If you want to know what it’s like to work for a company, you can’t exactly waltz up to a recruiter and ask “What’s your company culture like?” Besides the fact that company culture covers a whole lot of ground and summing it up in one answer isn’t totally possible, it’s more likely than not to yield a polished, marketing-approved answer than a candid discussion.
“If you are asking… about the culture, [recruiters] will know that and attempt to tell you what you want to hear,” says Henry Goldbeck, President of Goldbeck Recruiting. “So, if you are going to ask about company culture, it’s better to ask specific questions.”
There are a number of questions you can ask during an interview that, while seeming fairly straightforward on the surface, can help uncover deeper intel about the inner workings of a company. We asked a handful of career, recruiting, and HR experts to share a few of their favorites — keep these in mind the next time you’re in an interview and want to know the scoop.
1. How long have you been with the company?
“This is a question to ask each of your interviewers. If everyone you meet has only been there a short time you need to probe further,” says Career Counselor and Executive Coach Roy Cohen. “Unless the company is a startup, expanding rapidly, or the department is newly established, this is a serious red flag. High turnover could be a sign of low pay, long hours, lack of opportunity for career advancement, or incompetent management.”
2. What was the last big achievement that was celebrated?
This question “gives [interviewers] the chance to reveal if employee efforts are acknowledged and appreciated and if people enjoy having company parties/gatherings,” says Valerie Streif, Senior Advisor at career services company Mentat. “If they don't do anything to celebrate, it may be a thankless and cold environment.”
3. What's the dress code like here?
“Companies that have no dress code or a very loose one are often less traditional than companies with full business-dress requirements. Certainly, there are exceptions, but I rarely find a company where everyone wears a full suit and tie or skirt suit every day that also has dogs in the office and nap rooms and free beer,” says Jill Santopietro Panall, HR consultant and owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, LLC. “Be careful, here, though, because an informal dress code doesn't necessarily mean that there's less pressure or stress. Many tech companies have no dress code but are also total pressure cookers. Appearance standards are only a small clue to the environment, not the whole picture.”
4. What activities do you offer for employees?
“If companies have softball leagues, trivia teams, company outings, retreats or other planned social events, it can often give you a clue to how important they think it is for co-workers to LIKE one another, not just work together,” Santopietro Panall says. This can be especially important if you “have recently moved, are entering the workforce after college or anyone else that needs a social aspect in the workplace,” adds Nikki Larchar, Co-Founder/Human Resource Business Partner at simplyHR LLC.
“On the flip side, that kind of togetherness may not be for everyone,” Santopietro Panall acknowledges. “If the thought of socializing with your co-workers leaves you cold, you may want to look for a company with a more 9-5 environment.”
5. What was the department's biggest challenge last year and what did you learn from it?
It may come across as an obvious question, but it actually does a great job at revealing “whether or not the company blames processes or people when something goes wrong. The former indicates that they are a continuous learning organization and the latter may be a sign of a blame culture,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista. “Listen to who or what gets blamed for the failure and if they have taken steps to learn from it.”
Keep an ear out for how their answer hints at the degree of politics present in the office, too. “Company politics play a huge role in overall job satisfaction, and it’s important to know ahead of time how decisions are made and conflicts are resolved,” shares Natasha Bowman, Chief Consultant at Performance ReNEW and author of the upcoming book You Can’t Do That At Work! 100 Common Mistakes That Managers Make.
6. How much time do the owners/leaders/founders spend in the office?
“This question tells you whether or not you have leaders in place who are in touch with the work and making knowledgeable decisions. The best and brightest ideas oftentimes come directly from the people actually doing the work, so if a leader rarely spends time with staff, it points to a lack of innovation and support in their culture,” says Gardner.
