How to Gauge a Company’s Culture in an Interview

Young People Work In Modern Office

Author: Emily Lamia
Source: Idealist Careers

Culture. It’s a big word. But what does it really mean?

We seem to know how to identify bad organizational culture: constant stress, unreasonable workloads, and passive aggressive or mean people. But aside from unlimited snacks, casual Fridays, and a summer picnic, what goes into determining how to define positive organizational culture?

The truth is, everyone’s version of a positive culture is different. This is why it’s important to have your own definition of what a good culture looks like to you in order to truly thrive in your social-impact career.

Start with the elements that are important to you

Begin by thinking about the top three to four qualities or characteristics you envision for a positive work environment. For example, they may be things like:

  • Good work-life balance
  • People are appreciated for their work
  • Organized structures and clear processes (or perhaps, not a lot of structure or processes)
  • People get along and enjoy working together

Once you identify the most important elements, create questions that you would be comfortable asking in an interview to help you uncover whether those qualities are part of the organizational culture.

Craft questions on those elements that go deeper

Sure, you could come right out and ask whether people enjoy working together, but most interviewers or hiring managers are just going to say “yes.”

To get a more honest answer, try asking:

  • How social are people in the office?
  • Do people interact outside of work together?
  • Do people eat lunch at their desks, or together in a lunch room, or do they go out together?
  • Is there any type of organizational committee that focuses on social gatherings and teambuilding?

These questions can help you understand if people are likely to spend time together even when they don’t have to. If they don’t, it may not mean they don’t enjoy working together—but if you’re looking for an office where the relationships continue after five, the above questions may give you at least some of the information you’re looking for. And don’t be fooled by the beer on tap! Just because an office has beer in the kitchen, a ping-pong table, and plenty of couches to hang out doesn’t mean that the actual culture of the office is a friendly one that encourages social interaction. In an interview, you’ll want to ask questions that go beyond those more superficial features in an office setting.

If you’re someone who likes to know what’s expected of you and want to feel supported with your work, you may prefer to have clearly defined systems and processes. To understand how organized a team or workplace may be, ask for an example of a recent project that involved lots of moving pieces and listen for cues. Try asking:

  • How were the project roles divvied up between team members and what was the process for deciding those roles?
  • Were there last minute changes? And if so, how were those communicated and managed?
  • Did things get delivered on time?

If process and structure are important to you, consider asking what type of project management and communication platforms the organization favors.

Conducting research on an organization’s culture ahead of time will help you clarify the important questions you want to ask during an interview as well.

Listen and watch for subtle cues

After you ask your questions, keep an eye out for how stressed the person seems when sharing the example and listen not only to what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. Does it take them a long time to find the “right” way to answer your question? Are they vague? Do they look uncomfortable or at ease?

Don’t confuse culture elements

Many people would prefer more autonomy and the ability to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to their work. But be mindful that you’re not confusing the ability to have non-standard hours with a need for autonomy and ownership over your work. Wanting to work from home one day a week or take a long lunch may just mean you want flexibility in your day, and not necessarily evidence of a non-negotiable need for autonomy.

Here are a few examples of questions that can help you uncover other parts of organizational culture:

  • How do people know when they’re doing a good job in their work? This question helps you learn about how people are appreciated.
  • How often do you meet with your direct reports? Who’s responsible for the agenda when you do check ins with staff, and what is a typical agenda? This question helps you understand your potential boss’s management style.
  • How many projects do people typically work on at one time and how long do they last? This question helps you understand how varied the work is, and can help you get clarity if you find working on many projects at one time energizing or overwhelming.
  • What would you say are the top three personal qualities that are necessary in order for people to be successful in this organization? Consider what would you think if the answers were confidence, ambition, and stamina versus collaborative, flexible, and curious?

Here are some other approaches and examples of questions to ask that are interview appropriate to help you get more of the inside scoop.

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