How to Ask About Flexible Hours Without Derailing Your Candidacy

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How to Ask About Flexible Hours Without Derailing Your Candidacy

By EILEEN P. GUNN
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Originally published February 8, 2007

Flexible scheduling has become more common, but talking about it during interviews can still be dicey for job hunters. Even at employers that embrace flextime or telecommuting, bringing up the subject can raise a red flag for hiring managers.

“Asking these questions too soon can add a complexity” for the interviewer, says Jacques Andre, a recruiting manager at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. You may send a signal that you might not be fully committed to the job or create more problems than you’ll solve.

Here are three tips for getting the information you need without making wrong impression.

1. Know why you’re asking.

Be clear in your mind about why you are interested in a company’s flexible-work policies, says Gustavo Alba, a recruiting manager in New York for Booz Allen. Are your generally interested in the company culture and how work gets done? Do you have flexibility at your current job that you would rather not relinquish? Or is having reduced hours or telecommuting a deal-breaker?

If it’s the latter, “You need to be up front and say, ‘This is what I have to offer, and this is what I’m looking for,'” says Mr. Alba. “If you wait until the final talk or the first day, it doesn’t look good.”

If you’re interested in just drawing a picture of what it will be like to work at the company, you can ask about work style and hours when the discussion lends itself, he says.

2. Base questions on research.

When Lee Hall interviewed for a publicity job for Great American Country at Scripps TV in Knoxville, Tenn., he’d been self-employed for a decade and was used to autonomy. The firm was a former client, but he checked out its Web site and learned that work-life balance was a listed as a core company value.

“I asked what exactly they meant by that and how it manifests itself at the company and in the department I’d be working in,” he says. He learned his now-boss embraced its company-wide flex-work policy.

Look beyond the company’s Web site when researching its corporate culture. You may be able to get the inside scoop from current and former employees and on sites such as Vault.com. Employer profiles detailing workplace practices often run in industry publications and the business media.

Some job candidates at Booz Allen who have seen the firm on a best companies list ask about its programs, says Mr. Alba. “That’s probing and trying to understand the culture, and it’s perfectly OK to do,” he says.

3. Be strategic.

You might interview with an executive recruiter or human-resources manager, a slew of managers and potential co-workers. You also might seek out other employees, alumni or outsiders familiar with the firm.

Think about what you want to know about policies versus the day-to-day realities and who is likely to provide candid and informed answers.

Direct questions about programs and policies to HR, says Mr. Andre. “It’s less likely to boomerang back at you,” he says. When talking to the hiring manager, it’s usually best to stick, at least initially, to company culture and department work style.

Ask if everyone on the team works on site and in the same office, says Debra Brown-Volkman, a career coach in East Moriches, N.Y. “You can ask the boss to describe a typical work day. Then see if he mentions answering email at home in the morning or leaving early once a week,” she says.

If laptops and Blackberries are standard issue, expect some mobility. If everyone has a desktop PC, it’s likely you’ll work in the office. Is the office made up of half-empty temporary workstations, or is it a sea of crowded cubicles?

Once your questions about a work environment have been answered, trust your gut when it comes to deciding whether it’s right for you.

Carol Bramstedt was seeking a job in 2006 as director of marketing and sales for a small financial-services company in the St. Paul, Minn., area. She says she learned from friends more familiar with the industry that the job’s goals seemed ambitious, perhaps unrealistic. She began to question whether she’d be able to telecommute, though the owner said she need be in the office only two or three days a week.

“It seemed like it could turn into a situation where I’d feel obligated to be there every day,” she says. The boss was reluctant to put the telecommuting arrangement into writing. With two kids in middle school, telecommuting was a deal-breaker for Ms. Bramstedt, she says, so she passed on the job.

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