by: Claire Lew-Signal v. Noise
“How do you know if a company’s culture is good?”
Last week, a friend who’s looking for a new job asked me this. She’d been doing a few interviews, and was trying to figure out what questions to ask during her interviews to discern if a potential employer’s workplace culture was healthy.
In each interview, she’d ask a version of: “What’s it like to work here?”
Without fail, the person on the other side of the table would tell her: “It’s great!”
But is it really?
How do you know if a company’s culture is what they say it is?
Instead of asking “What’s it like to work here?” these five questions are what I recommended she ask at the end of her next interview…
#1: When is the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?
Our most productive, creative work happens when we have a large block of uninterrupted time. Yet how many workplaces make that a reality regularly for their employees? Ask a question about the last time your interviewer had an uninterrupted period of time to get work done and listen closely to the answer. Your interviewer may scoff and tell you: “We like to stay busy, busy, busy — meetings all the time, messages constantly on Slack…” Or she may sit there, a little stumped by the question, before slowly answering: “Hmmm… I’m not sure.” Both bring to light a clear truth: The company does not have a culture that values a calm environment where employees’ time is protected for them to do real work.
#2: When is the last time you argued about something with someone?
Healthy company cultures have a penchant for heated debate. People who are a part of them are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and they treat opposing views with consideration and care. You want to dig to see if this is the case at the company you’re interviewing with. Do they suffer from a “culture of nice,” where everyone is conflict-averse and afraid to step on anyone’s toes? Or are people abrasive, tone-deaf and handle conflict without any tact? Arguments are unavoidable. They will happen in whatever company you work in next. What’s important is figuring out if those arguments will be handled well. You want a culture where people are upfront and honest when they disagree, and come to a resolution civilly.
#3: When’s the last time you had a conversation with the CEO one-on-one?
(Or, if you’re interviewing with the CEO, you can ask her: “When’s the last time you had a conversation one-on-one with [a person in your role]?”)
As an employee, you want to gauge the accessibility of the leadership team — and of the CEO in particular. Sure, when you’re in interviews, many companies will point out how their CEO’s desk is out in the open with everyone else’s, or that her office door is never closed shut. Does that mean she frequently gets up from her desk or out of her office, and seeks out perspectives from the front lines? If you have a concern, will it be difficult or seen as uncouth to try get a hold of her? Asking a question about the last time the interviewer spoke one-on-one with the CEO will give you an idea of how seriously the company takes openness, access to leadership, and a desire to hear from everyone in the company.
#4: When have you felt most proud to be at the company?
This question can uncover what people at the company truly value. For example, someone might say in an interview, “Everyone here is a team-player and we all care about accomplishing our company’s mission.” But if you ask them, “When have you felt most proud to be at the company?” they might tell you their proudest moment was hitting a personal sales goal and winning an individual award in the company. While that’s no doubt an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, it does reveal a fondness for individual recognition. Compare that to, say, the interviewer telling you their proudest moment was when the company won an industry-wide award or when a customer raved about the company, etc. Either way, you’ll learn if what makes people proud to work there is about themselves or about the company. And it will give you a sense of if the same thing would make you proud to work there too.
#5: When’s the last time someone went above and beyond the call of duty at the company?
When people across departments and disciplines are willing to do favors with one another, pitch in to resolve an issue, and not worry about who’s getting credit for what — that’s the kind of company culture you want to be a part of. If you’re in a bind at work, you don’t want selfish office politics to get in the way. To clue into whether this is true for your prospective employer, ask about a time someone went “above and beyond the call of duty.” In your interviewer’s answer, you may hear her struggle to think of even one instance of this (uh oh) or you may hear her rattle off a whole list. From this, you’ll gain an understanding of how people at the company actively help and support one another… if at all.
If you’re on the job hunt, try a few of these questions at the end of your next interview. You’re bound to learn so much more than asking, “What’s it like to work here?”.
But if you’re not — if you’re an employer who’s actively recruiting new hires — ask yourself these questions.
Do you like your own answers to them?
Your company culture may not be as healthy as you’d like to say it is.