interviews

15 Interview Questions to Gauge Company Culture

During a job transition, it's tempting to focus on a one-sided approach. This is especially true in the interview setting: how do I get out of my current job and into something else? How do I get this company to hire me? 

While it's good and right to consider your professional brand, your interview skills, and your ability to ultimately land a new gig, it's just as important to look at the interview process as a two-way street. In addition to being the right person for the job, you need to verify that the employer is the right company for you. Fit is a two-way street!

I've served as a sounding board for countless friends, clients, and loved ones who felt blindsided and disappointed by unexpected, awful company cultures. Their comments generally sound something like this:

"It sounded so much better in the interview process!"
"This is so, so much worse than I expected it to be."
"The company doesn't treat people like people."
"There's no flexibility or opportunity to have a life outside of work."
"Everybody is exhausted and fed up with management."
"There are no opportunities to move up!"

Sound familiar? While the culture in the average American workplace is a mixed bag, not all employers are bad employers. But how can you gauge company culture before signing on for a new job? How do you preemptively identify cultural red flags instead of being startled by a churn-and-burn culture, or ineffective leadership?

The responsibility is on you as the interviewee to answer the culture question. You have to play the investigative role, and do your homework to get a full and accurate picture of a potential employer's company culture. Nobody is going to spoon-feed you the bad news in the interview setting; to get an accurate picture of company culture in advance, you need to ask the right questions.

15 Interview Questions to Gauge Company Culture

Topic #1: Tenure and Turnover

1. Why did the previous person in this role leave? How long was that person here? 

2. What is the average tenure on the team? What about the organization's rate of turnover overall?

3. (To the direct manager): how long have you been with this company? 

These questions aim to unearth one of the biggest red flags for poor company culture: a high rate of turnover. You might not get ultra-specific data, like the actual rate of turnover for the entire company -- but you can still get an indicative response regardless of the metrics you receive.

Pay attention to how the question is answered. If the interviewer seems to be dressing up their response, talking around the problem, or justifying high turnover, something is wrong. If everyone on the team is new, and the previous round of employees didn't last long, there's probably a major issue with the company culture. Run the other way unless 1) you are in desperate need of a paycheck and 2) you are prepared to accept the consequences of a bad company culture.

Topic #2: Employee Engagement Efforts

4. What does the company offer to encourage and foster professional development?

5. How do managers provide feedback? Can I see an example evaluation form? What time of year are these performance reviews conducted?

6. Does the company have an organized Diversity and Inclusion effort? How does that department impact the culture of the organization in practical ways?

7. How does the company measure and celebrate success?

Good employers go out of their way to ensure their employees feel valued and engaged. Good employers are also smart employers -- they know that happy employees do better work! Use these interview questions to determine how the company invests in its employees. If there seems to be an absence of employee engagement initiatives, you might be walking into a company that treats employees more like bottom-line-driven robots. 

Topic #3: Leadership Styles

8. (To the direct manager): What is your leadership style? What about the second level manager, or the executives of the organization?

9. What impact do the middle and upper-management leaders have on the company's culture?

10. What is the biggest challenge this company faced in the last year or two? How was it addressed? 

11. What growth opportunities do you see for the organization as a whole? How about this specific team?

Leaders at various levels influence the culture of an organization, as well as the culture of independent teams and departments. Liking your direct supervisor in the interview isn't enough -- if your second-level manager and/or the company executives are ineffective, that void of leadership will trickle down and negatively impact your experience. Yes, those individuals might leave and be replaced some day. But if you see evidence of poor leadership at multiple points in the organization, that begs an important question: why are those people in leadership roles? 

Topic #4: Team Culture

12. Can I see the work space?

13. What do people on the team generally do for lunch? What about the organization as a whole?

14. What is the biggest problem that the team faced in the last year or two? How was it resolved, and what did you learn from that experience? If you could change anything about this team's culture, what would it be?

15. Are most people in the office during the same time frame every day? What work arrangements are currently represented on the team (remote, flexible schedules, etc.)?

The idea with this category of questions is to get a tangible, practical sense of the office culture. Check out the vibe in the work space. Do people seem engaged, or is there a thick cloud of dissatisfaction hanging over the entire room? Are people engaging with one another, or keeping their heads down to get out as quickly as possible?

This is also a great opportunity to determine how rigid the schedule expectations are, especially if you need flexible work arrangements in order to make the job work for you. Asking a general question about existing work arrangements is safer than demanding your own arrangements, especially in the early stages of the interview process. 

