Chapter: 6

Questions about the people and culture


Now that you know from the previous chapter how you will be evaluated and what the expectations for your role are, it’s time to understand better the people with whom you will be working.

Chapter 6 focuses on questions that allow you to understand the people and overall culture of the company. This is an area that is much more of an art than science, but the quest is well worth the effort.

Whichever industry or company you end up working with. And whether it is a local or a global organization, you will always be working with other people. These people will always create some type of working culture.

Even if it sounds fluffy to you, I’d still say that some of these questions might help you build rapport and get insights in other areas.

The list below is rather extensive – pick the ones you like most and have more in the back of your mind.

Chapter 6: Questions to ask during a job interview - Questions about the people and culture
Question for interviewer: Can you tell me about the team I’ll be working with?

[QUESTION #35]:

Can you tell me about the team I’ll be working with?

After you have scheduled your interview, you should immediately begin work on researching the company, if you haven't started yet. This work should include some of the people you will spend your days with.

When you go into the interview, you should have a relatively clear idea about who you will work for and in what department.

However, asking about the team you will spend the most time with every day is very important. You are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you.

You need to know if you will enjoy working there every day just as much as they need to know if you are the best fit for them.

Why Ask About the Team

At the end of your interview, when it is time to ask your researched questions, make sure to ask about your team. Because these are the people you will spend the majority of your hours with, it is important to get a generalized feel about how they operate.

You will want to know if they are driven, if they have any quirks, or if they are just newly formed. You will want to know what their challenges are and how they come up with solutions.

It is in your best interest to gain as much information as possible during your time with the interviewer. Get as much information as you can, and store all of the necessary tidbits in the back of your mind.

You will be working with these people, so it is important to pay attention to the honesty in the response you get.

During the Tour and at the Company’s Facilities

If, by lucky chance, you get a tour, pay very close attention. Watch to see how you will fit into the group, and how your skills will complement theirs.

Be sure to bring this to your interviewer’s attention, as well. Paint yourself as one of the actual team members already, and ensure they know how well you match the team in place.

Once they see how well you will mold into the group, it will be hard for them to choose anyone but you.

Question for interviewer: Can you tell me what you love most about working here?

[QUESTION #36]:

Can you tell me what you love most about working here?

Your interview could last an hour, and maybe even longer. The person you are interviewing with and you will hopefully build a rapport, and you might even feel comfortable enough to ask a few casual questions.

If this is the case, you could ask what they love most about working at the company to which you are applying.

Why Ask About What They Love?

This is information you need to know! The last thing you want to do is to work somewhere where you are miserable. A good way to get a feel for that is to ask the hiring manager what it is that keeps them coming in day after day.

If you ask this question while you are on your tour, or maybe before you transfer to someone else for a different part of the interview process, you might catch them off guard. This is probably the best time, as you will probably get the most honest response.

The Interviewer’s Response

Hopefully, your interviewer will answer with an abundance of positive things. With any luck, they will love coming to work every day, and they will be happy to tell you all about it.

If this is the case, make a mental note and take a few notes about what you remember at a later time.

If your interviewer’s response is not positive, simply nod and smile. Do not encourage further negativity, and move on with another question.

However, you should definitely consider their response. If it was negative, weigh the information. Will their answer impact your daily life? Do they just have a negative outlook on life in general, or were their concerns relevant?

At the close of the interview, take into account all that you have seen during the day. Do not let this particular question and answer sway your decision making. While loving what you do every day is definitely important, keep in mind that this was just one person’s view.

Take that for what it is worth.

Question for interviewer: What’s different about working here than anywhere else you’ve worked?

[QUESTION #37]:

What’s different about working here than anywhere else you’ve worked?

You have been asked many questions about yourself and your work experience. Now, you have the chance to ask your interviewer about their personal experiences.

People enjoy talking about themselves and your interviewer will be able to relay some of their experiences working for other companies and how it compares to the one they are currently working for.

You will get first-hand details about the best parts of working with this company. Knowing what motivates another employee that you may be working closely with, will give you a great way to measure what you may also like about working there, if given the opportunity.

