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The Most Important Question in a Job Interview, and How to Answer It

‘Do you have any questions for me?’ is a make-or-break moment

You’ve done everything you can to nail this interview. You trawled obscure parts of the company’s website and absorbed its social media feeds. You arrived 15 minutes early for the interview (the perfect amount of time, according to experts). In answer to the dreaded question about your weakness, you trotted out your best humblebrags: “I’m a perfectionist!” “I’m a workaholic!” Then comes the last question, dropped casually, as if it’s an afterthought:

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Make no mistake: This is the most important question. But what’s the best way to answer it?

Many respond by asking about work-life balance and company culture, as recommended by Fast Company’s Interviews 101. Don’t. Maybe that works in some industries, but at least in Silicon Valley, it’s often seen as a meaningless, throwaway question that reflects a lack of interest on the interviewee’s side.

“Avoid asking open-ended questions about culture,” says Mor Goldberger, head of product operations at DoorDash. She sees that question as a missed opportunity to dig deeper with an executive. Instead, she advises asking them what they love most about working there, or what gets them out of bed in the morning.

Qian Liu, chief data officer at Guideline Technologies, estimates that she has interviewed almost 1,000 people, between her current job and previous roles at GoFundMe and Wealthfront. One immediate red flag for her is candidates who ask questions they should know (or could Google) the answers to.

“When they ask a question that they can get an easy answer to, like our benefits or vacation policy—which were in the job posting—I feel like they didn’t read the description,” she said.

The invitation to ask questions is a great moment to demonstrate you’re a team player and that you’re interested in the company dynamics, says Liu. “I rarely get asked about the working relationship between your team and other teams in the company,” she said. With so much technical work being cross-functional, she’s surprised by this, and it makes her wonder, don’t they want to understand how they’d fit into that puzzle?

It’s okay to ask challenging (but not obnoxious) questions.

At DoorDash, Goldberger says she appreciates questions that show that applicants have done their homework. One impressive way to do that is to ask about the interviewer’s past work experience — what do they like about working at this company vs. company X? Generally, past employment information is easy to find on LinkedIn. A bit of research on your interviewer can also help you find common ground — MBA programs or philanthropic work, for example — to build a connection.

It’s also okay to ask challenging (but not obnoxious) questions. You’re interviewing the company, even as it’s interviewing you. Liu respects people who ask her about female leadership at the company. “Women who ask that are trying to figure out if they’d have a way to succeed in this environment,” she said. “If there are no female leaders, you lose that sense of possibility to be successful.” (She noted that no male candidate has ever asked her this question.)

“I love when people ask me questions about diversity and inclusion and what we’re doing about it,” said Whitnie Low Narcisse, the vice president of talent at the seed-stage venture firm First Round Capital. “As a venture capital firm, we sit at the top of the food chain, and I think we have the biggest potential for impact and change. If we get people on board who care about this, we can do things to affect change, and that trickles down to the rest of the industry.”

But really, the best question in an interview to ask is one of yourself. You’ll spend a third of your life at work. Making sure it’s the best place for you should be your priority. So before you get to the “Any questions for me?” part, ask yourself this: What do I really need to know to make my decision?

This article originally appeared on Medium.com and was written by Zara Stone.

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