Home All Powerful Questions to Ask at a Job Interview

Powerful Questions to Ask at a Job Interview

written by Kathryn Britton 7 April 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.


Janet is about to interview for a new job. She wants to leave a toxic work environment where her boss stands so close when he yells that she can feel his spit hit her face. Her peers rarely greet her, and she feels vaguely in competition with them for opportunities, advancement, maybe even the job itself. She knows that she and her cubicle partner would both be happier and more productive if they swapped some tasks so that both could do what they do best, but she has gotten the message: that’s not the way work gets done here.

Janet took that job with high hopes that were soon dashed, and it wasn’t her first experience with unwelcoming work environments. How does she avoid yet another?

This is the dilemma Alan Foster described to an audience of junior and senior leaders in the Wharton program at the University of Pennsylvania. Janet had asked Alan for advice, after observing his good fortune working at Bain & Company. Alan proposed six questions that she could ask in an interview to see what the job environment would really be like.

These questions were so good that I got Alan’s permission to share them on PPND. If you use them, ask potential employers and peers for specific examples so you can figure out what they mean by words like teamwork and collaboration. Do these terms represent strongly held cultural values, or do people just give them lip service?

1. Who will I learn from and how?
Is career development outsourced to training companies that know little about the specific environment? Does the company tell employees “You’re responsible for your own career,” avoiding involvement?

Learning about working on the Hill


Or does the employer have a mentoring culture where more experienced people gracefully accept the responsibility of helping new people develop? Does it have a peer learning model where people are expected to take time to help each other learn? Do managers share the responsibility for career development with employees? Is mentoring ever tipped upside-down so that senior people learn new skills, such as computer proficiency, from younger people?

Jane Dutton describes a related key strategy, task enablement that can involve teaching, designing tasks effectively, advocating, and accommodating individual differences. Some of the references below explore the value of mentoring to the workplace, mentor, and protegé.


2. Who is held up as a hero here? What for?

Bandura’s serial dramas are based on the theory that people learn from role models whose behavior they wish to emulate. In similar fashion, workplace culture is conveyed to new members through the stories of its heroes. What behaviors are valued here? Are those behaviors that you wish to emulate?

Are the heroes people who deliver on very aggressive commitments, no matter what — even if people leave their organizations burned out and demoralized? Or are the heroes people well known for collaborating and bringing opposing sides together?

Are heroes always individuals, or are particular teams held up as examples because of the ways they’ve pulled together?

3. How do you resolve conflict here?
There will be disagreements in any work environment. So how do they get resolved? Are corrosive, threatening behaviors tolerated? Or are there procedures for giving everybody a voice but coming to agreement, either through explained decision-making or consensus?

Dutton, Frost, Glendinning, Sutton, and others write about corrosive workplaces where bullying is tolerated. According to Pearson, Andersson, and Wegner, people who instigated incivility were three times as likely to have more power than their targets than to be peers or subordinates.

This is the question that Janet most wished that she had asked in her last interview.



4. How willing are people to help each other?

Are people pitted against each other in job evaluations so that there is a feeling that helping someone else will put a person at a disadvantage? Or is helping others both valued and expected? How is work divided up? Are people given assignments and expected to complete them by themselves? Justin Berg suggests that the Job Crafting Exercise could be used by a team to divide up work so that people spend more time with tasks that line up with their strengths, motivations, and passions. How much flexibility is there for people to divide work and swap tasks?

5. How do you celebrate what’s working?

Celebration with balloons in Shanghai


It is so easy for organizations to focus on problems and negative events and then take victories, large and small, for granted. Gable and colleagues have demonstrated that people get much more benefit out of positive events when they take time to talk them over with trusted others who respond actively and constructively. At an organizational level, do people have an opportunity to capitalize on achievements?

Are questions asked that highlight what’s working?

Alan mentioned that people in his company became much more willing to fill in employee surveys when the first question changed from “What is going wrong on your project?” to “What is going well on your project?

6. What keeps you going when things get stressful?

Fear or a sense of purpose? Competition or comradeship?


Pipevine butterfly


By this point, many of you are probably thinking, “Jobs are so tight right now, I won’t have any choice.” Even if that is so, you can go into the job with your eyes open and perhaps with your armor on. But the job market won’t be like this forever. I remember the late 90’s when we couldn’t find people to fill jobs, and those times will come again.

These questions are important, not just for people looking for jobs, but for companies that want to be employers of choice when the job market turns up again. Job environments matter to people. Even now, there are people wondering if they’d rather starve than go to work in their toxic work environments. Whetten and Cameron justify the study of management skills by citing a study that revealed that “one factor—the ability to manage people effectively—was three times more powerful than all other factors combined in accounting for firm financial success over a five-year period!” (p. 6). Wouldn’t it be better if employees felt a deep sense of purpose, inclusion, and celebration at work so that they want to stay, even when economic times improve?



Aguilera, M. B. (2002). The impact of social capital on labor force participation: Evidence from the 2000 Social Capital Benchmark Survey. Social Science Quarterly, 83(3),, 853-874.

Berg, J., Dutton, J., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008). Job Crafting Exercise.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Feeney, M. & Bozeman, B. (2008). Mentoring and network ties. Human Relations, 61(12), 1651-1676.

