“If you are asking . . . about the culture, [recruiters] will know that and attempt to tell you what you want to hear,” says Henry Goldbeck, president of Goldbeck Recruiting. “So, if you are going to ask about company culture, it’s better to ask specific questions.”
There are a number of questions you can ask during an interview that, while seeming fairly straightforward on the surface, can help uncover deeper intel about the inner workings of a company. We asked a handful of career, recruiting, and HR experts to share a few of their favorites—keep these in mind the next time you’re in an interview and want to know the scoop.
1. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WITH THE COMPANY?
“This is a question to ask each of your interviewers. If everyone you meet has only been there a short time, you need to probe further,” says career counselor and executive coach Roy Cohen. “Unless the company is a startup, expanding rapidly, or the department is newly established, this is a serious red flag. High turnover could be a sign of low pay, long hours, lack of opportunity for career advancement, or incompetent management.”
2. WHAT WAS THE LAST BIG ACHIEVEMENT YOU CELEBRATED?
This question “gives [interviewers] the chance to reveal if employee efforts are acknowledged and appreciated and if people enjoy having company parties/gatherings,” says Valerie Streif, senior adviser at career services company Mentat. “If they don’t do anything to celebrate, it may be a thankless and cold environment.”
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3. WHAT ACTIVITIES DO YOU OFFER EMPLOYEES?
“If companies have softball leagues, trivia teams, company outings, retreats, or other planned social events, it can often give you a clue to how important they think it is for coworkers to like one another, not just work together,” Santopietro Panall says. This can be especially important if you “have recently moved, are entering the workforce after college, or anyone else that needs a social aspect in the workplace,” adds Nikki Larchar, cofounder/human resource business partner at simplyHR LLC.
“On the flip side, that kind of togetherness may not be for everyone,” Santopietro Panall acknowledges. “If the thought of socializing with your coworkers leaves you cold, you may want to look for a company with a more nine-to-five environment.”
4. WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE LAST YEAR, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM IT?
It may come across as an obvious question, but it actually does a great job at revealing “whether or not the company blames processes or people when something goes wrong. The former indicates that they are a continuous learning organization, and the latter may be a sign of a blame culture,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista. “Listen to who or what gets blamed for the failure, and if they have taken steps to learn from it.”
Keep an ear out for how their answer hints at the degree of politics present in the office, too. “Company politics play a huge role in overall job satisfaction, and it’s important to know ahead of time how decisions are made and conflicts are resolved,” shares Natasha Bowman, chief consultant at Performance ReNEW and author of the upcoming book You Can’t Do That At Work! 100 Common Mistakes That Managers Make.
5. HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS, AND OVER WHAT TIME FRAME?
If you want to avoid a boss with outrageous expectations, this is the question to ask. (And you can take it a step further and ask how those metrics are determined.) “Before you accept an offer, you need to know that your new boss has realistic expectations with respect to what you will accomplish and by when,” Cohen says. “No matter how attractive an offer may be, if you do not, or cannot, deliver results, you will fail. So, if you are told that the bar is outrageously high and you don’t have enough time to come up to speed, think twice before accepting the terms without discussion or negotiation.”
6. HOW MUCH TIME DO THE OWNERS/LEADERS/FOUNDERS SPEND IN THE OFFICE?
“This question tells you whether or not you have leaders in place who are in touch with the work and making knowledgeable decisions. The best and brightest ideas oftentimes come directly from the people actually doing the work, so if a leader rarely spends time with staff, it points to a lack of innovation and support in their culture,” says Gardner.
This question may not be quite as important to ask of a large business, but “in a small business, that interaction with the top level may be key to you getting ahead, being able to get things done and having that person’s vision be carried out by their team,” Santopietro Panall says. It “might also give you a key to the level of the workaholism that you can expect there. If the recruiter says, ‘Oh, our CEO Sally is here 90 hours a week, she never takes a day off!’ you’re going to know that the culture is going to be very focused on putting in a lot of hours with a lot of face time.”
7. WHAT DO YOUR TEAM MEMBERS DO FOR LUNCH EVERY DAY?
“Finding out what people tend to do on their lunch hour will tell you whether they are slammed with work, don’t want to spend time with their colleagues, or tend to be social and enjoy each other’s company,” Bowman says. “This information can also tell you whether or not your potential colleagues might be more extroverted or introverted. Depending on your own preferences, this response can give you some valuable insight into the team that you’re joining.”