When you’re looking for a new job, you don’t just want the right position—you want the right culture fit: An office that matches your laid-back vibe, your work-hard-play-hard attitude, or your uber-creative personality. A team that supports your love for collaboration, your do-it-yourself spirit, or your desire to have a great mentor.
Sure, you could do good work anywhere—but if the attitudes and predispositions of the workplace feel like second nature, you’re more likely to hit the ground running (and to be happy there for the long haul).
But unfortunately, you can’t just ask “Can you tell me about the company culture?” and consider yourself covered. Much like you tout your best self in an interview, the person you’re interviewing with is putting his or her best foot forward—and you may hear a canned response that gives you very little insight.
So, your best bet is to ask questions that (okay, sneakily) give you the real details about what it’s like to work there. Try these four to get you started.
1. “Can you tell me about the busiest times of year?”
This is masked as a question about the cyclical nature of work, but what it really tells you is what the on-the-job hours look like: Do people say that January is crazy because of year-end donations—or do they respond with, “When is it not busy?!”
But along with shedding light on the level of workaholism you can expect, this question can give you clues into the support and collaboration among the team. Is the answer an every-person-for-herself response (“You would be busy during…”) or a team-based one? (e.g., “The marketing department goes into overdrive during the fall, and we often eat dinner together on Tuesdays while we brainstorm.”)
2. “How often does the staff meet?”
This questions looks like a harmless inquiry into office routines, but it can tell you a lot about the level of communication between colleagues. If the answer is, “We all meet individually with the supervisor weekly,” that means you may be pretty isolated other than a top-down interaction with your manager. Answers that tell you about the frequency of staff meetings also shed light on how often you may be working by yourself versus as a member of a team.
Also pay attention to responses like “ad hoc” or “as needed”—that either means you don’t meet as a group (and will work largely independently) or, on the other extreme, that you can expect questions and suggestions whenever someone walks by your desk.
3. "Do you have any suggestions for where I could get lunch?"
OK, this is not a question for the formal interview—it’s better aimed at the receptionist on the way out, masked as an inquiry for a recommendation. Or, if your interview includes lunch, you can try, “Do you eat here regularly? What other restaurants does the team frequent?”
Then, listen closely. Do they all go to a local deli then eat together while talking shop in the board room? Or does everyone usually brown bag it and eat at their desks? When you’re told everyone goes to a local raw-vegan-gluten-free restaurant, do you think “Awesome!” or “Awesome…” [insert eye roll]? Getting some insight into the team norms and habits—the ones not outlined in the employee handbook—can show you how well you’d fit in.
4. “Are there family photos at the office?”
Here’s another question not to ask—but to think to yourself. The prevalence of personal items can be directly proportionate to the formality of the office: If photos of employees’ children are visible when you’re passing by their desks, it’s probably the sort of place where a colleague will ask how your son’s birthday party was. No photos in sight? It’s likely a more down-to-business work environment.
You can look for other indicators of personality, too. Do employees sport Shoe-a-Day calendars or a list of the corporate values on their office doors? Is the break room whiteboard scribbled with last Friday’s ping-pong scores or the team’s monthly deadlines? These visual cues can give you a better sense of how reserved (or not) the atmosphere may be.
Remember, at an interview, it’s not just the company deciding if you’re right for the team—you get to decide if they feel like the right fit for you. Keep your eyes and ears open, and pay attention to the subtle signals that you definitely would (or wouldn’t) like to work at that organization. They can tell you a lot.