The 7 questions to ask to understand company culture

Though previous generations were mostly concerned about getting hired, these days, the most talented of professionals are pickier about their place of employment.

As workplace culture expert and author Joanna Dodd Massey, Ph.D. explains, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers would accept a job offer, even if the company was notorious for having a bad culture, but Gen Z and Millennials value happiness much more. “Young adults care more about workplace well-being than material benefits. They want personal and professional opportunities, as well as good relationships with their colleagues,” she explains. “The toxic workplace culture of the 70s and 80s that Hollywood made movies about doesn’t appeal to Gen Z, who will leave a company that doesn’t have a supportive work environment.”

If you prioritize a positive, accepting and open culture when looking for a new opportunity, it’s important to ask the right sorts of questions. Not only do the interviewer’s responses provide a clue to how the company functions, but watching for body language clues can speak volumes, too. Here, the right types of inquiries that provide perspective on culture:

What are the ways the company creates a collaborative atmosphere in the workspace?

The keyword here is collaborative. While start-ups are inherently better at creating this type of experience, 100-year-old brands are starting to look for ways to open up the conversation. As a career expert, author, and founder of FemCity, Violette de Ayala explains, you’re looking for insight about how the company brings together team members and how focused they are on this component of the culture. “This will also share if the environment is more cut-throat or harmonious in how it practices the company principles,” she adds.

What is the rhythm to the work around here?

This question might feel a little uncomfortable since it isn’t the typical way to approach the discussion. Sometimes, interviewers will ask ‘walk me through a typical work week’, which prompts the hiring manager to talk about the basic functions — not the interpersonal perspectives. That’s why Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopInterview, suggests adding ‘rhythm’ to the script. This provides the opportunity for the interviewer to take a holistic view of the role and the department. “Ask if there’s a time of year — or month or week — where it’s busiest and the team will be expected to work through all hours of the night, or if it’s pretty consistent throughout that time period,” she suggests. These follow-up qualifiers will signal the amount of balance within the company between being ‘on’ and being ‘off.’ 

What is the workspace set-up?

Is it an open working space? Do managers and executives have individual offices? Does the company offer co-working spaces? Can work be completed virtually? Though it seems like a standard question, de Ayala says this response will share a lot about innovative and progressive an environment is — or is not. Though some people prefer to have a floor pan sans-cubicles, others like to have a bit of a barrier between themselves and their colleagues. By asking this question, you can sense if the set-up will prove productive and beneficial for you. 

Would it be possible to get a tour of the office?

While Augustine says you probably want to hold off on this question until you’ve made it through at least one round of interviews, this is one of the most significant ways to understand a culture. And how a recruiter or a hiring manager respond to your ask can give you a clue if they’re interested in moving forward. If they jump on the chance to show you the digs first-hand, then you’re probably in the clear. “If you get to take the tour, pay close attention to your surroundings. Are the workers nestled in cubicles or sitting visibly in an open-plan design? How loud or quiet is it? Is the break room stocked with energy drinks and beer or kombucha and green tea?,” she explains. “These details will help you determine whether this is the right work environment for you.”

“Your website described your culture like ____. Can you provide an example?”

Your first instinct may be to inquire about the company values from a surface level. Though this makes sense, psychotherapist and author Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EDM explains you’ll only receive a standard, a scripted response by asking ‘What are your values?’ However, when you illustrate that you’ve done your Googling homework and challenge them to provide an example, you’ll know right away how important culture is to the brand. “You will either get a response that shows they embody their values, like ‘We have biweekly game days on Friday afternoons! Last week we had a water balloon fight’, or you will get a blank stare, which tells you that they do not live their values,” she explains.

What kinds of people are successful — and unsuccessful — at this company?

What it takes to excel at one office isn’t what’s required at another. And when you’re jumping ship for a new sail into the unknown, it’s important to decipher if your unique style and perspective is a match. Augustine says this question will get to the heart of what traits the executive team values most, and how that’s impacted their on-site culture. “Read between the lines of your interviewers’ responses to get a better understanding of the types of people who thrive in this work environment — the ‘A players’ — and those who don’t,” she adds.

What do you like most about the company?

Pay close attention to the word choices your interviewer uses to describe the benefits of the company. Though some will express sincere, genuine examples, others will sound more robotic and scripted. If it’s the latter… you probably don’t want to follow in their footsteps since they might be unhappy. “Pay attention to body language, as well,” Maenpaa continues. “If they smile while answering the question, lean forward, or use their hands to describe what they like about it, those are good signs they are being honest.”