound like strengths. But just before the parting handshake, what will you ask your prospective employer?
Crafting the right questions for the interviewer will display confidence and knowledge about the company. Asking the wrong questions can make you appear unqualified or even desperate.
We spoke with staffing professionals and hiring managers who weighed in on what queries will impress interviewers as job competition intensifies. The unemployment rate, now at a 25-year high, is expected to hit 10 percent by the end of the year.
It's important to note that the worst thing you can do is decline to ask questions, said Stephen Tryon, senior vice president of logistics and talent management at Overstock.com. It could show laziness or, worse, a lack of interest. Still, you want to avoid asking questions that can easily be researched on the company's Web site, or about pay and benefits packages — at least during the initial interview.
"Hiring is like a blind date, and nobody knows how it's going to work out," Tryon said. "But in that encounter, you should offer good value for their time and ask questions that will really determine whether you're a good match — or not."
Do your homework
It's a good idea to ask very specific questions that demonstrate your knowledge about the company and that you've done your research, said Doug Arms, chief talent officer for Ajilon Professional Staffing. This can be about products, competitors or the company's strategic plan.
"It's important how you phrase the questions and cite things you've already learned," Arms said. "A good question might be about how the company has poised itself for growth in the past. You might be able to use that response to help formulate your own answers during future interviews."
You should limit yourself to three questions, Arms said, and make sure they're short and to the point.
Showing an interest in the company's culture and asking about management style will also help you determine whether the job is a good fit, said career coach Jo Singel.
Learn about the job
Finding out why the position is open is great for insight about the job itself and what the employer would like done differently, according to Jennifer Warne, senior recruiting specialist for consulting firm Towers Perrin.
You'll also want to ask for specific details about how performance is measured, and whether your interviewer sees potential gaps in your experience, she said.
"This can be a really great opportunity to assess and address problems head on," Warne said. "Often times the interviewer will give you an honest response, and it will give you a good idea of where you stand."
Arms and Singel give these examples of strong questions to ask about the job:
• How long have you been trying to fill this position?
• What does daily life in this job entail?
• How do you evaluate success?
• What are you expecting from me in the first 60 days I'm working here?
• What kind of orientation program do you have for new employees?
• What have others who have worked with you said about your leadership?
• How much confidence do you have in your team right now?
• What's more important to you, productivity or creativity?
"At the end, don't forget to ask for the job," Singel said. "Tell them you want it. A lot of people forget to do that."
Tie in your qualifications
It may be a good idea to thread five strengths into questions to use as emergency backup in case they haven't already surfaced in the interview, said Bob Daugherty, head of recruiting for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"You're going to need a game plan, but you'll still need to customize your questions based on what's happening during the interview," he said. "What's most important is that you stay on your toes and get those qualifications and strengths out on the table — no matter what."
Avoid salary and benefits
Hiring managers agreed that the last thing they want to hear is, "What's in it for me?"
"The function of asking questions isn't so much about getting information about the company as it is about conveying your own talent," Tryon said. "The purpose of the interview is to get the job, and asking about medical benefits isn't necessarily working toward that goal."
Susan Leonard, human resources business partner at ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, said there's a tactful way to navigate the issue of salary. The interviewee shouldn't ask about pay or benefits during a first interview, but if it comes up, ask what the hiring range is to get a sense of whether it's in your ballpark.
"As part of the dance, the interviewer may ask you what your salary history is," she said. "Avoid the question completely and say it's too early to discuss salary. Gently turn it around to ask what they're offering, so you don't oversell or price yourself out of a job."
Know what not to ask
Avoid questions that are aggressive and can display a "lack of emotional maturity," said Kristen Weirick, director of talent acquisition for Whirlpool Corp. Some of the questions on her forbidden list:
• Are you going to hire me?
• When will I be promoted?
• How much does this job pay?
• Am I more qualified than the other applicants?
• Can I call you tomorrow?
The worst question Weirick has heard from a job candidate: "That's a really good question. What do you think the answer is?"