There are many questions you might hear during a job interview. Some are easy to answer (or should be), some are difficult, and some are fraught with potential danger.
How do you handle pressure? How do you measure success? Tell me why you want to work here. What can you bring to this company? What is your greatest weakness? The list is virtually endless…
One that is popping up with increasing frequency is “do you know anyone who works for us?”, and it could be a tricky one to answer if you haven’t given it some thought beforehand.
The interviewer may be asking to see if a) you’re friends with people well regarded at the company (which speaks well of you), or b) you’re friends with people disliked at the company (which doesn’t speak well of you), or c) you’re related to anyone at the company (which may work against you, as many places have policies in place to avoid or limit hiring family members of existing employees).
Regardless, your best course of action is honesty.
If You Don’t Know Anyone There
On the one hand, you might not know anyone, in which case the answer is easy and relatively free of consequence. You can say “no” and move on to the next discussion point.
But, many companies love to hire new recruits with an existing connection to their business, and knowing someone may prove the difference maker between getting and almost getting the job. It might be worthwhile to reach out to current employees and administrators on platforms such as LinkedIn. Establishing a relationship with someone at the company could be very good for your prospects...providing you nurture that connection and give it enough time to develop BEFORE mentioning it in an interview. You don’t want to exaggerate or inflate it either. It would be very embarrassing to mention knowing Mr. So-and-so, only to have that person not remember that you said “hi” on Twitter two weeks ago. If you’re so inclined, reach out to employees online, be honest and upfront about wanting to ask them a few questions about the company, and then see how the relationship develops from there. Offer help and advice to them - in whatever way possible - as often as you ask them for help or advice. And last but not least, in an interview, if you hear the question, call it what it is: you’ve spoken to Mr. So-and-so on LinkedIn over the past few weeks, he has some lovely things to say about the company, and it seems like it would be a great fit based on his comments and your own background and research.
If You Do Know Someone There
First of all, you need to be very upfront about any family members working for the company. Some businesses will simply not hire you if you have family there already, as their policies forbid it. Or, they may need to know to ensure that you are placed in a different department than the one your mother/brother/sister/uncle supervises. They want to avoid all potential conflict and appearances of nepotism or favoritism. Be honest. It may not affect your chances either way, but lying about it will have serious consequences if and when they find out.
If you know someone well regarded at that company, by all means mention the relationship. Highlight the positive comments and opinions shared with you about the company by that employee (but don’t gush unnecessarily), but also tie your decision to apply to your own research, opinion, and career goals. You want them to understand that YOU want to work for them because of what YOU can bring to the company, and that you appreciate what THEY do for their industry or customers. The decision can be influenced by the employee you know, but it shouldn’t be presented (or appear) as the deciding factor.
If you know someone not well regarded, the answer becomes a bit more difficult. It’s always better to admit the relationship (lying about it is a time bomb waiting to go off if you get hired), but diplomatically distance yourself from that individual. Remain neutral and never, ever bad-mouth that person during the interview (it does not reflect well on you at all). You can admit to knowing so-and-so, acknowledge that you know their relationship with the company has been strained lately, but that association was not a factor in your decision to apply. Bring it back to you and the company as quickly as possible.
As with most of life, honesty really is the best policy. Good and bad relationships happen, but you shouldn’t make them the deciding factor in anything. Admit to them - the good, the bad, and the familial - but steer the conversation back to your skills, your education, your background, your desire to work for them. Relationships can help, and hurt, your chances, but any hiring manager worth their salt is going to base their decision on you...not who you know.