Fisher-Blando, J. (2008). Workplace bullying: Aggressive behavior and its effect on job satisfaction and productivity. Dissertation, University of Phoenix. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(4-A), pp. 1283.

Gable, S.L., Reis, H.T., Impett, E.A., & Asher, E.R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87,, 228-245.

Gentry, W., Weber, T. J. & Sadri, G. (2008). Examining career-related mentoring and managerial performance across cultures: A multilevel analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior. Vol 72(2), pp. 241-253.

Glendinning, P. (2001). Workplace bullying: Curing the cancer of the American workplace. Public Personnel Management, 30(3), 269-286.

Horvath, M., Wasko, L. & Bradley, J. (2008). The effect of formal mentoring program characteristics on organizational attraction. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 19(4), 323-349.

O’Neill, R. (2005). An examination of organizational predictors of mentoring functions. Journal of Managerial Issues, 17(4), 439-460.

Pearson, C., Anderson, L. & Wegner, J. W. (2001). When workers flout convention: A study of workplace incivility. Human Relations, 54, 1387-1419.

Smith, D. (2002). The theory heard ’round the world: Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory is the foundation of television and radio shows that have changed the lives of millions.

Sutton, R. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus.

Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing Management Skills , 7th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice-Hall.

White office courtesy of Wili hybrid, Learning how to work on the Hill courtesy of rachelvoorhees, Misses Hero picture courtesy of moggsoceanlane, Come get me again courtesy of hansolo, Balloon celebration in Shanghai courtesy of Bfick, Pipevine swallowtail butterfly used with permission from Edward Britton

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Christine Duvivier 7 April 2009 - 3:08 pm

Hi Kathryn, Thank you for a great article and for sharing Alan’s questions. These are terrific for people in organizations as well as interviews — and are good questions for leaders to think about too.

WJ 7 April 2009 - 3:57 pm

Kathryn, I agree in an ideal world a work environment might look like the one you describe. But what can you do in tighter economic times when people have less options with regards to changing jobs?

I remember reading some research about bullying bosses and turnover intent. The good news from the research was that higher levels of personal well being effectively innoculated people against bullying bosses – they were less likely to turover

Kathryn Britton 7 April 2009 - 8:22 pm


Thanks! I also believe they are good questions for both sides of the table.


The topic of how to armor oneself against bullying bosses and negative environments is an important topic, but a topic for another day. My goal here was to contribute to a sense of the possible. Sometimes people acquire learned helplessness from negative experiences, but good workplaces and intelligent management do exist. Alan based his questions on observing what things look like when they go well.


Catherine Mattice 8 April 2009 - 3:07 am

THESE ARE GREAT QUESTIONS!! As a former HR professional I can guarantee no one else is asking these – what a great way to stand out from the other 100 interviews the HR person is going through.

Marie-Josee Salvas 8 April 2009 - 3:09 pm

Great article, Kathryn! This is an important topic and timely regardless of economic times. Employers now need to learn to do more with less and what you suggest goes beyond interview questions – it really is about productive organizational cultures. Your arguments are clear, to the point and highly relevant.

Thanks to you and Alan for this significant contribution, I will send anyone I know in search of a job to your article.


Kathryn Britton 10 April 2009 - 11:33 am


Thank you for weighing in. One of the biggest problems I could see with this approach is convincing people that they have the right to ask. I like the point of view that it is a way of differentiating oneself in the interview process.

Thanks for your approval. I seem to be talking to lots of people looking for jobs these days, which is probably why the experience of hearing Alan talk floated to the top of my mind when it was time to write. For others who haven’t met Alan Foster, he is a graduate of the 3rd MAPP program and has a fertile ground for creativity using applied positive psychology inside Bain & Company.


Job Seekin' Jack 10 April 2009 - 11:54 am

These are questions that cut to the bone of what a quality organization should look like. I will use them at my next job interview. Number three hit a nerve with me. I wish I had asked that at some workplaces, not the one I work at now of course should my boss be reading this 😉

I think the questions should be asked of employees, not necessarily management. Managers might have pressures to make their workspace look good and have a vested interest in deceiving a newcomer.

What is usually the best template for resolving conflict in a professional workplace? Is that question answerable and will the answers make sense across a broad sample of workspaces.

Bridget 10 April 2009 - 2:29 pm

Hi Kathryn

Great article! It struck me that these questions really go to the heart of the ‘psychological contract’ between employer and employee. I wonder how those organisations which get awards for being the “best places to work” would answer them. I agree with Job Seekin’ Jack, you’d really have to get the answers from other employees and not from the managers.


Alan 26 April 2009 - 4:07 pm

Thank you Kathryn for writing these up so much more eloquently than I could manage myself. A couple of quick thoughts:
1. some of these questions are quite punchy. as such I would recommend asking them later in the interviewing process
2. these question are especially valid for people not interviewing but looking to make their organization more effective.

Kathryn Britton 28 April 2009 - 10:40 am

Thank YOU, Alan, since you were my muse for this article. I am glad you weighed in.

I’ve talked to a few people about using these questions, and they usually mention modifying them to match personal style. Also, several people have suggested that it’s better to ask peers rather than managers. I can certainly see talking to future peers when considering an internal job change, and it may well be possible to ask for a chance to talk to future peers in an external hire.

I love your point about the same questions being good for making organizations more effective. It always helps to take a baseline before making a change, and these questions could serve in that regard.



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