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Company Culture is Key: Ask these Questions in your Next Interview

Companies have personalities, just like people. You’ll usually get just a few interviews with a company before you have to commit to a long-term relationship. That means you need to draw out the truth about the corporate culture in just a few short sessions. You need a plan!

Leadership Style

You’ve heard over and over that people leave bosses, not jobs or companies. When you’re starting a new job, you want to make sure that your new boss, and company executives, have a positive and productive leadership style. Do company leaders foster a confrontational and divisive culture, or do they value teamwork and constructive criticism? Will your manager listen to your suggestions, or will he feel threatened by them?

It’s important that leaders have a clear vision of the culture they want to create, and that the vision is consistent from top to bottom. There are some great questions you can ask during an interview to draw out this information. Ask both managers and employees. If you get consistent answers from individual contributors and leaders, that is a very good sign. Take note of differing answers, though, because that could give you a clue to cracks in the leadership foundation.

  • What behaviors are important to the leaders?
  • What are some examples of unacceptable behaviors?
  • Can you describe the typical leadership style?
  • How are major changes, decisions and strategies communicated from leadership?
  • How does the company handle people who think outside of the box?
  • Is the manager visible? Does she interact frequently with her employees?

Teamwork

Team dynamics play a major role in your career. A great team will improve your day-to-day job satisfaction and also foster opportunities for you to learn and grow. In this way, a high-functioning team will impact both your short-term happiness and long-term career success. On a successful team, each member believes that it’s rewarding and satisfying to work with their fellow teammates. Each team member has a unique skillset and no one hesitates to share their knowledge with others. The result is a powerful system that reinforces itself.

A senior-level data expert is tutored on analytics by a junior consultant. The most senior and the most junior team members join forces on a research project. Each individual believes that another person’s success is the team’s success, and everyone is extremely generous with their time and talent. This is the sort of system that will help your career take off.

On the other hand, a dysfunctional team sees the world as a zero-sum game. The company only has so much money, and so many promotions to give out. One person’s success is another’s failure. A me-vs-them attitude means that people will be stingy with their time. They might prefer to see you fail since they think that makes it more likely for them to succeed. They won’t help you figure things out, or give freely of their time and knowledge.

What a barren situation to be in! You’ll be unhappy in the short term and your career will stagnate if you stick around. You’ll spend so much time fending off the vultures that you won’t take risks or learn new things. You’ve got to avoid a dysfunctional team at all costs. Fortunately, you can probably suss out the team’s personality with just a few simple questions:

  • Does the team act like a team or do they see themselves as a group of high-functioning individuals?
  • Do people willingly help each other? What are some examples?
  • Are team members accepting of others’ skills and contributions regardless of seniority?
  • What types of projects do team members work together on?
  • Does the team have fun events or socialize outside of work?

Conflict Resolution

If you’re true to yourself, there will be conflict in the workplace. A company without conflict should be feared and avoided, because it means that employees are not engaged. On the other hand, when everyone is invested in the company’s success, there will naturally be disagreements about how to get there. Each employee will come to the challenge with unique perspectives, skills and experiences that color her perception of the best path forward. Every employee will also care deeply about achieving the company’s goals and advocate strongly for the strategy they think has the best chance of success. A deep level of employee investment generates healthy conflict that should be welcomed. If it isn’t, that’s a red flag. How to figure this out? A few simple questions will help you get to the heart of it pretty quickly:

  • How are conflicts and disagreements handled?
  • Does the company offer training in conflict resolution?
  • Does senior leadership provide avenues for employees to provide feedback?
  • Is senior leadership open about company challenges?
  • How does the team’s direct manager react to constructive criticism?
  • Does the team’s manager seek out feedback from her team members?

Opportunities for Growth

Odds are you’re not just looking for a job. You want a career. Accepting a job is not a lifelong commitment, but it’s at least a serious long-term relationship. Before agreeing to spend a few years of your life in a position, you need to make sure that there’s upside. It’s not about the title, or the pay raises, either. You need to find out if the organization will allow you to expand your skills, take on new challenges and ultimately grow your abilities.

The odds aren’t great if the company just wants you to stay in your lane, keep your head down, and do the job you were hired to do. On the other hand, a company that specifically values employee growth will give you opportunities to learn new skills and try new things. When you expand your abilities, career growth quickly follows. Ask these questions to figure out the career upside in a company and role:

  • How long to people usually stay on the team?
  • What kinds of jobs to people move on to when they leave?
  • What opportunities will I have to broaden my skills?
  • Does the team encourage technical and soft skills training?
  • Will I be able to jump in where needed, even on tasks outside of my job description?

Ask the Questions

Remember — an interview isn’t a one-way street. A good interviewer will be happy to answer your questions, and will be anxious to make a positive impression on you. If an employee is reluctant to talk about the company culture, that’s a sign you shouldn’t ignore. As tempting as it can be to focus on the job description and salary, especially if you’ve been job-hunting for a while, the culture fit is extremely important to your short-term job satisfaction and long-term career success. Ask the right questions, build a picture of day-to-day life at the company you’re interviewing with and then trust your gut!

Originally published at parentlightly.com on April 23, 2018.