Is it appropriate to ask the Interviewer this question?

As mentioned, people like the opportunity to talk about themselves, and this would be no exception.

Speaking to your interviewer about their previous work history and experiences can create a sense of fellowship and solidarity between two people interested in working for the same company.

You may also enter into a conversation about working with previous employers and why you also think you may be best fit to work with this same company.

You will have started a good rapport with the interviewer and this will be a great way to stay on top of their mind when they are reviewing the candidates. They may remember that wonderful conversation and how well they got along with you!

Having the interviewer talk about themselves will make them feel pleased with the interview, pleased that you were interested in asking about them (which may not happen often during an interview), and pleased that you may have more interest in working for a good company, instead of just focusing on the paycheck.

Most likely, the answer you receive from the interviewer will be a positive one.

If they struggle to provide you positive elements of why they are working for their current company, or seem very negative in their answers, keep those details in mind. You will want to ensure that if you are offered a position, this will be a place you would like to come to every day.

Question for interviewer: I’ve read about the company’s founding, but can you tell me more about XXX?

[QUESTION #38]:

I’ve read about the company’s founding, but can you tell me more about XXX?

Understanding the history of a company is often important, as it often defines some of the core values of the company. Therefore, this question is a good starter for the discussion about the company's culture.

The Company Culture

Culture is not easy to understand or grasp without being really exposed to it, but as a job seeker it is important to try to get at least some glimpse of it. By discussing important events from the company history, you can get insights into how they shaped the company's identity.

What makes things even more complex is the fact that culture can also evolve over time. Therefore, the meaning and interpretation of an event, such as company founding, can change over the years. You should be able to get some understanding of the interviewer's attitude towards the early days of the company from the tone and words that are used.

Showing Off Your Research in a Smart Way

Another important point about this question is that it shows you did real background research. What's more, you have a specific question and demonstrate interest.

Of course, the meaning of this question varies a lot depending on the age and status of the company you are applying to. This question (with the right and well-targeted ending) might be super relevant for a start-up or an early stage company. For example, if the company founders don't seem to be present in the business based on the information you have, you can ask for more information about them.

For more established and, especially, very mature and large companies this question might be less relevant, unless there is some really interesting fact that you can refer to. Even for such company, it can still be informative to ask such question.

More Ideas on How to Customize This Question

There is a lot more ways to approach this question. Here are some ideas on how to modify it:

  • Ask for the link between the founding event and the current business activity, if they are quite different
  • Ask about the current role of the company founders, if the business is not too mature
  • Ask about how the company overcame some major crisis in more recent past, if you are aware that there was some economic downturn or clear period of struggle for the company

Many other alternatives are possible. Keep it relevant, truly interesting for you and tailored to the company status and situation.

Question for interviewer: Which other departments work most closely with this one?

[QUESTION #39]:

Which other departments work most closely with this one?

This question starts delving into the inner workings of the company and its sectors.

By asking about how the company runs, you are showing the interviewer that you are interested in more than just getting the job. You also want to know exactly what the processes are.

It is advantageous to understand how the department you would like to work for operates alongside others.

Understanding the systems, procedures and operations of the departments and company will better prepare you for the role, if you are the successful candidate.

What can I take away from this question?

Have you ever started a job and realized that you didn’t know what your responsibilities were, who you were to work with, or exactly how the company was run?

By asking the above question, you can help alleviate that anxiety of the “unknown”.

The interviewer will be able to provide you more details than would be available in a brief job description.

They will have more explanations of how your department would function, and how they would work together with other parts of the company.

You may learn that the department you are applying for works independently of other departments. In this case, you may be working closely with one team who has sole responsibilities.

Or, perhaps the department works with several different divisions within the company. If this is the way the company is structured, you could be working with many different people and should adjust your working style to blend with different personalities.

You will learn a lot about the company, the department you are applying for and what will be expected of you if you take the position.

If you are offered and accept the job, you will start your first day of work informed and knowledgeable about what lies ahead!

