After a year and a half of operating in pandemic survival mode, workers across the country made a collective break from their jobs. In August 2021 alone, 4.3 million people gave their notice, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. If you’re among the millions who left a job this year, you might feel more motivated and empowered to be selective about your next position than you were before. Many are looking for advancement opportunities and a culture that isn’t as stressful and draining as the corporate environments that have been the norm—one where you can bring your entire self to work.
Until now, the standard assumptions of business leadership have included a specific set of surface-level behaviors: think speed, decisiveness, high energy, and customer obsession. To succeed in this culture is to leave your feelings and your personal identity at the door. But this value system is precisely what’s turning the workforce off; working in a culture where you belong is becoming non-negotiable. Companies that want to attract and retain valuable talent will have to get below the surface and put values like empathy, psychological safety, self-awareness, equity, and deep listening at the forefront of their workplace culture.
The demand for talent has definitely created some urgency among employers. Some are trying to solve their Great Resignation problems with short-term fixes: signing bonuses, slight pay increases, and even free restaurant food for showing up to an interview.
How can you look beyond the distractions and be sure your next gig won’t have the same problems that convinced you to leave your most recent one? Here’s what to look for at each step in the application process:
On job boards
From the application stage onward, focus your efforts on companies that fit your values and needs. In job posts on sites like LinkedIn and Indeed, you’ve probably come across some elitist, cringe-worthy phrases like “thrives in a fast-paced environment,” “proficient at multitasking,” or “looking for a rockstar coder with a sense of humor.” Watch out for language that indicates that surface-level, survival-of-the-fittest mentality or a strong bias toward an in-group in the workplace.
Some companies have done well at masking this standard with a culture of fun, or what I call the “great culture” lie. They go beyond your basic casual Friday and install a foosball table in the common area, or develop a reputation for intense happy hours. I’ve found that these cultures are usually based on surface-level things, which may or may not be creating the desired effect. Question these perks and benefits and keep in mind that no culture is objectively “great” for everyone—except a culture of belonging.
During research and informational interviews
If a workplace or job posting appeals to you, dig a little deeper to find out what the company’s culture is like. If you set up an informational interview, ask questions to determine how surface the culture is or if leaders ever create below the surface connections. Here are a couple of revealing questions to start with:
Is there diversity in all levels of the company?
Beware of answers like “check out our website” or “that’s not really my area of expertise.” I’m not saying that every company that doesn’t suck will have impeccable diversity up front, but if you truly want to find your next happy home, look for honesty and humility in the responses.
Do employees feel comfortable using their PTO, calling in when they’re sick, and/or taking time off for mental health?
Many of us have historically been steered away about asking questions about compensation or benefits but this one is a must—especially considering what has happened over the last year. You never know what the future will bring and it’s important to find a company that will have loyalty to you despite what may come up in life’s unexpected challenges. You will also get a glimpse into how the company views work–life balance.
What you’re looking for is a place where employees are free to be human. Their individual identities and needs should be acknowledged and accepted, not suppressed.
During the interview
Job interviews are your opportunity to see how individual leaders and the company at large may react to your presence—and get a glimpse at how they interact with each other. You can discern more than you think in an interview process. A few things to beware of:
Interviewers are not showing respect for each other. Keep an eye on if people are talking over each other. Also, how do they enter and exit the conversation? If people are being interrupted or talked over, or if there is an air of competition, it’s a red flag.
One person is dominating the conversation.
Make note of power dynamics during the interview process. Is someone dominating the process? Is the team deferring to one person? Observe the power dynamics going on in the room and decide if they work for you.
One of the most important things to gauge during a job interview is how attentively the interviewer(s) listen to you. Are they listening to understand and get to know you, or listening for correct answers? REAL leaders are Relatable, Equitable, Aware, and Loyal. Use this acronym to remember what qualities to look for and check what you’ve learned after each interview. Remember, the company is interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them.
Hopefully, these tips ensure you are happy to accept the job offer when it comes. With that in mind, in order to avoid more of the same stress, see what’s happening below the surface to find a workplace where you can belong: one with a culture that’s hard to quit.
LaTonya Wilkins is the CEO and founder of the Change Coaches, where she partners with executives, professionals pursuing career advancement, and diverse teams to build cultures of belonging through highly customized coaching and learning experiences. She is the author of Leading Below the Surface.