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While you want to showcase why you are the best candidate for the position, you also want to learn as much as you can about what it’s really like to work there.
And that means going beyond benefits like vacation days and retirement plans, and considering things like the company’s culture, manager expectations, job satisfaction and development, and work-life balance. And those intangible benefits can be harder to suss out.
“It is much harder to flesh out and ascertain in a definitive way whether or not you are a good fit and match for that organization, position, manager or team that you could potentially be joining,” said Aimee Cohen, executive coach and president of ON Point Next Level Leadership.
Here are some questions to ask during the interview process that can help reveal what it’s really like to work at a company.
How do you measure success?
Companies emphasize different things when it comes to evaluating success. It can be innovation, collaboration, risk-taking, speed or accessibility.
“Do they talk about the quality of the work or the quantity of the work,” said Marianne Ruggiero, founder and president of Optima Careers. “Do they talk about excellence in work or do they talk about accessibility and response time?”
Learning about the qualities a manager appreciates can be telling about work-life balance, and Ruggiero suggested asking about a time when an employee stood out to help provide some insight.
“If they say: they identified this gap in what we were doing and took it upon themselves to do it and shared it with everyone and it made everyone more productive, that means they are rewarding quality and initiative,” Ruggiero said. “If they say: ‘Mary is always there for me, I can call her any time on any day and she gets back to me,’ now that tells you you have to be on call 24-7.”
How do you like to manage people?
Getting along with your boss is vital to your job satisfaction – and it’s unlikely a potential future boss is going to admit he or she is a pain to work with.
“It’s flattering to a manager to be asked: ‘How do you like to manage people?’” said Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Asking about a potential boss’ management style can give hints on whether he or she is a micromanager, provides a lot of coaching, seeks input or takes a more laissez-faire approach.
To help evaluate whether you have compatible working styles, follow-up questions can include: “How do you like to communicate with your team members?” and “How often do you expect your team to check in?”
Why is this position open?
You don’t want to get stuck in a dead-end job. And asking the right questions can help you avoid that fate.
“They check references on you, there’s no reason you can’t check references on them,” said Ruggiero.
She suggested asking about the person who held the job most recently and about the history of the position.
“If it is a job that has had a different person in it every year, three years in a row and none of those people are still with the company, that tells you something.”
On the flip side, if the person was promoted, that could indicate room for growth at a company.
“People are really hungry for people that are interested in you coming in and doing good work on day one, but also growing with the organization,” Tiffany Waddell Tate, CEO of Career Maven Consulting.
To learn more about professional development, she suggested asking: “I am curious to know what type of internal learning culture you have in terms of resources and focused time to help people upskill around areas that support their work.”
Rousseau said asking about senior leadership’s priorities and how they spend their time can also be insightful on whether training and development is an area of investment at the company.
“You can probe by saying: ‘How much time do [senior leaders] spend actually participating in training and development activities and talking with staff about business growth and their role in it?’”
What do you like best about working here?
Asking a more personal question like: “What do you like best about the job or company?” can also provide clues on the company’s culture and its investment in employee development.
“Give them an opportunity to share their story, you can really understand if they have passion behind what they do, where they work, the organization that they represent and that will tell you a lot,” said Cohen.
How do the company’s cores value play out?
Companies’ make a lot of promises with their values statements.
Cohen suggests reviewing them to see if your values align, and then asking for concrete examples of how they are integrated in the workplace.
For instance, if a company pledges to put workers first, Cohen recommended saying something like: “I understand that one of your core values is putting people first, can you give me an example of how that shows up? How do you live those values and are people evaluated based on those values, as well?”
When it comes to asking about diversity and inclusion efforts, Waddell Tate suggested highlighting something the company has shared publicly and asking follow-up questions. For instance, ask something like: “I am curious to know more about how your company is looking inward around issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion from a recruitment and advancement perspective?”
How would you describe the culture today versus pre-pandemic?
Learning how a company adapted during the pandemic can show how agile and empathetic leadership can be, said Cohen.
She recommends asking what policies were implemented in the last 18 months, what’s been working well and where there are still some challenges.
“How do they respond to crisis? It also gives you insight into their decision and policy making.”
What is the current thinking about remote work?
If being able to work from home is important to you, it’s good to get a sense of a company’s flexibility before getting too far along in the interview process.
Rousseau said another follow-up question to help gauge how open a company is to remote work is asking something like: “What do you think is a good example in your organization where a person working remotely worked out really well?”
But it’s also important to figure out what’s most important to you, and prioritize your needs before you dismiss a potential employer.
“There are trade-offs: You need to know what you want more of – do you want more of a culture around competence and being really good…is that more important than lifestyle and work-life balance and those things?,” said Ruggiero.