You are in the last five minutes of the job interview, and the interviewer asks: “What questions do you have?”
Time is limited, so you ask the question you think will be most helpful: “What is the culture like here?”
Don’t do this. There are better questions to understand the culture.
The interviewer will typically respond by describing the values of the company. Their reply will have some variation of trust, collaboration, transparency, integrity which are the same values that show up in various forms in many companies. These don’t help you understand the day-to-day experience.
Culture is felt through the behaviors that are reinforced or discouraged on a day-to-day basis on teams. If you want to get a sense of the story of the leader and team’s culture, use detailed questions. You will get a much better sense based on the responses, especially if the leader struggles to think of what to say. If you are a manager, prepare to answer detailed questions that illustrate your team’s culture.
Better questions to ask a hiring manager:
Tell me about a time a team member changed your mind? This lets you know if the leader feels they are the only one who has the answers or if they are open to different opinions. You are going to learn how they prefer to receive information and what they value.
Tell me about someone you are proud of. This is going to let you know which behaviors and skills they value. You can also learn their attitude towards developing people and celebrating success along the way.
Do you fully disconnect during holidays and vacations? Does this leader believes in boundaries and having time off and space that is protected? Or is this someone that will be calling you on your holiday—and will that work for you?
Describe a recent success or win. They should be able to come up with something pretty quickly. If they can’t, that might indicate that they aren’t great about celebrating progress or recognizing people along the way to milestones. They don’t have to describe a huge win. However, they should be able to think of a recent event that demonstrates progress.
Tell me about a disagreement or conflict on the team. Every team is going to have conflict. It is a great way to generate ideas and different thinking when the team has the right tools to navigate constructive conflict. You want to see is if the leader says: “We don’t have conflict.” This could mean that different opinions aren’t welcome, and the team sits in silence. Or the leader is trying to avoid the hard conversations that yield better results. The leader should be able to talk about people having different opinions they had to work through.
How did you start your last team meeting? Did they jump right into the agenda? Did they have an activity or conversation to learn more about each other? You can learn a lot about interactions by how they begin meetings and conversations.
What is your ideal person for this role? This is a great way to understand what the leader values and the knowledge, skills, and behaviors they view as making their work easier. They will probably describe the person’s organization, communications, skill set, or certain outcomes achieved. This response helps you get an idea if you fit with the leader’s ideal candidate.
Who have you promoted and why? If the leader has never promoted anyone, probe further to understand what is done to develop people. If they are a newer manager and haven’t had the opportunity, ask what they are doing to help grow and develop their team. It is ok if the leader hasn’t promoted anyone. What you want to hear is the thought around it and how they view their role in developing people on the team.
Tell me about the last person you recognized. Recognition can be a thoughtful conversation, an email, an award, or even a mention in an all-hands meeting. You want to see if the leader struggles to come up with an example or easily mentions individual and team recognition. Does the leader have the mindset that development includes helping people see the contributions they are making?
How do you focus on your own growth and development? Does the leader mention reading articles, listening to podcasts, reading books, having a mentor, taking courses, or having a coach? Are they actively trying to develop themselves? If they are developing themselves, they are more likely to develop their team. If they aren’t, you want to understand why. If they blame their schedule or struggle to find an answer, then odds are good your opportunity for development will be pushed aside.
Don’t waste your opportunity to learn more about your prospective employer in an interview. Ask these questions that help you get to the experience of that leader and that team. Culture is experienced at the team level, and every culture tells a story. Ask them about these specific moments to better understand the experience of the leader and the team.