It’s an exaggeration to say that Socrates invented good questions in general, but tempting to credit him with some doozies, e.g., “What is justice?” So, what would he have asked in a job interview, if he had lost his philosophy day-job?

According to one recruiting-industry writer, there are 10 questions he and every job applicant would be wise (enough) to skip. But, after reviewing them, I concluded that three of them might not only be OK, but could also be smart to ask. Especially if you are a modern Socrates who knows how to pose and manipulate the questions.

As I read through the “10 Questions You Shouldn’t Ask on a Job Interview”, by Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily contributor/LiveScience.com, I noted that I have, in job interviews, asked three of them, with good results, i.e., excellent job offers.

So, to weigh the pros and cons of these three questions, like Socrates, I’ve put together the following counterarguments, in support of asking precisely the same three “taboo” questions.

(The other seven questions range from the obviously dumb, e.g., “What does the company do?”, to borderline-OK, e.g., “Do you offer flex-time?”—which, if asked with a justification, e.g., having a child who has 9:00 a.m. sessions with a speech therapist twice a week, can be necessary, as well as reasonable to ask.)

I. “Is there public transportation nearby?”: Brooks quotes career coach Bettina Seidman, who trashes the question by declaring, “”Find it yourself. If you have to ask about trains and buses nearby, how will you work on complicated projects?”

Now, imagine Albert Einstein arriving at Los Alamos, New Mexico on an extended visit to a key site of the Manhattan Project and asking the guard at the gate that question. What conclusions would you have drawn about his competence as a nuclear physicist?

  1. He was incompetent
  2. He was engrossed in his work and wanted to save time and energy (=mc2)
  3. He didn’t have an iPhone and Internet access (because they didn’t exist yet)
  4. He got a ride in an MP-escorted jeep on that first day.

Einstein’s asking that question would have had absolutely no bearing on his ability or motivation to “work on complicated projects”.

Now, you don’t have to be an Einstein to be an expat. Working in a new country, with new languages (as Einstein did and I have done, in my case in two countries—three if you think Canadian English is another language), learning the terrain can be a huge challenge. Try, in your first week, to find your way back from “A” to “B”, without asking, when “A” and “B” are at the Hong Kong addresses shown here.

GETTING FROM “A” TO “B”

Moreover, in other situations, asking it could be strong evidence of farsightedness and seriousness about the job. Anyway, I got my editor/writer job at China Daily, even though I asked.

Getting a Job by Plane, Limo and Question

I once was one of six candidates hired from more than 400 for a highly analytical job with Manulife, Toronto. Apart from what they thought of my performance in the intensely intellectual interviews and on the standardized pattern-recognition test, my mode of transportation clearly impressed management.

Challenged to make the suddenly requested 100-mile trip to the second interview, with no last-minute public transportation available, I did two things: I chartered a plane and hired a limo from the Toronto airport, which got me to their offices five minutes early. Having used such unorthodox and comparatively expensive means of inter-city travel and needing to factor in the logistics of relocation, my asking about local access to the office made sense.

Moreover, in my experience, various employers take pains to explain the convenience of public transportation as a job perk. So why would they resent your concurrence that it is an important consideration worth mentioning, given that they do?

The dismissal of the transportation question most certainly reflects the ubiquity of iPhones and Internet access to the required information. But there are perfectly qualified job applicants who don’t have or want iPhones, and who therefore can’t do an online search within the job vicinity. Me, for example. Besides there are many of us who are, as the Japanese put it, “hoko onchi”—“direction deaf”—and, even with maps, will, as navigational morons, easily get lost. (I always did and do.)

II. “Can I work from home?”: One critic cited in the article says that working from home may eventually be possible for some jobs, but that “trust” must be established prior to that. “Raising it during the interview process raises concerns that maybe the candidate has some home-related issues that they are hiding,” Bruce Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing said. “Of course, it could simply be because of the commute, but the time to ask the question is after the employer knows they can trust your work ethic.”

Well, exactly when is that time to ask? After the job has been accepted and it is discovered that there is no alternative to a two-hour commute, just because the company is not “with it” yet, or even aware of “telework”, even though the job is purely computer and Internet based? And when does the employer or manager know (s)he “can trust your work ethic”? Six months into the job?

You can ask the question and at the same time allay anxieties about your operating a crack-cocaine lab out of your basement by justifying as well as presenting the question, e.g., “I am disabled and a two-hour commute would be very challenging and an inefficient use of the time I can make available to you.”Or, “During the school summer vacation, working from home would allow me to supervise my 6-year-old, while my husband is at work.” That should quash any suspicion of something “hidden”, save for the laundry stuffed in the closet while working in the study.

Asking may in fact enhance the odds of getting the job. In one instance, knowing upfront that I was willing to work from home as a writer eliminated the need for my own keys to the office, which contained sensitive documents.

That was something that the director liked, especially given the potential complications of lost keys, fires from hot plates, or doors left unlocked.

III. “Is there a probationary period?”: Brooks reports that Jeff Kear, owner of Planning Pod, said that asking about a probationary period can set off alarms. “It sounds like you’ve been fired in the past or somehow expect to perform poorly at some point,” Kear said.

On the other hand, asking can, once again, indicate farsightedness, especially since starting pay is often lower during a probationary period.

Moreover, in companies with high employee-turnover rates, a probationary period can be a bad sign, indicating that the company may be reluctant to pay post-probation wages and therefore routinely terminates new employees at the end of the probationary period, only to replace them with equally low-paid staff.

Kear himself implies there may be a place for the probationary-period question in suggesting that the question can be asked with a performance-evaluation spin.

For example (mine), “Is the initial salary review based on performance or time?”, followed by “Is that period of time merely a milestone or also a probationary period?” (in the event the reply is “time-based”).

If the response is “performance-based”, ask “Over what period—a probationary period?” This softens or dilutes the question by setting it up within a salary review framework with a pay review focus.

Interviewing Socrates

Shifting our imaginative gaze from Einstein back to Socrates, it is easy to imagine the latter getting into deep trouble in a job interview, because of his irrepressible propensity to ask questions, questions and more questions: “What is knowledge?”, “What is the Good?”, “What is Beauty?”, etc.

On the other hand, he might have been able to sneak the three suspect questions into the interview through the kind of crafty embedding suggested above and which for him would have been a  cinch.

For example, instead of asking, “Do you have a probationary period?”, Socrates could have segued to it through what he would insist is an essential prior question….

“What is a probationary period?”



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