Question for interviewer: What do you and the team usually do for lunch?

[QUESTION #40]:

What do you and the team usually do for lunch?

One of the best parts of a new job is learning about all of the people you are working with. Forming friendships builds camaraderie and loyalty within the job.

It is important to feel as though you are part of a team, and to also get along with those around you. One way to build this rapport is spending time together during downtime. This is easy to do at lunch.

The Importance of Casual Questioning

When you prepare for an interview, you should always create a list of questions. Create one list of important questions that must be answered before you leave the building, and create another list of questions that you can ask casually.

You can ask these casual questions while you are on the tour, while you are meeting with other team members, or while you are waiting to transition to another part of the interview.

These casual questions are helpful because they give you the lay of the land. They help you figure out workplace culture and how employees interact with each other.

They will help you gain insight into how daily operations at the company run, and how you will eventually fit in.

The Interviewer’s Response

Asking what employees regularly do for lunch is definitely a more casual question. However, the answer can give you real insight into the company morale.

If employees regularly just do working lunches at their desk, pause and consider this.

If employees like to go out together for lunch, consider this, as well.

If there is a workroom for employees to lunch together, ask to see it if it was not already on your tour.

While it may seem like their response is easygoing and carries little weight, think again.

You should always be considering company culture throughout your interview. Consider both sides of the spectrum.

Casual questioning will give you an insider look at how things operate from day to day, but it will also give you valuable information about the company’s temperament.

Question for interviewer: What are the qualities of successful managers in this company?

[QUESTION #41]:

What are the qualities of successful managers in this company?

During your interview process, you will have the opportunity to ask several questions that are well-researched and specific to the company.

Whether you are interviewing for a management position or not, you should definitely ask what the qualities of a successful manager are. The qualities or traits given in the interviewer’s answer will only help you in your eventual success.

If you are interviewing for a management position, you will want knowledge of the skills and core competencies the company treasures in a leader. If excellent people skills and multitasking top the list, emphasize how you have demonstrated those traits throughout your career so far.

If the interviewer lists other key skills, ensure that you can match those. Be prepared with specific situations that show off how you have used them in the past to benefit your previous employer.

If you are not interviewing for a management role, you will still get a wide view of what they deem important. This will help you when you begin your new position. It will also help you work towards advancement.

The Interviewer’s Response

You may get a response along these lines: The best managers in our organization are independent thinkers, good teachers and completely aligned with the direction in which the company is headed.

Be sure to key into the list he or she is giving you. Take good notes, and reference them throughout your first few weeks on the job. This is a direct route to potential success, and you should not waste it.

If he or she cannot name a single star in the managerial stable, that is problematic and may indicate the organization is short on progress or promotions. This could be a definite bonus for you, and could imply rapid movement within the company.

This should also give you pause. If they are short on top-down leadership, you should consider why. Follow-up questions could be about managerial training, or even if there have been multiple transitions within the company in the past year.

Always remember that you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you, and that you are, without a doubt, the best person for the job.

Question for interviewer: Do you expect to hire more people in this department in the next six months?

[QUESTION #42]:

Do you expect to hire more people in this department in the next six months?

In this day and age, company growth is a big deal. The company you are applying to should not only be willing to show you their rate of growth, but also prepared to show you their expectations for the future.

When it is your turn to ask questions at the end of the interview, do not waste time. Take the opportunity you are given and use it in the best possible way.

Ask big questions and take notes over the given answers. One question that definitely needs to be asked is how the department will change in the coming months.

Additional Department Personnel

This is an important question because it will tell you subtly about the office workflow. Will there be interruptions for personnel training? Will it become a revolving door with the company?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should really take into consideration what you really feel. If you feel that you can work in circumstances such as these, then by all means, accept the position when offered.

If the answer to these questions is a resounding no, then you should withdraw from the process and move on.

Their Final Answer

The truth of the matter is that they just may not know. If they cannot give you a firm answer, then you are going to have to be accepting.

They may also want to see how much work you can handle when they bring you on, before charging ahead and hiring more employees. This is also something to take into consideration before formally accepting the position.

