When you’re interviewing for a new job, you probably want to know what it’s really like to work there. But most interview advice misses the mark when it comes to culture. How do you figure out the unspoken rules about company culture and communication before you take the job?
Unfortunately, you can’t simply ask directly. Companies often give lip service to values such as openness, honesty, integrity, and work-life balance, so it’s rare that your interviewer will come right out and contradict those.
A company’s culture is determined by what the organization actually respects, which can often vary from theory to practice. We’re all prone to self-deception.
To see the culture clearly, you’ll need to look past the words and focus on actions that show its respect for employees’ time, environment, thoughts, contributions, and effort.
Conduct a visual interview
When visiting a company, before you get to the actual talking part, do a visual interview. In 2019, the employee experience is a good indicator of how a company feels about its employees’ well-being.
When you visit the office, notice what are people wearing. Is the dress code t-shirt and shorts? Button-down and jeans? Are flip-flops optional? The spectrum of office formality to casualness provides your first clue as to how a company treats itself.
Take into account how much space, light, and quiet is each employee provided. If you find it crushing to work in a status-driven hierarchical environment where the corner office is the grand prize, pay attention accordingly. Or if the tumult of an open-floor plan feels like chaos instead of a productive workspace to you, choose wisely.
When they ask if you’d like a coffee or water, take them up on it, and get it yourself. This gives you an opportunity to visit the cafe or pantry. Notice whether it’s large and well-stocked, with a wide variety available or messy and tiny. Are they scrimping on supplies and offerings? Or is it a Google-esque cornucopia of snacks, drinks, and menu options? Great generals quip that “an army marches on its stomach.” Does your future employer agree?
Similarly, I’ve heard that a trip to the bathroom is the most revealing way to find out how a company feels about its employees. Because the bathroom is invisible to the outside world but something employees use every day, investments here show a conscious effort to improve the daily routine.
If the bathrooms are dingy, dimly lit, depressing dungeons that have not been painted since the 1970s, how discretionary is employee happiness to this company when nature calls? A clean, well-stocked, and well-maintained lavatory says the organization cares.
These visual cues give a glimpse into a company’s culture as it is actually practiced. You can’t read too much into them, of course, but they provide clues.
Ask these four crucial questions
Meeting practices, office communications, and the sanctity of days off are the biggest tip-offs to a company’s hidden culture. So after your visual interviews, ask questions face to face with your interviewers to reveal what the company values in these areas.
Some companies prefer inclusion and consensus while others value efficiency and rapid decision-making. You might ask, “Are meetings inclusive, with a dozen people or more, or limited to five or six decision-makers?” Big meetings mean no hurt feelings but no speed either. Smaller, sparser meetings mean streamlined agendas, but you might not always be included.
Asking them to discuss a time when negative employee feedback on a decision caused it to change at the company can be eye-opening. Some companies are hierarchical and simply don’t work that way, while others are immensely receptive to employee feedback. Neither’s right, but one may be more right for you.
You might also ask, “What is the rhythm to the work here? Is there a time of year when it’s all hands on deck and we’re pulling all-nighters, or is it pretty consistent throughout the year?” If your interviewer lets you know it’s all-nighters all year, that’s a different culture than a 9-5 office environment. You could continue with, “How about during the week or month? Is the work pretty evenly spread throughout the week or month or are there crunch days?” A performance-driven company will let you know it values outcomes over an easy schedule, and vice versa.
Company culture regarding emails and Slack are especially important in our always-online world. You might ask, “How do you handle the flood of emails and Slacks at your company? What works for you?” Some workplaces expect round-the-clock surveillance of your device and instant replies. Others are much more comfortable with “do not disturb” and waiting until the morning.
In all of these conversations, a pleasant, open, nonconfrontational tone is best, regardless of what works best for you. You’re there to learn about their culture, not judge it. Open eyes, open ears, and open-ended questions are the best way to find a company’s hidden culture before you start.