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Editorial
Curious about Workplace Culture? Ask These 7 Questions to Gain Insight
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Allie Hofer image
Allie Hofer

With a deep exhale of relief and excited anticipation, you open up your calendar to schedule a new event. You landed an interview for that job you’ve been eyeing! Every article you’ve ever read, each workshop you’ve attended, and all the tips and tricks you’ve absentmindedly acquired over the years regarding interview preparation come flooding back to you. Endless ink has been spilled about the topic of interviewing, and you’ve probably memorized most of the information out there. You know exactly what to wear, you already have lists of possible queries to plan responses to, your “thank you” stationery is on deck, and on and on. In accordance with the most respected guidelines available, you will also be prepared to fire back at your interviewer with questions that demonstrate your competency and genuine interest in the position. Sound accurate?

We all know by now that one set of company characteristics that is integral to employees’ overall professional experience is workplace culture. The culture of a workplace encompasses every human interaction, from the most basic exchange of pleasantries while pouring a cup of coffee to the most complex execution of the company’s mission, as well as values, office environment, policies, and additional elements unique to the organization.

Don’t forget to probe more deeply into the heart of the company and unearth these traits while interviewing. In order to determine a company’s culture and whether or not it aligns with your needs and preferences, here are seven strategic questions to keep in mind.

1. Tell me about the office environment. (Are there cubicles, work tables, offices, or a little bit of each?) 

The structure of an office’s physical space speaks volumes about how employees are accommodated. If you’re someone who thrives in a team setting, you likely prefer open areas that promote group brainstorming, idea sharing, and collaboration between coworkers. If you’re more of an introvert who performs best alone, or if your position handles confidential material, you’ll want private sections that allow for undisturbed work. Companies that configure both individual and group spaces demonstrate that they are supportive of all working styles and seek to facilitate each employee’s ideal environment for maximized productivity. Study the surroundings when you arrive to get a sense for the atmosphere and follow up on your observations during the interview to learn about the set-up from the managerial perspective.

2. What benefits do you have for your employees that you believe set you apart in the industry?

Though you may initially focus on the job description and questions related to your responsibilities within that position, don’t forget to ask about benefits. And I don’t mean just health benefits. Does the company negotiate flexible work arrangements? Do they offer family-planning benefits? Companies that have devoted time and finances to assembling packages that truly meet the needs of every type of employee they might hire prove it has a vested interest in how much it values the personal lives of its employees. Solid benefits, especially ones that have been differentiated from the offerings for similar positions in the industry, indicate leadership who will stand behind their employees on all fronts, at all stages in their life. While benefits are only part of the entire equation, they may very well be the deciding factor between two jobs you’re considering, if all other components are comparable.

3. In what ways have you bent over backwards for your employees to support them in their work or personal life?

Many of us enter interviews mentally committed to agreeing to any terms in order to seem like a team player and to be remembered as a “totally on board” candidate — even if it means making sacrifices. (You need me to be in the office from 8:00 a.m. sharp until no earlier than 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and be on call every weekend? Sure, no problem!) Although certain rigid job requirements may be feasible for you in the present, don’t completely disregard your future self and assume your priorities won’t evolve. You certainly can’t predict or perfectly plan how your life will unfold, so it’s important to understand how a company is amenable to adapting with you. But it’s important to broach this topic  in a way that doesn’t give the recruiter the assumption that you are going to need extensive accommodations and that, even though you haven’t even been hired, you’re already wondering how often you can work from your couch. Strike the right balance by asking the reciprocal of what they likely asked you just moments prior: how they have been known to go above and beyond for their team.

4. What is expected of me in the first 60 days on the job?

Accepting a new position doesn’t immediately assimilate you into the fabric of that company. When you show up on your first day, you are an employee, of course, but you’re not yet accustomed to the various idiosyncrasies that define the organization. It will take time to acclimate with any new job, but not every company will handle that transition period the same way. What will those first two months look like? In order to picture clearly what working for the company will entail, ask about the onboarding system for new employees. Will you begin in a shadowing role or as part of a training regimen? Will management require regular check-ins or, at least, be available for questions? You likely don’t wish to join an organization that does little to guide newcomers, so be sure to ascertain the procedures that ar (or aren’t) in place to help you learn the ins and outs and fully integrate.

5. You mentioned there are x number of people on the team; what do they typically do for lunch each day? 

The lunch routine may seem like a trivial detail that you wouldn’t dare mention in an interview, but such simple fundamentals of the everyday human experience are actually cornerstones of a company’s culture. Ask about the lunching and other food-centered practices (coffee runs, snack breaks, etc.) of the team you would be a member of, and you’ll gain telling insight into the group’s personality. Whether monies are allocated for frequent business lunch outings, casual gatherings are organized in a common area to discuss work matters while munching what you packed from home, or individual contributors eat at their desks, finding out the specifics of your team’s tendencies will give you an idea of what kind of behavior to expect and how you would fit in.

6. What is done at the department level and company-wide to build the team dynamic?

Though lunch rituals are usually an effective litmus test for team relations, your interviewer may not know these more personal details about your team in particular. In this case, and in general, you should inquire about the efforts of higher-ups to foster positive connections between team members. Does management ensure that teams have favorable meeting conditions for project work, including adequate space, sufficient time together, and reliable resources? Does the company at large host morale-boosting events, perhaps that are social in nature and include friendly competition, incentives, or off-site recreation? Both strictly business-related and more lighthearted activities are essential in building a healthy team dynamic — which leads to high achievement and pleasing interactions — and should be backed by each level of the company.   

7. What professional development opportunities will I have in this role?

A company assumes that you have taken measures to advance your skills while working in your current and previous jobs. In fact, they’ll probably be hesitant to hire you if your career has remained stagnant over the years. Knowing these expectations, ask how the company will help you to continue to develop professionally during your time with them. Do they provide funding for furthering your education through a postgraduate degree program? Will they sponsor conferences or training for your position or department specifically or approve time away from the office for outside opportunities you come across yourself? Professional development is much more reasonable to take on and typically more beneficial to you when your own company is involved to some extent, so you will want to know ahead of time how your career will progress in this job.  

The Gist:

A positive workplace culture breeds happy and productive employees. That's why organizational culture is key to a great workplace. If you don't know a company's core values, be sure to ask its team members and people who've worked for or with the company about the work environment.

Chances are that you’re already equipped to handle extensive questioning as an interviewee, but don’t forget that you’re entitled do some interrogating of your own. Far beyond the statistics available on its website, you can learn a great deal about a company by strategically uncovering its true identity. So much more factors in to your overall professional experience besides the work itself! Think outside of the limited scope of the position you’ve applied for and ask about the ways you will be supported as a whole person — what each day will entail, how and where you will work and interact with coworkers and superiors on business and social matters, what policies are in place to provide for you and your family on a personal level. During the interview process, determine whether the company recognizes that success results from employees who are valued and whose needs are met and whether those in charge cultivate a workplace culture in which you will thrive.

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Hi, there! I’m Allie Hofer, an HR professional and work-life balance enthusiast. More officially, I’m a Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Society of Human Resource Management – Certified Professional (SHRM-CP), and Recruiter Academy Certified Recruiter (RACR). After having my first child, I opted out of the traditional office setting to work from home. Since then, I have been consulting with organizations in the public and private sectors to support the Human Resources function in recruiting, compensation, training and development, and performance management. I started Office Hours to offer a boutique HR solution for small and medium-sized businesses and to help candidates navigate and completely own their career paths.

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