Question for interviewer: What have you enjoyed most about working here?

[QUESTION #43]:

What have you enjoyed most about working here?

When you get to the interview process, remember that you are sizing up the company just as much as they are sizing up you.

Take into consideration the person interviewing you. Do they seem happy? Do they seem slighted? Do they seem like they are just going through everyday motions, or do they genuinely seem to enjoy what they are doing?

During Your Interview

During your interview, you will get an opportunity to ask a few questions. Make sure these questions are well-researched, specific to the company that you are interviewing with, and related to the job you are applying for.

One question that you could ask your interviewer is what they enjoy most about working at the company.

Even if the person interviewing you is just part of Human Resources, or not even remotely related to your eventual team - this is still a good question.

The given answer will give you unique insight into how satisfied people are with their jobs there. If the interviewer is pained to come up with an answer to your question, consider this to be a big red flag.

However, if they can toss out three or four things they really enjoy, also take note.

An Important Note

It is important to remember to take the answers of opinion questions such as this with a grain of salt. Each employee could come up with a different answer depending on their experience, or even depending on what kind of day they are having.

You also might be asking an employee that is on their way out the door. So, your decision as to whether or not you join the company should not hinge on this one answer. Just take the answer for what it is worth, and hopefully, you will have gained some valuable first-hand knowledge about how the company works.

Question for interviewer: What’s your favorite office tradition?

[QUESTION #44]:

What’s your favorite office tradition?

Once you have made it past the initial application process and into the interview rounds, you are one step closer to a new job.

Prior to your interview, ensure that you have a wealth of well-researched questions at hand for when it is time for you to ask at the end. These are important questions that will help you gauge if the company is the right fit for you, and will help you gain other information not previously covered in the interview process.

However, some of these questions might be casual and rapport building with your interviewer. These are almost just as important.

Office Traditions

Asking your interviewer about their favorite office tradition is a good icebreaker. This is a casual question that could be thrown out during a transition period – for example, before your tour or when preparing to fill out additional paperwork.

This question will incite some kind of conversation or friendly banter. This will show that you are approachable and good-natured. These are definitely pluses on your candidate profile.

Office traditions can be anything from food drives, to Christmas parties and Secret Santas, to happy hours on Friday afternoons. Whatever your interviewer answers with, act interested, and ask any necessary follow-up questions.

Tradition Haters :-)

If your interviewer suggests that there are no office traditions, that they do not celebrate anything, or that the staff rarely (if ever) get together after work, perhaps take this into consideration as well.

You spend so much time with your team - at least eight hours a day. They will become your work family, and traditions add a little something extra and shiny to your workday.

If there are not any, take note. Does that sort of atmosphere fit with your personality? If it does, then good. If it does not, then really think long and hard if you would be a good fit for the position.

Remember, if there are no traditions, you can always start one when you begin your job.

Question for interviewer: How would you describe the work environment here - is the work typically collaborative or more independent?

[QUESTION #45]:

How would you describe the work environment here - is the work typically collaborative or more independent?

Certain professions lend themselves to either collaborative work or independent work. Chances are, depending on your chosen career field, you are aware as to which column you will likely fall under.

However, sometimes businesses like to shake things up. Clarifying how your team operates is never a bad thing.

Asking About Work Environment

The work environment that you will be a part of will be on display when you take your tour. Take special note as to how everyone is working. Does there seem to be a collaborative spirit in the air? Are people talking together in groups, working in conference rooms, or partnered up in cubicles? Or, are they sectioned off and quietly working independently?

Take note as you walk around as what it feels most like to you. Take this information back with you as you continue your interview. This will help you formulate a work environment question that is very important.

You should ask how people like to work in the office, and if it ever changes. Are there both collaborative and independent work times? And when and how does that happen?

Work environment also covers how people generally act. Are employees competitive with one another? Are they helpful and engaging? Do they seek to challenge each other and better their team’s product?

All of these follow-up questions are crucial, as they will help you get a better feel for the workplace. Remember that you are interviewing them, as well. You should be trying to figure out how you best fit into the space, and if that space is right for you.

