How Can I Learn About A Company's Culture?

Posted on June 02, 2017

The answer to "How can I learn about a company's culture?" is "You can ask them about it."

You can ask your prospective hiring manager almost anything, but most job-seekers don't dare!

We say we want to learn about a company's culture, but the one activity that would tell us exactly what we need to know — asking questions, that is — is also the thing most job-seekers are afraid to do.

You can ask your hiring manager questions like these:

1. What are the working hours for this job? What are your expectations around overtime, and reaching employees (me in particular) after hours?

2. What determines whether people get pay raises here, and the size of the pay increases they get?

3. What would you say are the best and worst parts of this job?

4. What is likely to be the hardest or most aggravating aspect of this job, so I'm prepared?

5. How do people get promoted here? What kind of career path would you expect for someone in this job?

6. Tell me a story about the culture — a story that illustrates how your top leaders operate.

7. How is the company doing business-wise? Has the company been growing? By how much? How does that growth rate compare with the company's goals for the same period?

8. What are the company's financial goals for 2017 and beyond?

9. What are you and the other managers most worried about in the competitive landscape?

10. What are the biggest projects and initiatives on the horizon for the rest of 2017, and for 2018? What are the biggest challenges in reaching those goals?

When consultants talk with companies that might need their help, they ask pointed questions.

Why are consultants' conversations with prospective client organizations different from job-seekers' conversations with their hiring managers?

There is no difference except that job-seekers are tentative about asking "nosy" questions whereas most consultants, who have grown muscles through harsh experience, aren't the slightest bit tentative.

Good consultants, in fact, tell prospective clients "If you have no problems, then it makes no sense to hire me. If you aren't comfortable talking about what isn't working in the organization right now, I understand completely — and in that case I'll take off and leave you to your busy day!"

The questions above are not nosy. They are pragmatic. The right hiring manager will be happy to answer them!

If your hiring manager doesn't know the answers to these questions, that's a huge red flag right there.

Almost all of us have been trained to play the Good Little Job Seeker and to act meek and mild when we're interviewing for a job. That's why we walk into bad working environments over and over again.

When we treat a job search as an exercise in pleasing people and making them want to hire us, we leave our own needs out of the picture. We forget that we have a decision to make — at least as significant a decision as the employer's decision about whom to hire!

If you feel nervous about asking sensible questions like "What happened to the last person in this job?" or "What are our expectations from me on the weekends?" then you already know that there is an unacceptably high level of fear in the culture. Your trusty gut is your best guide.

It is easy to see fear in other people. It is harder to spot our own fear! You may be afraid to ask reasonable questions that any job-seeker would have.

If you feel hesitant talking about real-world topics like unpaid overtime, reachability on the weekends and pay raises in the future, then Mother Nature has a lesson to teach you. If you take the job, you will be rolling the dice.

If you ask the "nosy" questions on the list above and lots of other "nosy" questions, you'll see how your hiring manager and the company recruiter react. If they are affronted at your impertinence, run away!

If they don't like your questions, then you already know you don't want the job.

You can check out Glassdoor to read the reviews other people have left about your possible future employer. You can watch the interactions between the employees you see in the facility when you are there interviewing.

You can ask your friends what they've heard about the organization, but the direct approach is the best approach. Only a manager who will happily answer all your questions is a manager worth working for.

The only way to grow your muscles is to use them. When you know a hiring manager is interested in you, it's time to start asking pointed questions.

There will never be a better opportunity to hear the truth — but you have to step through your fears

if you want to hear it!

Liz Ryan is CEO/founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter and read Forbes columns.