This question may not be quite as important to ask of a large business, but “in a small business, that interaction with the top level may be key to you getting ahead, being able to get things done and having that person's vision be carried out by their team,” Santopietro Panall says. It “might also give you a key to the level of the workaholism that you can expect there. If the recruiter says ‘oh, our CEO Sally is here 90 hours a week, she never takes a day off!’ you're going to know that the culture is going to be very focused on putting in a lot of hours with a lot of face time.”
7. What do people on the team that I’d be joining do for lunch every day?
“Finding out what people tend to do on their lunch hour will tell you whether they are slammed with work, don’t want to spend time with their colleagues, or tend to be social and enjoy each other’s company,” Bowman says. “This information can also tell you whether or not your potential colleagues might be more extroverted or introverted. Depending on your own preferences, this response can give you some valuable insight into the team that you’re joining.”
8. How do you measure success and over what time frame? How are these metrics determined?
If you want to avoid a boss with outrageous expectations, this is the question to ask. “Before you accept an offer you need to know that your new boss has realistic expectations with respect to what you will accomplish and by when,” Cohen says. “No matter how attractive an offer may be, if you do not, or cannot, deliver results you will fail. So, if you are told that the bar is outrageously high and you don't have enough time to come up to speed, think twice before accepting the terms without discussion or negotiation.”
9. Would you be willing to show me around the office?
This question is probably best saved for a last-round interview so you don’t seem too intrusive, but “taking a walk around the workspace is a great way to get a real feel for the day-to-day culture,” Larchar says. “Are individuals interacting with one another? Do the workers look stressed? Are the individual workspaces decorated? What is the setup of the office? Does the work space seem inclusive? How are the departments organized? If you thrive on working with others, you'll want a work environment where that feels natural.”
One thing Santopietro Panall recommends keeping an eye on in particular is how many senior-level employees have their own offices. “It's a clue to how structured and hierarchical the company is,” she says. “Companies with few or no private offices tend to be less top-down than companies with a lot of private offices or a whole CEO floor. There's a strong trend, in many businesses, of removing private spaces in offices and making all space communal — some companies are loving it and finding it effective and others are dreading it, but whether a company would even consider it is a sign of how much they are trying to embrace a certain kind of flexible, collaborative work style.”
10. Does the company give back to the community? In what ways?
“If it is important that you and the company are aligned in terms of shared priorities such as corporate responsibility or giving back, then understanding their level of involvement offers important insight,” Cohen says. “Some companies make a point of promoting their community activities. Others view philanthropy and volunteering as a distraction. At the very least, if there is a disconnect, then you will not be disappointed when the company opts for limited commitment.”
“This also ties back into the question regarding social activities,” Larchar adds. “Are there events outside of work that the company supports and do they align with what you believe in or value as an individual?”
11. How many of the current team members have flexible schedules?
“Rather than asking ‘Can I have a flexible schedule?’ in your initial conversation... ask if others already do,” recommends Santopietro Panall. “If nobody does now, you'll know that the culture is more formal and any requests for flex-time or alternate work arrangements may be met with less enthusiasm. If lots of people have flexible schedules, you'll get a read on the work-life balance.”
It’s important to keep in mind the level of seniority for flexible employees as well, however. “It’s not helpful to you if you’re applying to a mid-level position and a senior manager has a flexible work schedule. Ask specifically about what location and scheduling flexibility exists for others in positions similar to yours,” Bowman says.
12. What continuing learning opportunities do you have for your employees?
“Besides the benefits of getting a degree or a certificate program subsidized by the company, this question offers insight into several other important aspects of company culture,” Cohen says. “Does the company view continuing education and advanced degrees as adding value to your profile? Does the company make time for you to pursue outside training? And even more important, if there is time for training, does this mean working there will allow for balance and a life outside?”
Beyond that, it’s also a good indicator of whether or not a company cares about employee retention. “Pay attention to if a program exists and what it comprises of: conferences, mentorship or an internal leadership development program are all positive signs that the company is interested in retaining its employees for the long haul,” Gardner says.
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