The Worst Thing to Ask During An Interview

I have been involved in interviews for a number of years now and there is one recurring question that continuously irks me:

“What does your company do?”

This is a very broad and open-ended question that poses a couple problems during the interview:

1. It makes the candidate appear lazy or naive.
In our web enabled world very few companies lack a web site. The majority of these sites will have at least the basic purpose of the business if not the entire overview and history. A little research will typically tell the visitor all they need to know about the business they are interested in and will more often than not give a potential hire enough information so that they can frame some specific questions that will make them appear studious and competent. When candidates do not take the time to research such a basic bullet point it makes the interviewers question whether the candidate is simply naive or if laziness is the underlying issue.

2. It wastes the time of all parties involved.
When I have to explain what my company does I am simply repeating what can be found, in detail, on the company website. This means that X minutes of the interview, that could better be spent on other topics, are wasted on discussion of details that the candidate should have already known. This lends a disservice mainly to the interviewee. They waste precious time for valid and detailed questions and they make themselves appear unprepared, lazy, or naive.

If you are going into an interview you should always know as much as possible about the company you are going to be speaking to. If you don’t know something, be specific and avoid broad “what do you guys do” type questions at all costs.

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Jason McDonald

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13 Comments

  • Why would you be on a job interview if you didn’t know what the company does? Sounds pretty stupid.

  • skitzo – I am a software engineering manager. I do some coding still though…

    sammy – Great point. In our particular organization this duty typically falls to the recruiting staff, however you are absolutely correct that someone from the company should be initiating the knowledge transfer.

  • I agree that’s it’s a dumb question, it should never have to be asked…1. the applicant should have researched the company and 2. the interviewer should have told them already.

    Just from personal experience I’ve noticed that every single interview I’ve been to has started out with the interviewer spending the first 5 minutes selling their company to me and why I’d want to work there. They usually tell me what they do in detail and the benefits of working there before I even get to ask a question.

    I guess it depends on the economic climate really but if the applicant has the upper hand in your area of the world then perhaps by asking, they’re subtly prodding you. The unsubtle way would be ‘Dude you haven’t told me a thing about your company yet, if you can’t sell your company to me, how do you manage your clients?! Get your game face on now or I’m going with the other guys!”

  • Which is a very valid question – wanting to know about the business model and aspects of the job are fine. Not knowing what the company does at all is what my gripe is. In your case you know – they made T-Shirts. That doesn’t explain the role you will play, but it explains the overarching focus of the company.

  • Company descriptions may vary widely from what the job involves. I was interviewed by a company making T-shirts, and that’s what the website described. That description would have told me little. I asked the interviewer to validate their business model. That helped a lot in clarifying how solidly employees felt about the company.

  • You don’t see this as a waste of time? Wouldn’t it be more productive to ask more specific questions about the role, team, or project than a blanket statement that is bound to result in a generic answer?

  • I think it is a very valid question to find out what your hiring manager thinks her or his company does. A job interview should always be two-way. You don’t want to end up with an incompetent manager.

  • Our company was a stealth-mode startup so we didn’t have a description of what we were doing on our website. Also, we were small and I was the only developer, so I’d filter the resumes and then do the initial phone interview, etc. The most common question would have been “What does your company do?”, but I always took the time to explain our product.

    A question like “What does your company do?” suggests laziness on both the part of the applicant and the interview process. Last few jobs that I’ve interviewed for, I Googled the interviewer to find out about them as well.

  • Agreed. But even if a company does not have a website, don’t you think that these are questions that should be asked before getting to the interview phase? The recruiter, manager, or other point of contact should be able to supply enough information to avoid this question still…

  • “what does your company” do might be a pretty dumb question to ask during an interview – presumably you want to know that before turning up for the interview – but it is not the ‘worst’ thing to ask, and a more likely form of this question – “what is the specific project / product I would be working on” – is very reasonable. Also, not all companies have websites. I am doing some work for a company that has been developing software products for 3 years and has no website at all. A couple of other companies I have worked for have websites, but in order to get past the first page (which contains almost zero information) you need to already be a customer and have a user-id and password. Not all companies developing software are as ‘open’ and ‘public’ as the self-publicity of many companies leads us to believe. Many company websites have only general ‘fluff’ – what you need from the interview is an solid idea of what the company is trying to achieve on a particular project – and just as important – how they expect to do it. If they cannot answer these two questions ‘what’ and ‘how’ – you might want to walk away.

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