Beyond the Interview

While the interview is an excellent avenue for gauging company culture, it is not the only way to gather information. With a little bit of extra effort, you can uncover insider details about the company and avoid a nightmare employer in the process. 

Here are 3 ways to gauge culture outside of the interview process:

1. Ask your Network

Know somebody on the inside of the organization? Wonderful! Even if you don't, ask around your network. It's likely that someone you know has heard from employees on the inside, or can connect you with a current employee directly. (Hint: you should have already done this as a part of the application process!) 

Buy an existing employee a cup of coffee, and ask them for their honest opinion about the company culture. If the culture happens to be a negative one, you won't have to work hard to get them talking about those internal problems!

2. Read Company Reviews

Websites like Glassdoor offer user-submitted company reviews, including salary information, and anonymous pros and cons for the organization. Be sure to sort reviews by location for multi-site companies, and pay the closest attention to recent reviews from current employees, ideally in relevant roles or departments.

3. Check out Career Paths on LinkedIn

Yes, they might see you looking, but it's worth it to check out the LinkedIn profiles and professional histories for the people on your prospective team. This is another way to verify employee tenure, check turnover rates, and see if promotions or management-level hires are made internally or externally. Dig around, pay attention to trends, and see what you come up with. 

Summary: Red Flags to Note

If you're looking for a full-time job, you're going to spend an average of 1,811 hours per year on the job. That's a lot of time! Don't set yourself up for a miserable professional experience.

Instead, pay attention to these red flags for unhealthy, negative company culture:

  • Frequent turnover
  • Absence of employee engagement efforts
  • "Put your head down and work" vibe, anti-social culture
  • Expectations that don't suit your individual needs (ie: flexible work arrangements)

There's one other red flag that we haven't touched on yet, and it is one of the most tempting red flags to ignore: inaccurate titles paired with out-of-range pay. 

Sure, it's common--especially in younger companies--for organizations to get creative with job titles. But if you're offered a management title paired with lower-level job responsibilities and inexplicably high pay, the company might have a churn-and-burn culture. They're losing people so quickly that they have to offer new hires up-front incentive to convince them to sign on! This is not the sort of place you want to be. 

Do your research, and know the appropriate salary range going in so you 1) know what to expect and 2) are prepared to negotiate. 

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Ready for more job transition resources? Study up on common interview mistakes, or visit the FAQ page for Job Seekers to explore a broader range of topics.

Salary Expectations: Addressing the Dreaded Interview Question

We've all been there before.

You're excited about a new opportunity, rocking a preliminary phone interview, and feeling confident about your experience and fit with this particular company. The big picture is coming together in your mind, and you're confident that this could be a phenomenal career move for you!

Then the recruiter drops the bomb:

"So, let's talk about salary for a minute. What are you making in your current role?"

All of a sudden, your confidence evaporates and you wonder how everything went from fantastic to terrifying in the span of two sentences. Also, when did it get so hot in here?

The good news? You're not alone. Addressing salary expectations is a universally dreaded experience for job seekers. 

The conversation generally starts in one of two ways: 

  1. What are you making now?
  2. What do you expect to make in this role? 

No matter how it is presented, the salary question is one that consistently catches job seekers off-guard and puts them in a difficult position. And truth be told, there is good reason to take the question seriously; there is a lot at stake, a lot riding on the content and delivery of your response.

Let's visit the potential--and common--negative outcomes for a moment:

  • You aim too high, and the company can't afford you.
  • You aim too low, and the company wonders what's wrong with you.
  • You aim well, but lose your negotiation ability by providing a specific figure or range.
  • You fumble over the question, mumble your response, and the company doubts your self-confidence and overall value as a new hire. Will you be this twitchy on the job?
  • You get a little too heated in your response, and suddenly the tone of the conversation balances on the edge of a knife. You've put a bad taste in the recruiter's mouth, who now sees you as a self-defensive hiring risk. 

When you look at that list of outcomes, it's easy to see why the salary question is so troublesome for job seekers--there are countless ways to get it wrong! But that doesn't mean that the question is impossible to prepare for, or that you are automatically backed into a corner with no way out. Let's back up for a moment, and zoom in on the heart of the problem.

Root Problems in the Salary Conversation

There are a number of root problems in the salary expectation conversation, on both sides of the table. 

The Hiring Organization

The motives of the recruiting company can vary, but often the hiring side is worried about wasting time and resources on you as a candidate. It is the most economical and effective choice if they can determine your affordability upfront, before they spend time vetting you in-depth.

