5 Questions That Reveal Company Culture

interview question

Job seekers know they should find a company that’s the right cultural fit. A company, that is, that’s a good match for their own motivations, values, attitudes, desires, skills and goals.

Much easier said than done. During a job interview, asking about a company’s mission will elicit responses that generally range from blank stares to a rambling collection of clichés. We work hard and play hard. We’re committed to excellence. We’re driven to provide outstanding service to our customers.

And so on.

You’re not going to learn much going that route. A better strategy:  Figure out which aspects of workplace culture are most important to you, and then ask targeted interview questions designed to reveal those aspects.

Listen carefully to the replies. No kidding, right? But most people, particularly in nerve-wracking situations, are thinking about their own answers and their next question rather than what someone else is saying. Evaluating a culture requires that you pay close attention so you ask the right follow-up questions—and read between the lines.

You have to watch carefully, too. Take note of a person’s expression and body language. By going off the typical interview script and watching how people react, you’ll learn far more than you will from airbrushed images on a website.

Of course, you need to use your judgment. Some questions you might ask at a start-up won’t go over well in a very buttoned-down environment. Come to think of it, how comfortable you feel asking about the things that matter to you is a pretty good indicator of how well you’ll fit on a team.

What about the company’s mission most motivates you? Go ahead and read those mission statements (generally buried on the company’s website) but it’s far better to hear how the people you’ll be working with describe that mission. This question zeroes in on the aspect of the culture that most matters to employees. If everyone you ask has a similar take, you’ll know management communicates its culture pretty well and that most folks buy into it. Getting a bunch of different answers may mean a more individualistic environment or a company that’s lost its way. And it’s a good way to find out if the team you’ll be working with shares your own motivations.

If your company were a car, what kind would it be? It’s hardly shocking now, but in 1981, when anchorwoman Barbara Walters asked Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be, if she were a tree, Walters was widely ridiculed. But she was right that mixing some abstract questions with more concrete ones can give you a more complete picture of a situation or person. Plus, they lighten the mood. Asking team members to compare their company to a car, movie, or book can give you a glimpse of people’s personalities. Hepburn, by the way, was an oak.

What setbacks did you experience when you launched your last product? No one likes to talk about mistakes and obstacles, but no process always runs smoothly. A big part of culture is how a team handle setbacks. Do people seem uncomfortable being honest or seem to blame one another for any obstacles? You might be dealing with a culture in which people don’t take risks or one steeped in politics.

What are you afraid of?  I like this question because it surprises people. And though it is a rare person who can respond quickly or honestly, you’ll get a read on a person’s temperament, thoughtfulness, and self-awareness. You’ll also get a sense of how optimistic people really are about the company’s prospects and what they consider the weak spots of the business or team (which also helps you position yourself as the person who can help).

What do you think of Google’s culture? (Or Zappos? Or Trader Joe’s or any other company with a strong, well-known culture.) People often speak more freely about other companies than they will about their own. You’ll get a sense of what they aspire to and what aspects of a culture they consider important or trivial. Hear a lot of negativity? A little criticism is fine, but if someone spews negative comments, be careful. They may be unhappy with their own company. And it’s likely that one day, that negativity will be focused on you.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.