Why This Question Is Important

Getting a solid feel for the company or team that you are going to work with is imperative. If they work collaboratively, your new ideas for the team should center on how to get the projects finished efficiently and in a group atmosphere.

If they work independently, your ideas should focus on how you can complete your work effectively and surpass the standard set forth.

Question for interviewer: Can you give me some examples of the most and least desirable aspects of the company’s culture?

[QUESTION #46]:

Can you give me some examples of the most and least desirable aspects of the company’s culture?

When you are interviewing, it is important to remember that the company should be selling themselves to you, as well. Not only are you interviewing for them, but they should be interviewing for you.

You want to make sure that the company or business is the right fit for you. The interview is about the only time you will get to make sure this is the case, before actually starting to work there.

At the end of the interview, when it is time for you to ask some questions, take this thought into consideration. What could you ask that will give you a good view of the company’s culture, and how the day-to-day operations go?

Aspects of Company Culture

Whether the person interviewing you is your direct supervisor or someone from Human Resources, make sure you ask what the most and least desirable aspects of the company culture are. Even if you do not get a straight answer, this question is still important.

You want to know all parts of the job, not just what you are required to do every day. Knowing how the company runs every day, and how the employees act is important, as well.

The Interviewer’s Response

Asking this question could go one of two ways.

They could give you a fluffy answer in which everything seems perfect. This might just be completely honest, as well. Take it at face value and move on.

Or, they could give you a startlingly honest account of what life is like inside the business. Take this at face value, as well.

If they are honest and negative, add this to your pro and con list when the interview is finished. Despite the negativity that they impart, could you still envision yourself working there every day?

And if they are honest and positive, take this into consideration, too. Definitely add their points to your consideration list, and think about how it impacts your daily life at your new job.

Question for interviewer: Who does the person in this job report to?

[QUESTION #47]:

Who does the person in this job report to?

When you are applying for a position, it is likely that your application is directed to someone in Human Resources. It is also likely that this person will be doing the interviews. This is a typical practice for many larger companies at the first interview.

If this is the case, you should definitely ask your interviewer who you will report to when you start. This is a very informative question, so make sure you ask it before you leave.

Reporting to Your Boss

If someone from Human Resources interviews you, do not worry – you will still get the opportunity to meet your eventual boss. This will likely happen during the tour and later rounds of interviews.

When you meet them, lead with a firm handshake and introduce yourself. If you are allowed time to ask questions, make sure that they are efficient, and well-researched.

However, at the end of the interview, when you have an opportunity to ask a few well-rehearsed questions, make sure you ask who you’ll report to.

This is important because you might be applying for a position that has multiple managers, or multiple people that fill out performance evaluations.

You will want to be very clear on who you report to, and who will eventually evaluate you. If you have two bosses, it is certainly okay to clarify which one will be doing the evaluating. If it is both, it’s important to know that going into the role.

After You Ask

After you ask about who you’ll report to, take special note as to what your interviewer says. Make sure you take notes, and ask any important follow-up questions as needed.

If he or she can supply specific names, write those names down. After your interview, search the company directory or LinkedIn for these managers, and note the specific departments they work for. Any additional information that you can collect prior to your next interview or start on the job is just icing on the cake.

Question for interviewer: Can you tell me about my direct supervisor? Is there anything I should know about working with them that will make my integration a smooth process?

[QUESTION #48]:

Can you tell me about my direct supervisor? Is there anything I should know about working with them that will make my integration a smooth process?

During the interview process, it is important to remember that many companies use their Human Resources to do the hiring and firing of employees. Who you sit down with at your interview may not be the person that you'll directly report to.

If this is the case, asking a few strategic questions at the end of your interview could net you a wealth of information that will be beneficial to you as you move to the next stage of the interviews or begin your new job.

Direct Supervisor Questions

Asking the Human Resources interviewer who your direct supervisor is should be a no-brainer. You are interested in the position, and that includes who your boss will be.

