When you’re interviewing for a position at a new company, you often have the chance to meet some current employees. In those interactions, you want to get as much information about what it is like to work there.
What questions should you be asking?
It’s natural to ask general questions like, “How do you like working here?” or, “What is a typical day like?” Those questions often don’t illuminate the most important aspects of what you’d like to know in order to figure out if this firm is a good match for you.
Instead, there are three big things you really want to know.
In order to get the answers to the questions you want, though, you want to get people to tell you stories that will address what you want. Often, if you ask a question directly, there is clearly a desirable response. And people want to be cooperative, so they will give you that desirable response—particularly if they are in the mode of trying to recruit you.
If you ask someone, “Do you like working here?” the correct answer is clearly, “Yes,” and so that is often the answer you will get. If you have people tell you stories about their work, though, you can often figure out what you need to know, even if some of it does not reflect positively on the organization.
Can you grow?
One thing you want to determine is whether you are expected to have mastered all of the skills of your job on day one, or whether you are expected to continue to develop those skills as you go along. A related issue is whether promising people are groomed for advancement.
Have people talk to you about times when they or someone else made a significant mistake, and how that was treated. Listen for whether people lose out when they underperform. Figure out whether mistakes are used as opportunities to weed out bad employees or a chance to identify skills that someone needs to improve. You want to invest your energy in organizations that want to see you reach your potential.
Find out about who typically gets new opportunities with the organization. Do they select people and prepare them to advance? Do they wait for people to threaten to leave before they consider them for another position? Do they generally hire high-level people from the outside?
One advantage of asking for stories is that you don’t sound like you are angling for a promotion from the beginning. Instead, you are just trying to find out more about how the workday goes.
Can you learn?
A related aspect of the work environment is chances to learn and get new training. Here, you’d like to get two kinds of stories.
First, what kinds of mentoring do people get? Ask people to talk about whether there is a mentoring program, and to talk about their interactions. In addition, get them to talk about informal advising they might get from other employees or their supervisor. You’d like to know who you can talk to when you want to learn more.
Second, what other learning opportunities are there? Find out whether there are lunch-and-learns or seminars, or even education days that are organized by the firm. Have people talk about whether they or other people they know have gone back to school while working, or have taken seminars or other continuing education. In that way, you can find out whether new learning is encouraged, and also whether there are benefits that people use to finance additional education.
Can you trust?
The best organizations to work for are ones where you feel like your contribution is valued. That value is shown in many ways, but perhaps the most important is when organizations follow through on the commitments they make.
You’d like to get stories of situations in which the organization has made promises and then either followed through or reneged. When people tell those stories, you can get a sense of whether they generally feel like they can trust the information they get about the future, or whether they are skeptical of pronouncements.
This trust matters, because it is a big predictor of how likely people are to continue to work for a firm. It is hard for organizations to develop a loyal base of employees if people feel like management says one thing and does another.