One Interview Question You Should Definitely Ask

Published: Nov 14, 2013

 Consulting       Interviewing       Job Search       Workplace Issues       
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Standard advice about interviewing at companies decrees that you should always do your research in advance, and come armed with a few pertinent questions on the firm's business model, goals, and the like. It also decrees that you should save questions pertaining to compensation, perks and benefits for at least a second round interview.

But there's one subject that really doesn't come up in the standard advice very often, and which probably should, as the answer to it has the ability to make or break your entire experience at a given organization: the question of how an organization evaluates its employees.

Why that question?

The way that an organization conducts reviews can be a crucial differentiator on everything from your promotion and salary prospects to the day-to-day morale within the company. So it makes sense to find out whether you'll be assessed by one supervisor filling out a form, anonymous data collection from a group of colleagues, or even face-to-face peer review.


A question of culture

More important than the data collection process, however, is the question of what the company actually does with the information. While some firms simply file the results in your personnel folder, others use them to actively streamline their workforce, ranking employees against each other, and culling the weakest performers.

That last process—known, among other monikers, as "stack ranking", "grading on a curve" or "rank and yank"—has been in the news this week, with Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer apparently embracing it as a means of winnowing her company's employee pool. Interestingly, Silicon Valley rival Microsoft—where the system has long been in effect—announced almost simultaneously that it was discontinuing the practice.

While the thought of performing poorly enough to be in the percentile that is "yanked" isn't enough to hold most people back from accepting a position (who takes a job they think they'll do poorly at?), stack ranking has other criticisms leveled at it that might make you think twice. Consider this passage from a WSJ piece on the practice: "Critics say this forced ranking undermines team work. It encourages employees to engage in destructive and wasteful game-playing designed to ensure they get credit, or others don’t."

Of course, the practice also has its champions—former GE CEO Jack Welch among them—who insist that it is a vital part of keeping organizations lean and productive. Whichever side of that debate you find yourself on, knowing whether or not the practice is used at a firm you're interviewing with can only help you to make a more informed decision, ultimately leading to a better fit if you do get offered, and take, the position.


The frequency issue 

One final review-related issue you might consider asking about is how often the process comes around. While most firms schedule a single, annual review, some companies—and employees—prefer a system where review is a more regular, ongoing part of life. Others, particularly in the consulting industry, like to conduct reviews after each engagement, to assess the consultant's performance on the project, and identify areas for improvement or training. While this can be helpful in some instances, in others, employees and managers may find that they'd rather be spending their time finding ways to contribute to the bottom line, instead of preparing for yet another review. 

Ultimately, the question of company review policies isn't something that you're likely to be able to change—and it's something that most employees have to put up with, mostly grudgingly, throughout their careers. But if you're in a position where you have a decision to make between prospective employers, the review processes—and your own opinions about what would work best for you—are definitely worth paying attention to, and asking about.