Job interviews are like speed dates that result in marriage.
Both sides spend the interview trying to develop enough insight to make an informed decision. Everyone shows off their best attributes while tactfully unveiling the other person’s worst. The dance ends with both parties asking themselves the same question: Do I want to spend my life with this person?
In many industries people talk openly with one another about their jobs. We walk into interviews knowing the tangible things a job may offer — things like pay, schedules or benefits. By the time we walk through the interview door, we know the market and where a potential employer fits into the landscape.
The intangibles, however, aren’t as accessible. These are the unspoken aspects of a new job that take time to be decoded. Tangibles may get us through the door but it’s the intangibles that make us want to stay.
In a life partner, those features are collectively called personality. In a job, they’re called culture.
Stories and traditions are the fabric of organizational culture. It’s the terminology and environment of the workplace. The way people address one another. How rules are enforced or how independent people are. It’s the attitude and the vibe of a workplace.
Culture is the unmeasurable experience of being there day to day.
Fortunately, unmeasurable doesn’t mean undiscoverable. You can gain insight into the culture of a prospective workplace before you sign a contract by implementing the following strategies.
Know what you want before the interview
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
Envision your perfect job well before you start the search. Imagine it in as much detail as you are able.
If you don’t know what you want, you’re going to have a much harder time knowing what questions to ask and the implications of the answers you receive.
Be unapologetically honest with yourself. You are envisioning the ideal job for you, not negotiating one in real life — so be deliberate and conscientious when you answer the question:
What does my dream job look like?
How often and hard do you really want to work? Which co-workers would you most identify with?
Is creativity important to you? Make sure it’s included. Do you want to go back to school for photography and need a job that’s flexible enough to support that dream? Be sure your new job allows you to do this.
Or, maybe you need a specific job title now to get your dream job tomorrow.
Being honest with yourself in the early stages of the job search is critical. The job you want exists but it won’t be handed to you; you will need to craft it from the jobs available to you — but you’ll have to know what you’re looking for to make it a reality.
If it’s possible, spend time observing the job you’re applying for.
When you’re shadowing for a field you’re thinking about entering, you do so with the intention to gain exposure and make connections. When you’re shadowing a prospective workplace, you’ve already gained the medical knowledge; what you’re observing are the interpersonal interactions. To learn how employees treat each other and their clients. You want to leave with a sense of the climate, urgency and professionalism. Through observing, you see how (or if) people solve problems and what kind of problems they face.
Observing your prospective team in action lets you determine whether you can see yourself as a member.
Evaluate the processes you have been exposed to
You will have been given samples of a company’s culture by the time you interview.
How did the company contact you? Personally or through form letters?
Were you forced to make an online profile, upload a resume, then manually enter the same information from your resume onto your profile and then watch a short video about the company’s mission before you were allowed to click “submit?”
And after all that, were you forced to endure back-and-forth emails with a recruiter who didn’t really understand your questions?
That experience speaks volumes.
Or, were they personal? When you were called and invited to the interview, did they greet you at the door of the facility?
The hiring experience is your first impression of the organization. If it’s clunky, they will never have a second chance to make it.
Learn how people advance
“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”
Think of career advancement as the continuation of your hiring process.
Advancement could mean new skills, education or projects. It could also refer to job titles and hierarchy. Whatever form of advancement is important to you, how do employees achieve it?
For example, are employees sent to an annual leadership course to become better team managers? Are people trained in quality improvement training to oversee critical processes?
Through what mechanism does an Assistant VP become a VP? Is it time, productivity or does someone else have to quit to make room?
Learning how people advance is a great window into the structure, performance evaluation and culture of an organization — but if you don’t know where you want to wind up, it will be hard to judge the answer.
It’s your job and your time — ask relevant questions during an interview to get a sense of the culture. There are plenty of sample lists online, but a few examples are:
“What’s the best part about working in this environment that I won’t be able to see from just a walk around the office?”
“What are the most common complaints employees make about your culture?”
“How often does the staff meet?”
“When and how do people like to give and receive feedback?”
“What’s one thing you would change about the company if you could?”
“What was the department’s biggest challenge last year and what did you learn from it?”
These questions ask for examples of the culture without directly asking “What’s your culture like?” They require the interviewer to show (not tell) you the climate of the organization..
Do your research
Don’t be shy to tap your network if it includes potential co-workers. Contact them to learn about life at the company. This is especially true for ex-employees, if they are in your network. Be willing to take people with direct experience of the organization to lunch and explore their decisions to stay or leave.
There are also plenty of indirect, online resources that let you learn about a company before you sign the contract:
Sites like Glassdoor, Indeed or Kununu provide reviews of companies, written by current and past employees. Read through these as you would any review — you’re looking for an overall sense of the organization; don’t let one review (good or bad) color your impression of the entire organization.
When you interview, remember that they need you at least as much as you need them.
There’s no reason to settle for a culture that doesn’t support you.