CareerWise: Interview questions to uncover company culture

Corporate culture is important. Don’t think it isn’t. You can’t work where you don’t fit, and in my experience, I’ve never been able to make a manager or department adjust their style to fit me. When considering a job, the decision isn’t “Can I change this manager/department to fit my style?” but instead “Do I want to participate in this culture?” That question is black and white, yes or no, a binary decision. No grayscale or floating points here. Culture is so important, it’s number two on my Three Binary Decisions list. I’ve got to get to yes on compensation, culture, and opportunity before even considering working for a company.

However, culture is not an easy thing to determine. Nobody airs their dirty laundry on a first date interview. Instead, they trot out their best marketing. Sometimes you don’t discover the information that would have affected your join decision till months on the job.

So, in that first interview, here are some probing questions that I’ve used to help ferret out the details of culture. And don’t forget to pay attention to your gut feelings. If your Spidey sense starts tingling, there’s usually a good reason why.

1. “Who does this position report to?”
Your manager will have a personality all her own, and it will drive the culture of your team or department. This micro-culture will affect you more often and more strongly than the broader company culture. Find out who you’ll work for first, then drill into them.

2. “Given that you adjust a little bit for each team member, what is your preferred management style?”
Pay attention to their initial response. As a first reaction, it reveals more about their default behavior than a long, drawn-out academic explanation (though that’s useful too). Take notes on this one, literally. You’ll need to refer to it in just a few questions.

3. “What kind of culture do you try to develop on your teams?”
This shows how the manager likes his team to operate, what he thinks is most important for his group in general, and how he likes to supervise, interact with and provide resources for her team. Is he a ticket watcher, running reports to see who’s the most productive, or would he rather the team just solve problems first and do paperwork later? Inside of a couple sentences, you’ll know if his style will mesh with yours.

4. “Assuming technical competence, what professional traits are important for success in this role?”
I love this question. You’re asking for specifics, and what they say gives you great drill-down questions. If they say that good communicator, good collaborator and open to alternative solutions are important traits, you can follow up with something like this: “I agree with you about collaboration (or communication or whatever). It’s crucial for effective teamwork. Based on your experience and viewpoint in this particular company, what does good collaboration look like? How does the best player on your team collaborate?” Their answer will give you a concrete example of the kind of “collaboration” they value (and expect).

5. “What is your preferred communication style? How to you like to receive information from your employees?”
This is similar to question #2 above, but it acts as a consistency check, so I leave it for a little later in the list. If their answer to #2 and this question doesn’t roughly match, something’s amiss. For example, if earlier they say they’re a macro-manager, and like to take a mostly hands-off approach, but then tell you they like to receive updates frequently (more than once a day), they reveal both marketing and truth. You’ll have to decide which is which.

6. “What would your team members/subordinates/employees say about your management style?”
You’ll rarely get a really honest answer to this one, but it’s worth asking anyway, especially useful if answers to the previous questions are inconsistent. It’s the analog of when they ask you “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” You don’t tell the complete truth on this one either, but any sincere attempt at an answer is informative, and will give you another datapoint for detecting trends.

7.“What are your expectations of the person who fills this role?”
Many times I’ve worked for weeks in a new position (sometimes after a promotion within a company), only to complain to myself or my wife, “I just don’t know what my manager wants! In some situations it’s X, and in other similar situations it’s Y. It’s so confusing!” Clarify their expectations as much as you can upfront so you can get to a go/no-go decision. As with all the other questions, how your direct manager answers this question is telling. Does he/she KNOW what they expect? Can they communicate clearly? And are their expectations reasonable? If they’re not clear, or have unreasonable expectations, things will not improve after you’re hired. Once you’re onboard, and a known quantity, the Take-You-For-Granted disease sets in.

“Forewarned is forearmed.” It was true in 1592, and it’s just as true today. You’re considering a new relationship here, and should both of you get to yes, you’re going to give 40 hours a week (minimum) for the foreseeable future to this partner – no small commitment. You’re joining them as much as they’re joining you, but you’re going to need them way more than they need you, which reduces your flexibility in the relationship. Make sure you want to join them!

In this speed-dating called Interviewing, grill ’em! Ask smart, tough questions, and if they flinch, followup with direct, probing questions about why they flinched. Don’t be shy about uncovering their weaknesses. Questioning like this may be a little socially uncomfortable, but a little discomfort up front can save you a truckload of pain down the road.


One thought on “CareerWise: Interview questions to uncover company culture

  1. Pingback: Interview success: Our 5 steps to job perfection - Edward Antrobus

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