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3 questions to ask a hiring manager to find out if a company really values its workers

Employee-first means much more than just having high ratings on Glassdoor or photos of fun company events on Instagram.

3 questions to ask a hiring manager to find out if a company really values its workers
[Source illustrations: ma_rish/iStock; HADIIA POLIASHENKO/iStock]
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Many companies brand themselves as “employee-first.” But it’s hard for a job candidate to know if their potential employer will deliver on that promise.

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Employee-first means much more than just having high ratings on Glassdoor or photos of fun company events on Instagram. It means the organization appreciates that employees are human beings with diverse goals and needs, some of which they’re achieving in their professional careers and some of which they’re pursuing outside of work (think family time, hobbies, and fitness goals, for example).

An employee-first organization aims to help employees integrate and thrive in both work and life by always considering the whole person, rather than reflexively enforcing one-size-fits-all policies.

This attitude must start at the top, with leaders who include employee experience among their performance goals and invest in ongoing training for managers about the practical application of employee-first values in the workplace.

That’s a lot for a job candidate to suss out and you usually can’t tell how an organization treats its employees from a job listing. The job interview is likely your best opportunity to determine where a potential employer’s priorities really lie—if you ask the right questions.

Your first clue about the company’s priorities will come before the interview itself. An employee-first organization understands that applicants invest a great deal of time and energy in their applications and may be waiting on pins and needles for the company’s response. They’ll reply promptly to your application and set an interview time quickly—or alert you that they’re not choosing to advance you as a candidate.

The interview itself should be a two-way exchange, where you get to learn about the company as much as they learn about you. If and when you get an opportunity to ask the hiring manager some questions, be sure to ask:

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1. What are your paid time off (PTO) and leave policies, and how do they work in practice?

You don’t want the interviewer to just repeat their company’s policies around vacation time and medical or parental leave (although those things are important). Instead, try to understand how PTO is actually accrued and how flexible the organization is about applying it.

For example, I’ve worked with some organizations where employees only get time off for bereavement if they’ve lost an immediate family member. But an employee-first organization understands that our personal relationships often extend beyond our immediate families. In fact, the family we choose might be more important. In general, an employee-first organization will allow more flexibility in PTO and leave policies to account for how we actually lead our lives, not just what’s easy to manage and measure.

2. How do you personally reward and recognize employees?

Many organizations have formal processes in place for rewarding high performers with bonuses or gifts, but that’s not what you’re trying to understand with this question. Ask the hiring manager interviewing you what they do to help employees through challenging times or recognize them on a day-to-day basis.

For example, when an employee is struggling with work and life during the pandemic, a leader friend of mine likes to send them a restaurant gift card so they can take care of dinner for their family one night. That’s not company policy—it’s just being an empathetic human being. A manager at an employee-first organization should feel empowered to take actions like this and should be able to give you concrete examples.

3. What’s your philosophy on talent development?

Any well-run organization should have a formal talent development program that defines job families and sets clear criteria to determine when an employee is ready for the next step on their career path. But an employee-first organization should take things a step further.

It’s a good sign if, in response to this question, your interviewer says they’re interested in exploring what employees want to do as well as what they need to do to develop professionally. You also want to hear that managers and employees have candid
discussions about career growth on an individual basis, as well as the formal talent process. At an employee-first organization, managers are the first line of opportunity for employees—and that should come through in your interviewer’s response to this question.

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Waiting is worth it

With unemployment still high in the midst of an ongoing recession, not all job hunters have the option of waiting for a perfect-fit position. If you find yourself in that situation, try to frame your new, less-than-ideal role as a growth opportunity. Identify ways this experience can prepare you for the job you want—whether it’s by learning new skills, expanding your network, or gaining experience in a new industry. Looking for the silver lining will help you weather stress better by reminding you what you gain from the role.

However, if it is possible to be picky, holding out for an offer from an employee-first organization is often worth it. I know taking a job at an organization with an employee-first attitude had immeasurable benefits for both me and my family. It’s helped me be a more present parent while still growing my career, avoiding burnout, and staying energized enough to bring my best self to work every day. If you ask the right questions in your next job interview, you may enjoy many of these benefits, too.


Stacy Bolger is the vice president of Global Employee Experience at InMoment.