Some questions put everyone to sleep; others make people sweat. Both are dangerous.
1) Sleepy Questions
TV host, David Letterman was interviewing Larry David, the star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Letterman: "What was the name of the Woody Allen film you were in?"
Questions like this steal time—and deliver no value. Also, they lack zest.
On the other hand, it's a perfect question if you're trying desperately to make chit-chat with someone who's not responsive, because maybe, for example, he or she is in a coma.
Larry David refused to answer: "That's really none of your business, Dave."
If you watch the interview, it's a nice comic moment.
Larry David acts offended by a question that's too bland to offend (except for Letterman's apparent lack of prep).
Sleepy Questions seem safe—that's what makes them so risky. They sap the energy right out of a room.
As Larry David tells Letterman: "Dave, I don't really think you're bringing out my best self."
2) Sweaty Questions
Consider Warren Buffet's recent problems.
One of his top execs urged Buffet to acquire a company. The exec also mentioned that he held stock.
Buffet didn't ask:
a) How much stock do you own? (Answer: $10 million.)
b) When did you buy it? (Answer: a few weeks ago.)
Result? The press attacked; the SEC considered investigating; the exec resigned.
Sweaty questions are tough to ask.
But sometimes, the biggest risk is not asking. For example:
"Where, exactly, will I be working?"
Roy Cohen, career coach & author, "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide" had a client who never asked that during her interview, even though she knew there were space constraints.
She ended up working at a conference table with several other managers, all of them angry about sharing a tiny space and a single phone.
She left the company a few months later.
Then there's the money questions.
Business coach, Laura Rose used to be a Software Manager. She suspected pay inequity, even though her boss had just given her a top performance rating, and a top raise.
"How do you like your raise?" the boss asked. She expressed appreciation.
But then she asked, "Could you check whether my base salary is in line with other managers at my level?"
Laura's manager did check, found a gap, and committed to closing it. Laura stayed 10 years.
Tip: Watch your questions. Playing it safe may be dangerous.
© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.