The hiring side also holds a lot of power at the interview table--and with power comes the opportunity to abuse it. Job seekers, from a position of perceived powerlessness, are easily manipulated into sharing more information than they'd prefer to. As a result, it is unfortunately quite common for recruiters or hiring managers to bully you into caving under pressure in an interview setting.

The Job Seeker

The greatest obstacle for the job seeker is ignorance--many job seekers assume that they are required to divulge their salary history in an interview, which is simply not the case. You are never obligated to share your salary history; this is private information, and the hiring organization does not have any right to the data. 

So if caving and providing your salary details isn't the solution, how should a job seeker address the salary question?

Nailing the Salary Conversation

The key to addressing the salary question well is simple:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Do your research.
  3. Adjust your strategy as-needed.
  4. Always keep it positive. 

Preparation is your greatest tool for interviews in general, but it is crucial to prepare your strategy in advance for the salary conversation. Consider the two possible ways that the question will be presented, and prepare thoughtful, rehearsed responses. Write them down verbatim, if you need to! This one is worth getting right.

Here are some basic sample scenarios to help you get started and deflect the salary question:

EXHIBIT A: SALARY HISTORY - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Let's talk salary. What are you making in your current role?"

Job Seeker: "You know, this opportunity is not identical to my current role. Let's discuss my qualifications for this particular position, and we can discuss what a fair and appropriate salary would be based on the responsibilities of this job."

EXHIBIT B: SALARY EXPECTATIONS - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Basic deflection is a good tool to have on hand, particularly early on in the process. Whenever possible, it is in your best interest to avoid discussing salary before the company has fallen for you as a candidate. Sure, you might have to discuss details later--but to the best of your ability, delay that conversation until they've gotten to know you better. Later in the process, they are more likely to value you as a candidate. 

Spoiler alert: nobody is going to be happy about you deflecting the salary question. You are going to get some pushback, and the recruiter is going to press you for some specific numbers. If you're definitely interested in the position and want to keep the conversation moving forward, there are ways to humor the hiring manager without showing all of your cards.

This is where research comes in. Before you get into an interview conversation, do your research to identify a fair salary range for the role you're pursuing. Websites like Glassdoor are good resources for finding salaries at the company you're applying for, as well as for similar companies. Find some solid data, and determine a decently-wide range based on your research. For full-time salaried positions, I'd recommend cushioning your range with a span of $10,000-$15,000.

Let's look at a specific scenario to apply this to, using an extended version of Exhibit B:

EXHIBIT C:  RECRUITER PUSHBACK

Recruiter: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Recruiter: "Yeah, but let's be honest--it's a waste of everyone's time if our budget doesn't align with your expectations. What do you think would be fair for this sort of role?"

Job Seeker: "Well, from my research, it seems that an appropriate salary for this sort of role would fall in the $50,000-$65,000 range. I'm sure you are offering a salary that is competitive and appropriate for the industry."

The beauty of this strategy? You demonstrate your own industry savvy, while also proving that you are a solid negotiator who is not willing to buckle under a little pressure. You've done your research and are willing to stand your ground. The recruiter's appetite for specific salary data is sated, but you've managed to withhold your personal salary details. Everybody wins!  

Special Case: Required Application Fields

There is no greater opportunity for a hiring organization to abuse their power than in the web-based job application. Technology is a great ally in this effort. 

Don't be surprised when you run across restricted, required fields demanding a single figure as a salary expectation. Yep, you heard that right -- those monsters won't even allow you to enter a range

When possible, thwart the system. Enter "Negotiable" or "Open to discussion" in unrestricted fields, or provide a wide research-based range when you are forced to provide a range of numbers. Fair warning: the more you bend the rules, the more likely it is that you will irritate someone on the receiving end. Arguably, it is still in your best interest to keep your salary history and ideal salary to yourself for as long as possible. 

If you absolutely cannot avoid entering a single salary figure on the application, rely on your research, and aim above your ideal salary within that range. I would argue that it is better to overshoot and affirm your professional value, rather than undersell yourself. 

Friendly Reminder: Context Matters

As helpful as some of these tools and examples may be, there simply is no universal "correct" response to the salary question.

Be present in your interviews, and always keep the tone positive. When it's obvious that the recruiter is not going to be pleased until he or she gets a range out of you, offer the research-based industry data. Pay attention to the context and tone of the conversation, and be flexible with your approach. No two job interviews are ever going to be identical. 

