It’s hard to get a real sense of a company’s culture in a 20-minute interview, so here’s what to look for.
BY STEPHANIE VOZZA
If you have a skill that’s in demand, chances are you’ve received more than one job offer. Money or a title may be tempting, but don’t jump at your first opportunity—you could be walking into a toxic work environment, says Piyush Patel, author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work.
“It’s difficult to know a company’s culture in a 20-minute interview,” he says. “Everybody’s on their best behavior, and the skeletons are hidden. If you’re a great candidate, people are trying to sell you and recruit you. They’re not going to tell you anything bad.”
You might assume you can assess a company by looking at review sites like Glassdoor, but they aren’t always accurate, says Tom Gimbel, CEO of the staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network. “Like anything, more people go online to complain than praise,” he says. “The majority of reviews are going to be negative. Don’t discount them, but don’t be blinded because somebody you don’t know had a bad experience. You may have different views on work, life, and business.”
Instead, get a feel for the culture by playing detective. Here are seven subtle clues that can provide insight:
1. OBSERVE THE START OR END OF THE WORKDAY
You can tell a lot about the environment by watching employees. If your interview is in the morning, go at the start of the workday and observe employees.
“Are they running late, walking in like they don’t want to be there?” asks Patel. “Or do they come in early, talking and mingling with coworkers?”
On the flip side, pay attention to the end of the workday. Do employees perform a mass exodus right at 5 p.m.? Do they look relieved to be done with work? These are signs that the culture is bad.
2. ASK ABOUT CORE VALUES
Companies often have a list of core values, such as “quality first,” “teamwork,” and “collaboration.” It’s one thing to list values, but you want to learn if they live them, says Patel.
“During your interview, ask what they are, and then say, ‘Can you share some stories about how people live your core values on a regular basis?’” he says. “If they can’t readily tell you stories, they’re not living them.”
3. TALK TO PEER GROUPS
A company with a good culture will often have candidates talk to the employee who previously had the role they’re being interviewed for, says Gimbel. “If they can’t show you somebody who’s grown out of the role and is still with the company in a different capacity or vertical, then they’re hiding something,” he says. “Meeting with a peer provides a perspective about upward mobility.”
You can also contact peer employees on LinkedIn before an interview, adds Patel. “Say, ‘I’m thinking about applying for a job there. What do you love about your job?’” he suggests. “You’d be surprised how much they’ll share.”
4. FIND OUT IF THE EXECUTIVE TEAM IS PRESENT
While you may not meet with the CEO or C-suite members, knowing that they are involved in the business on a day-to-day basis is a sign of opportunities for growth and promotion, says Gimbel. “If you have a C-suite that’s present and involved, it makes for a lot more continuity,” he says.
5. TAKE A TOUR
If you aren’t given a tour of the office, ask for one, says Patel. “Pay attention to employees’ desks,” he says. “Do they have a picture of family members on their desk, or does it look like they keep the bare minimum? When you’re living in a temporary space, you don’t move a lot of stuff in. Desks are the same way, and they can be an indicator of how long people plan to stay.”
6. NOTICE SMELLS
If you’re interview is around lunchtime, see how many employees are working while eating their lunch. “If you work in an organization that respects you and your time, they’re going to let you have time to eat,” says Patel. “If not, how much work do you have that you can’t pause to eat?”
Companies should encourage people to take a break, or sit with coworkers and people from different department to eat and talk. “It’s building a tribe versus hurry up and get your work done,” says Patel.
7. CHECK OUT THE RESTROOM
Before you leave, ask to use the restroom and look for two things: a mess and how much toilet paper there is.
“When people don’t respect a space, they’ll leave it a mess,” says Patel. “It’s easy to happen in a bathroom because it’s private and seems like nobody’s looking, but it reveals character.”
What’s worse, though, is finding an empty toilet paper roll. “That demonstrates an attitude of ‘That’s not my job,’” says Patel. “You don’t want to work with somebody like that. They’re not a team player. When you take the last piece of toilet paper and don’t make an attempt to refill it, you know you’re about to be a jerk. Employees have the choice to act like a team or not.”