Negotiation strategy starts with your interview

Two professionally dressed women are shaking hands.

Do you have any questions for us? It’s always the last question of a job interview. It’s also a gold mine to help you prepare for your eventual negotiation. The problem: most candidates screw it up.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates during my career, and I have rarely seen people make use of the potential this question holds. In fact, more often than not, they use this question unwisely and tank (or at least negatively bias) their interviews. The most common things I’ve seen are:  sending the wrong message, starting the negotiation early, and wasting the opportunity.

Let me tell you about each of these problems, and also how you can use that question to strategically position yourself for an effective negotiation later on.

The scenario

Let me set the stage. Your interviewers have been in a boardroom or on their computers for a full day of interviews. Their bodies are tired of sitting. Their brains are exhausted from the experience of imagining 5-8 different candidates stepping into their vacant role. And their minds are numb from listening to people ramble on in poorly constructed answers that highlight irrelevant details rather than strategy and approach.

You come in, polished and prepared with terrific examples and a personality to match. You wow the panel with your experiences and your ability to convey them in concise, but still relevant stories that highlight your competence and suitability for the role. They are excited about you, until you answer that final question.

Sending the wrong message

“What opportunities are there are for internal promotion at the company?” I know you’re probably asking because you’re thinking about your long term employment strategies. You also might think that this signals your interest in a long-term career within the company. Unfortunately, you’re wrong. What the panel hears is: “This position isn’t really what I want, and so as soon as I land the job, I’ll be looking for other opportunities within the company. Can you tell me what those jobs might be?”

While interest in moving up within an organization is not a terrible desire, put yourself in their shoes. We are in a new world economically. It’s been hard to hire and retain employees for the past 18 months. And recruitment is a slog. Depending on the size and bureaucracy in the organization, the process of recruitment might take months. The moment you signal that this position is just a stop on your career path, the employer will suddenly see you in a new, less flattering light. That question tells them that if they hire you, they’re going to be back in this interview room, in all of its mind-numbing glory, in just a few months.

Stay away from this question entirely. It actually doesn’t matter at this point in the interview process – and it can do far more damage than good. If you absolutely need to learn more about their internal promotional practice, you might try asking: “Can you tell me how long you’ve been with the company, and what you love about it?” If everyone around the table has been there for a long time, and has progressed through different roles, that gives you some insight. And if they’re all brand new – or they have nothing positive to say about the organization, that’s a big red flag. Either way, you get some important intel without biasing the interview panel against you.

Negotiating early

Women are particularly susceptible to this one. Instead of waiting for a job offer to be presented, they use this question to assess the employer’s willingness to offer key benefits like flexibility in hours, family related leave provisions, and other benefits that they would need to work most effectively if they get the job. I’ve seen this done in a couple of ways. The first is to state that “If I were the successful candidate, I would need [the ability to work remotely 2 days a week]. Would that be ok?”  The other way I see this done is where a candidate doesn’t reveal specific information, but instead prods for details about workplace policies: “What is your policy on remote work? What are the maximum number of days per week that employees can work from home?”

Neither of these approaches is advised. The problem is that at this point, you are not yet assessed as the top candidate. So asking questions that tells the employer that you’re going to be needing certain accommodations if you accept the job, risks biasing them against you. Later that day, when they are considering all of the candidates and weighing them against one another, the needs that you’ve identified with weigh heavily in their minds. They might consider you needy or demanding at this stage, and write you off by scoring you lower than other candidates on some of the less technical-based categories of assessment.

For this one, my advice is to stay away from these kinds of questions entirely. These are negotiable work terms. But you can’t negotiate until a job offer is on the table. My advice is to get started on your list of important benefits you’ll be negotiating for – but don’t disclose anything on that list until an offer is made.

Wasting the opportunity

Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager. They have been sitting all day and listening. This final question of an interview provides insight into how you think – whether you are operational or strategic, focused on the forest or the trees. In my experience, candidates forget that they are still on the interview hot seat, that they should still be trying to impress the employer. They should use the opportunity to gather important information that can help them strengthen their negotiation strategy. Instead, they waste the opportunity by asking tactical questions like: “Can you tell me about the size of the team?” or “What kind of training is available?” or “What are the hours of work?”

None of these questions tells the employer anything of value about you. And none of these questions gives you important information that can help you position yourself to get the best deal when you negotiate the offer. Mostly, you just bore the interviewer; you don’t do any damage, but you also don’t gain any advantage from the question.

Optimizing your questions

You really only get the opportunity to ask 2-3 questions during this time. Make them good ones. Focus on getting strategic information out of your employer that can help you identify what their needs are.

  • Learn about the biggest pain points that the hiring manager is struggling with.
  • Scope out any priorities or key deliverables that would be on your plate.
  • Seek to learn why it’s so important that they fill this position with the right person, right now.

I say this, because in two weeks, when they make you a job offer, this is information that can help you customize your counter-offer. If you know that they have performance issues on the team, and you have a track record of turning around dysfunctional teams – that’s your justification for asking for the top wage. If they have important deadlines or deliverables that require you to work efficiently, you can ask for the flexibility in work hours/location to help you be on top of your game. If they are looking for someone urgently, instead of taking a few weeks between positions, you could negotiate an early start date in exchange for extra vacation or a commitment to pay for an MBA.

The important takeaway here is to remember that this question is still part of your interview. You are telling them more about who you are. But you can also use this question to your advantage. Ask strategic questions that can help you strengthen your negotiation strartegy once the offer is made.

Are you on the hunt for a job? Need someone on your side who can help you prepare to wow the interview panel? I offer live (virtual or in person) interview prep sessions for experienced professionals. I’ll provide you with a tried and true approach to prepare for your interview and tips to negotiate the offer once it’s on the table. Click here to book a free 20 minute consult with me to see if we are a good fit.

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