And if you've done your homework, but are still feeling unprepared? Consider enlisting the help of a coach to practice various interview strategies and develop some confidence at the negotiation table. 

Women and Work: Acknowledging Achievement

Friends...I really love my job. 

Yes, I get to write fantasy and sci-fi and mentally reside in amazing places. What could be bad about that, right? It's nerd paradise.

But in addition to writing, I get to do something pretty amazing. I have the great honor of helping people realize how awesome they are. Then, I show them how to communicate their awesomeness via Career Communication Services. And it is an absolute joy to be able to do so.

Recently, I coached a client who had been with her current company for a very long time in various capacities. She'd worn many hats, and was frustrated that her resume wasn't generating any interest. So we got together over coffee, and I got to know her a little better.

As she described her professional experience, my heart broke a little bit. This is the sort of phrase I heard consistently: "I mean, I've conducted hiring interviews and exit interviews, and I've led staff training, and I've screened resumes...but I don't have any real HR experience. I was never the HR manager or anything." 

Sound familiar?

Based on what I've seen in my work, I'm willing to wager that this is a fairly common occurrence, especially for women. There are so many societal pressures on working women, and it is easy to see how we have been encouraged to minimize our achievements, instead of owning those accomplishments with pride and confidence. Our societal messages tell us that a confident woman who is proud of her work is intimidating, arrogant, difficult to work with, bossy, or bad at delegating.

It's pretty unfair, isn't it? I also happen to believe that it's a load of crap. There are still a lot of battles to fight on a grand scale as women in the workplace, but this is one that we should be fighting just for ourselves. 

Culture, coworkers, and bosses aside, when the doors are shut and you can freely reflect on and examine your professional journey... Are you proud of your achievements? Are you proud of your work? 

In almost all cases, I think the answer should be yes. Most of us are working our tails off in various capacities, and rarely take a minute to stop and celebrate our achievements. It was a joy to do this with my recent client, and to make something very clear for her.

"I don't have any real experience," she said.
"Guess what?" I replied. "The only difference between you and an "HR professional" is the title. You have done the work, and you have the experience. Don't minimize or underestimate your history. You have a lot to be proud of!"

We continued to walk through her experience, and I helped her write a resume that showcased her achievements clearly and confidently. Yes, that resume will hopefully help her land a job. But more importantly, she looked at that resume and was delighted and startled by the quality, depth, and breadth of her own experience. She saw her professional self clearly, and was equipped with language to be able to discuss those achievements in her job transition. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it, because she is everything that the resume communicates and much, much more! 

Maybe you feel pretty good about your work -- that's awesome! But how is your comfort level when it comes to discussing it? Pay attention next time you're discussing your job with a friend or family member. Do you minimize your involvement, or the results of your work? 

It's the difference between these two statements:

"Yeah, just doing the same old thing...working on a project for so and so. It's fine."
OR
"Yeah, I'm actually working on a project for XYZ. I'm excited about it because of THIS, and I'm really looking forward to the results because SOMETHING GOOD WILL HAPPEN."

Admittedly, some of this comes down to perspective in addition to your own pride in your work. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to identify the value in what you do. I used to be an executive assistant, and that work didn't feel like much of an accomplishment because I didn't have an obvious product or service that I was consistently delivering. But now, as I reflect on that position, I see how incredible it was that I juggled so many competing priorities, responsibilities, projects, and stakeholders. I made a major difference in my boss's day, every day, and was able to make his crazy life a whole lot easier. On top of that, I gained a wide range of professional experience that allowed me to move forward on my career path. 

It took me a long time to get that perspective. But every job has an impact, and every responsibility eventually leads to a customer... a measurable result. And that result contributes something to the world, however minor the impact may seem. Hair stylists help people to feel good about their appearance. Dog walkers make pups feel really, absurdly happy and loved. Janitors create a safe, clean environment for others to go about their day. Managers inspire others to success and help them to nurture their professional and personal abilities. Uber drivers get people where they need to go safely. 

What is the value of your work? When was the last time you sat down and thought about your own professional self-image? How do you describe your own responsibilities, achievements, or ongoing projects?

I invite you to join me in this endeavor today. Take a few minutes to reflect on the work you've done across your entire professional history. Remember the projects that you lost sleep over, but were able to complete with pride. Celebrate the people that you served in your work: the satisfied customer, the stressed out supervisor, or the coworker that benefitted from your efforts. 

Your work has value. You have value. And it is anything but arrogant to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments.

Go forth with your head held high and conquer your work week with confidence, my friends!