5 Questions Women of Color Must Ask in Their Interviews

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Whether you’re just diving into the working world or are a seasoned professional, there is nothing more exciting -- or gratifying! -- than that shining invitation to interview for your dream organization or position. I still remember one of my most recent interviews: I had been trying for months and months to push my way into this particular organization that when I finally heard back, I literally jumped out of my chair.

Of course, like most things job-related, interviews can be tricky. But they are particularly tricky for women of color. On the one hand, it can be tough for women of color just to get in the door -- one study from Harvard Business Review found that if there’s only one person of color in the candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she will be hired. But even if a woman of color does get the interview and does land the job, the road blocks are still there. And they have familiar names: unsavory stereotypes, tokenism, racism, sexism, unfair burden of work -- you name it.

But not all is lost! Interviews may be gateways for employers to field out the best talent, but they can also be gateways for women of color to determine whether or not this is an organization they actually want to work for.

Here are five questions all women of color must ask their potential employers.

#1: Does the scope of the job description cover my primary responsibilities?

I learned this question the hard way. In the first job I applied to and accepted, there was a little bullet point with the seemingly innocent words: “Other duties as described.” Two months in, those four words ended up covering everything from answering the telephone to organizing cleaning charts. A funny anecdote, but it could have steamrolled into more insidious consequences, especially as a woman of color.

Women of color receive extra scrutiny from their coworkers and bosses (illustrated in this lovely chart on page two), which could impact their performance reviews and earning potential. Now, imagine that you’re being reviewed for not only the work you’ve signed up for, but tasks that are, really, out of your control and pay grade.

As women of color, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to ask for what you believe you’re due when your core responsibilities and duties change from the ones you were hired for. A solid piece of advice: the worst people can say is “no”!

#2: What are promotions and raises based off of and how are they decided?

It’s well-known that the lingering wage gap impacts women of color tremendously, but that inequality doesn’t exactly get better with time. Women of color are the least likely to be promoted within their organizations, which negatively affects their potential to maximize their lifetime earnings and rollover family wealth down the line. Phew.

With this as our backdrop, it’s not only important to figure out whether or not advancement is possible, but it’s doubly important to figure out if there are processes in place to make those advancements happen!

When I first started out, I found it slightly unfair that year after year white men would walk into the boss’s office to discuss bonuses and whatnot, while I just silently seethed. Oftentimes, I think the burden falls onto women of color to demand raises and promotions, ignoring the stereotypes that accompany those requests. But what most people don’t realize is that there are institutional histories and attitudes that foster unequal advancement for women of color.

As a woman of color, try to tease out if the organization you interview with has formal performance review schedules. Are they randomly interspersed throughout the year? Or do reviews happen on a consistent, timely basis? Are raises based on accomplishing your goals? Or does it sound like more of a boy’s club? (And if you want to go one step further: take a look at the organization’s team -- is there a record of who’s been promoted and who hasn’t?)

#3: Do you provide a budget for professional development and trainings?

This is a question I’ve just started to recently ask. As we’ve seen, women of color have larger wage gaps than their other counterparts, which can affect their lifetime earnings. While we can’t ignore this fact, there are some ways to take advantage of it: namely, professional development.

When I worked for a non-profit, a sector renowned for lower pay in general, one way I made the most out of that experience was to request participation in workshops and trainings. I learned about best practices for putting together annual reports, ways to make webinars more engaging, and how to write award-winning grants. While it certainly didn’t help me pay rent in the short-term, in the long-term, these were added skills I could market in my next interviews with the hopes of increasing my salary.

So when you are interviewing, ask if your employer will make time and the budget for your professional development.

#4: What is your management style like?

Naturally, you want to like the person you are working for -- but it’s a little more nuanced for women of color. One study reported that women of color are more likely to feel that their managers do not stick up for them, support them in navigating dreaded office politics, or provide opportunities to ask advice. This creates an enormous gap of psychological safety that all employees should have in their jobs: you deserve to wake up and go to a job where you feel valued, heard, and respected. But for many women of color, this just isn’t a given.

Every job will inevitably have its ups and downs. But as women of color, you want to work for someone who will have your back and stand up for you when the going gets tough. During your interview, take mental notes of your interactions with your potential supervisor. Does the interview feel more like a conversation? Do you feel at ease around this person? If you got the job, would this be a person you’d be excited to work for? All of these questions matter.

#5: What does employee turnover look like?

Admittedly, this can be a scary question to ask. You don’t want to give the impression you’re already thinking of your way out, and you also don’t want to come off like you are prying. But -- if it feels right to bring up, this is a must-ask question.

High turnover can mean a lot of different things. On the one hand, you have people who leave to pursue better opportunities and increased salaries, which is perfectly normal. But on the other hand, turnover can mean something else is brewing underneath the surface: people leaving because they are bored and disengaged, employees unable to share ideas and solutions with colleagues, teams mired with office politics, and (of course) just plain ol’ bad management.

While I doubt your interviewer will give you the inside scoop, you can actually learn a lot from how they react. Does the interviewer get defensive*? Or do they candidly share some reasons people leave? Do they shut your question down? Or appreciate the curiosity?

*I have actually turned down a job based on the reaction I received to one of my “tough” interview questions. While I had enormous privilege to be able to turn down a job, I do think it speaks to the strength that gut instincts can have during an interview. If it just doesn’t feel right, it’s probably because it isn’t.

The Melanin Collective