22 Interview Questions That’ll Get You the Real Inside Scoop on Company Culture
You’ve spent months applying to jobs, and finally, you have an offer (or two). You’re ecstatic—as you should be!—but you can’t shake the recurring nightmare that, like too many of your friends, you’ll pick the job that sounds great but actually consists of answering emails until 2 AM every night.
The good news is there are ways to decipher what working for a new organization will really be like. We know, because each and every day, we help companies build great workplaces. Leveraging decades of academic studies and original research, our new book, Primed to Perform, reveals what drives great workplace culture.
There are three motives that enhance long-term performance (play, purpose, and potential) and three motives that diminish it (emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia). A company with a strong culture is one that maximizes the first three and minimizes the second three. Naturally, you want to ask questions that gauge these factors at your prospective job. Here’s how to do it in a natural way that fits seamlessly into the rest of the interview process.
Not to be confused with ping-pong tournaments, play is when you work because you enjoy the work itself. Research shows that play is the strongest motivator and dramatically improves performance. A screenwriter who enjoys choosing between words and arranging them into visual sentences will outperform the peer who writes because he wants to be famous.
To ask about opportunities for play without sounding like a kindergartener, try one of these questions:
- How much unstructured time are employees given to come up with creative solutions to work-related challenges?
When someone is “in the zone,” what is he usually doing?
How do you help people learn new things?
What kinds of projects would a person in my position be able to own from beginning to end?
Can you give an example of a time that someone in my role made a suggestion that was later implemented?
These questions will help you gauge whether you’ll be given freedom to innovate and play—or feel trapped in a micro-managing environment. Aspiring screenwriters (and employees of all kinds) work best when given the opportunity to learn and experiment on the job.
Most people crave purpose at work. No one wants to feel like they’re wasting eight (or more) hours each day doing something that doesn’t matter. However, it’s important to check that the company’s sense of purpose aligns with yours. Ask these questions:
- How might the person in this role contribute to the organization’s mission?
How do employees measure the impact of their work?
How do people in this role interact with customers and users?
What is your favorite workplace tradition?
It’s too painful to complete an analysis or PowerPoint presentation and send it into the air, never knowing if it made a difference. You want to know that your work will be seen and used.
A role with potential includes future opportunities for growth. To learn where a position might take you, ask:
- Does the company promote from within?
Where have other employees in this position gone to in the past?
Where does the company expect to be in the next three to five years?
It’s natural, but shortsighted, to think only about the position you’re applying for. A year or two from now, you’ll wish you’d inquired about advancement.
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Emotional pressure is when you do things because of emotions like guilt, disappointment, or fear. Be wary of taking a job just to keep up with others or because you feel like someone in your life expects you to. Misplaced motives can lead to diminished creativity and engagement, as well as cutthroat behavior in the workplace (and no one wants to be that co-worker). To test if a company relies too heavily on prestige, guilt, shame, and the like to motivate people, try asking:
- How does management encourage people to speak up when they disagree with a decision?
When and how do team members give feedback to one another?
Are there any company-sponsored activities to facilitate friendships at work?
How are performance reviews conducted?
You want to know that your prospective employer cares about supporting its employees and creating a positive work environment.
Economic pressure is when you do something to gain a reward or avoid punishment. In the workplace, it’s often caused by high-stakes bonuses or the fear of being fired. To understand if your future employer has a quid-pro-quo culture, ask:
- Do you use rewards and trophies to motivate people?
Do you use ranking systems in performance reviews or compensation?
How do your reviews distinguish between employee contributions and luck?
Bonuses, rewards, and trophies aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they can hurt performance when people start working for the trophy instead of for what’s right. Make sure policies around rewards are clear, fair and simple—rather than distracting, time-consuming systems that turn work into a pressure-cooker.
Inertia—when people work a job simply because they did it the day before—is not to be confused with longevity or retention at a company. People aren’t staying because they’re happy: They’re sticking around because they feel stuck. Unfortunately, inertia can be an extremely strong force keeping people at their jobs. Gauge what qualities of the job might compel employees to stay for many years with these questions:
- What are the most common reasons people leave your organization?
What companies are your biggest sources of competition for talent? How do you motivate people to stay here?
How often do projects get canceled or fail?
Sometimes a company seems like a great fit, but then isn’t what it seems. These questions are a good start—and they’ll definitely do more to assess your dream job than questions like “Do you have a Nespresso machine?”
Lindsay McGregor is the co-author of New York Times bestselling book, Primed to Perform, a groundbreaking introduction to the science behind high-performing cultures the likes of Southwest and Starbucks. She is also the co-founder of Vega Factor, which builds technology to help organizations transform their cultures. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton University and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time, she loves investigating and sharing great stories.More from this Author