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Ask These Questions to Know the Truth About Company Culture

My favorite definition of culture comes from Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy’s book Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, in which they define it as “the way we do things around here.”

Years ago, my cousin, came out for the holidays. He asked how we could really be serious and get work done while wearing fleece and sneakers. I told him we worked long and hard and therefore had to be as comfortable as possible: Didn’t he find wearing a suit a distraction?

Culture ranges from how people dress and talk to leadership and reward structures. We all know that culture fit matters—you’ll be happier and more successful (as will your supervisor) if there’s a good match.

Thankfully, there are specific interview questions you can ask to find out whether a company is right for you that will give you much more information than the standard, “What’s your culture like?” Of course, you won’t use all of the questions below with every interviewer, so pick the ones that are most important to you. If you’re deciding between multiple offers, ask the same questions across organizations so you can compare responses.

Figure Out How the Company Engages and Supports Employees

With these questions, your goal is to see how engaged employees are and whether they feel like they have a good “deal” with their employer. That includes growth opportunities and support—even when projects don’t meet desired outcomes.

Companies who really live their values integrate them into their talent management processes. You’ll see those values showing up in everyday behaviors and important decisions, not just displayed on the walls and coffee mugs.

Here are five questions you can ask to get a better sense of company values and employee engagement:

What makes you proud to work at this company?

How does the organization support your professional development and career growth?

Is risk-taking encouraged, and what happens when people fail?

What role do company values play in hiring and performance reviews?

What’s one thing you would change about the company if you could?

Figure Out How the Company Deals With Conflict and Politics

Conflict is everywhere—and that can be a good thing! Healthy conflict allows employees to share and resolve multiple viewpoints. When people consistently avoid conflict, differences fester and may lead to resentment. On the other hand, high-performing teams have a productive approach to disagreement and problem solving, so that everyone feels heard.

Additionally, strong leaders are open to innovation. The best managers share real-time feedback—be it positive or constructive. A lack of two-way feedback may be a sign of conflict avoidance.

Here are five questions you can ask to gain a clearer understanding of conflict and politics at a given company:

What causes conflict, and how is the conflict resolved?

How would you describe “organizational politics” at the company?

How are decisions made when there’s disagreement and stakes are high?

When and how do people like to give and receive feedback?

Titles aside, who in the organization has the power to gets things done?

Figure Out What the Day-to-Day Work Environment is Like

Naturally, you want to join a company that recognizes people’s achievements, celebrates success, and cares about its employees and the community.

And if you’re hoping to work remotely or find a job that fits your schedule, you should definitely probe the organization’s flexibility during the interview process. Choose a place where people have fun, feel valued, and where the environment fits your needs.

Here are five questions you can ask to gain more insight into the work environment:

What are some of the ways the company celebrates success?

How do you as a manager—or, if more appropriate, how does your manager—support and motivate your team?

What kind of flexible work arrangements do people have?

Do you have a matching gifts program or sponsor local volunteer events?

If you have a specific need, ask about it. For example, “I take my kids to school on Wednesdays, is it OK if I come in late once a week?” (Note: Save a question like this for a final interview. If it’s the very first question you ask—before questions like these—it could count against you.)

Remember, every company has a unique value system, approach to conflicts and internal politics, and working environment. If someone tells you otherwise, be suspicious! While the only way to know what a company is really like is to experience it first hand, investing time upfront and learning as much as you can help minimize surprises.


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