These days it’s widely known that companies are increasingly hiring candidates based on cultural fit—even more so than hard skills. The reverse is also true, or should be. Job candidates should carefully evaluate each company they’re considering to make sure it will be a good fit for them. But some of those cultural signs can be tough to ferret out. What questions can job interviewees ask, during the job interview, or in other settings, to get a better sense of company culture?
What makes this company unique/special/different?
Paige Arnof-Fenn, is founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a marketing consulting firm. “If you ask about the company’s culture in an interview you tend to get a lot of generic bullet points back that really do not tell you anything,” says Arnof-Fenn. Instead, asking a question like this can give you “a much better picture of what that company culture is really like and whether it would be a good fit for you,” she says. “The key is to ask pointed questions about what makes this company unique, special or different.”
What makes you proud to work here?
Susan Peppercorn, senior career transition consultant with ClearRock, Inc., recommend asking this question of everyone you encounter during the interview process. It’s a good way to “gauge their level of enthusiasm and the reason they give for wanting to work where they do,” she says.
Jennifer Lee Magas, MA, JD, vice president of Magas Media Consultants, LLC, says: “My go-to question for every interview I’ve ever had is ‘what motivates you to come into work every day?’ Finding out what someone’s motivation is will tell you about how you will fit with the company culture as well as your ability to perform within it.”
What are some of the traits common to people who have found sustained success in the company?
Mike Cox is president of Cox Innovations, a human capital consulting firm and co-author of Living Your Best Career. He says: “It’s hard to succeed in a company unless you align well culturally so traits common to successful people are likely to illustrate the culture and be instructive for how to succeed if hired.”
Along these same lines, Peppercorn recommends the question: “What does it take to be successful in your company?” “This open-ended question allows the person who is responding to answer with whatever information they feel is essential, and may reveal some interesting insights,” she says.
What surprised you most about your experience in the company during your first year?
Most people don’t understand culture well before they join a company, says Cox. Consequently, it’s likely that a question like this “will lead to a conversation about an important cultural element,” Cox says.
Are there many approvals required to handle exceptions or accomplish duties?
Heidi Pozzo, founder of Pozzo Consulting, says this question can help identify the level of bureaucracy that might be in place in the organization. In addition, she suggests asking a question like: “Tell me about how people in different areas work together to problem solve, improve processes or innovate. Here, she says, “you’re looking for how much people work together collaboratively, or if the business is siloed.
What kind of social events do you hold for your staff?
This question, says Ben Taylor, founder of HomeWorkingClub.com, can yield some key insights. “Are you dealing with a company that likes sporty team-building events? Perhaps a firm with a schmoozy culture based around cocktails and indiscretions? Or perhaps you’re dealing with a business with more traditional—perhaps old-fashioned—values.” Knowing how a company socializes can provide good insights into the potential for a good culture fit.
What is the average tenure of your workforce?
Matthew Ross, co-founder and COO at The Slumber Yard, a sleep and mattress review website, says: “This question caught me off-guard but it’s a very clever way to figure out whether employees are happy or not. If employees are happy and fulfilled, it’s usually a good indicator that the company has a positive and fun company culture.”
Or, says Pete Havel, author of The Arsonist in the Office, a book on culture, leadership, and management, you can take the direct approach and just ask straight out: “How would you describe your culture?” You can generate some very revealing answers with this question, he says. “I actually had an interviewer begin to complain about culture in mid-interview once—after my question about what the culture was like, the next sentence from them was, ‘Look, we have lots of problems, but we’re trying to fix them’.”
Others advise against this, though.
“I strongly recommend not asking about culture directly,” says Cox. “Culture means different things to different people and the lack of specificity makes the question difficult for the interviewer to answer and typically results in an inauthentic, generic answer that offers little insight.”
While the questions above can help to ferret out information about the company culture, Pozzo suggests doing some research before the interview as well. “There is a lot of information on the internet about companies,” she says. “Glassdoor has ratings. Articles may be written in business periodicals. The company may have awards for culture.” Spending a little time on the internet can help you dig up valuable information that you can then verify or clarify during the interview.