However, asking the interviewer to expand upon this, and to explain a little more about your supervisor's personality is very important, especially if the next interview is with that person.

Ask if there is anything you should know about him or her that will make your integration a smoother process. This will help you as you begin, and if you take diligent notes, the helpful pointers given will only aid you in those first few weeks.

A Word of Caution

Asking this question can be kind of tricky. You will want to avoid giving off the impression of a gossip, or someone that is seeking personal, insider information. Avoid that at all cost.

Instead, lightly ask if there is anything specific that will help you as you begin. Ask openly, and try to avoid any sort of conspiratorial tone.

This question should not be about workroom chatter. Instead, it should be something that will give you a leg up in the first few weeks on the job.

Follow-Up Questions

You could ask a few follow-up questions. These could include anything like asking about specific tasks that aren’t necessarily on your employee expectations list, or events that you will be expected to attend that are not on the calendar.

Having an open line of communication, in which you can ask honest, important questions is necessary. If this is a question that you do not feel comfortable asking, or if the answer makes you feel uneasy, then you should take this into consideration when it comes time to accept the position.

Question for interviewer: Can you tell me about the last team event that you did together?

[QUESTION #49]:

Can you tell me about the last team event that you did together?

When you are preparing for an interview, pay special attention to the job description. Will you be working individually? Or will you be working with a team?

When it comes time to prepare your researched questions for the end of the interview, take this into account. If you will be working with a team, ask questions that are team-oriented.

The Last Team Event

Depending on the company you are applying to, asking about the team’s last event might be a good idea. This will show you a couple of things:

You will find out if they produce large scale events (and what kind of work that takes), or if they prefer smaller, more intimate settings.

Also, you will figure out just what kind of role you will play in these events.

Other Questions

Once you ask about the team’s last event, there will probably be follow-up questions. Do not be afraid to seek clarification if at any point you become confused.

Ask a few of the following:

  • Are these events required?
  • Are these events scheduled regularly?
  • How do you determine who in charge of the events is?
  • What made the events successful? What would you change?

The Interviewer’s Response

If the last event your team organized was an office birthday party, or if there really aren’t office events, then obviously your follow-up questions won’t be necessary.

It is completely possible, too, that your interviewer may just not know about your team events. If you are interviewing with someone from Human Resources, that person might not have their finger on the pulse of your new office. Here, too, follow-up questions would be unnecessary.

However, if you do get a clear answer as to what events your team plans, take diligent notes. When it comes time for your office to do another event later on down the road, you will be able to reference these notes and possibly play a key role.

Question for interviewer: How many people have left in the last year?

[QUESTION #50]:

How many people have left in the last year?

This is an important question that you might want to ask in some situations. If you do, you will need to listen carefully to the answer. How the interviewer responds will give insight into the job, the management and the culture of the workplace.

Is there a high turnover rate? Why did the employees leave? Were they fired or did they resign?

You will hope that the interviewer provides details and examples of why previous employees left the position/company, so you will not need to continue to press for more answers.

What are the good and bad signs?

The best sign of a great employer is that there is a low turnover rate. A term you may also hear is attrition, which refers to the number of people who will have resigned or left their position on their own.

If there is low attrition, you may take this as evidence that the company provides a healthy work environment, has positive employees and management and is generally a good place to work.

You may learn, however, that there have been some employees that left. You will need to examine this information based on the type of position you are applying for and the type of company it is.

If you are applying for a position that is only held by a small number of people and there has been a high attrition rate, that could be an indicator of problems within the company. There may be an issue with the position, the demands, the management or the team itself.

High turnover rates will not always necessarily be a result of a poorly run company. Certain industries have been known to have a “revolving door” of employees based on the nature of the job.

Investment banking and consulting are two prime examples of industries where it is typical to see higher attrition rates compared to other industries. There is a host of reasons why this is; the age of new hires, using the position as a stepping stone to higher paying jobs, or high stress levels.

What you will need to learn is if the company fires their employees or if the employees resign, and why this happens. Why would the employees be terminated, or why would they quit? And will you be able to work for this company knowing this information.

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