You’re reading an excerpt of Ask Me This Instead: Flip the Interview to Land Your Dream Job, a book by Kendra Haberkorn. This powerful work is written by a veteran recruiter for job-seekers who want to find their dream job—not just the next job. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, worksheets and a question database, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
One of my least favorite questions to be asked by candidates during the interview process was some version of, “What’s the culture like at [COMPANY]?” Because I was asked this question so often, I had many handy responses to rotate through or customize to the candidate I was speaking with, but those answers were never really that great. Culture, for me, is a living, breathing experience made up of and dependent on the behaviors, words, and actions of individuals, team, and the company collectively. There can be dominant themes, and also micro-patterns, present in different pockets of the organization.
And what matters most about culture is a special combination for each and every person. I knew my answers about culture didn’t stack up to reality, but with such a generic question, I often couldn’t do much more. Eventually, I started asking a follow-up question of the candidate to ask them to specify a particular aspect of the culture that they wanted me to talk about so that I could give them information that they might actually find useful rather than a pre-packaged blurb that could have been copied/pasted at one of many different companies.
Because culture is so hard to grasp, I now focus on and emphasize the “employee experience” working somewhere rather than the culture. You can get at “an experience” in much more tangible ways through questions, conversations, and observations throughout the hiring process. They are the foundation of what you might choose to label as culture, and since that’s what I know hundreds of people have asked me about, they are the topics I want you to diligently investigate at each step of the hiring process.
When it comes to employee experience, consider the following:
How does the company present itself on the careers page? Are there video games or volunteer days? Pictures of a beautiful office or an overview of benefits? Does the company’s “personality” come through?
Do you get a glimpse of the makeup of the team? Is it inclusive or homogeneous?
Do you see evidence that people bring their full selves to work? For example, personal photos on their desks, Pride or Black History Month posters, or a dress code that lets people freely show their personality and style?
The actual office or work environment often gets bundled into the employee experience or marketed as a key element of the value proposition. It makes sense, the office is easy to photograph and is something that is generally consistent for the onsite team. If you’re interviewing for a role where you’d be in an office, take in what you see and consider how the environment will work for you. For example, if you know an open workspace is a distracting and unproductive environment for you and that is how their space is set up, ask about the availability of private or quiet workspaces for when you need to focus or if you have the ability to work from home to get a key project complete.
For individuals who have accessibility or health needs for a specific type of space or workstation, ask those questions to the person who is most likely to be informed or able to share accurate information and partner internally to get to the desired outcome. In some cases, you will be able to see their commitment—do they include accessibility information in their interview materials; are there all-gender restrooms available; is there a functional and comfortable lactation room; do the desks and office chairs adjust to different sizes or ergonomic needs, etc.? These questions are best directed to someone in HR who can work through a dialogue about reasonable accommodations for a specific position or worksite while maintaining the appropriate level of privacy and confidentiality. Though it can be difficult to raise these questions during the interview process, understanding whether or not the company not only fulfills the legal obligations but meets your needs is important.
Although many companies and teams were already working remotely in some capacity, the pandemic of 2020 ushered in a new point of view for many on the importance of remote and flexible work arrangements for roles where it is possible to do the work from home and on distributed teams. In the past, some companies prioritized the in-office experience for a variety of reasons including collaboration, community building, perceived productivity, and tradition. With the sudden and extended requirement to work remotely, teams adapted in ways they hadn’t previously thought possible, incorporating new tools and tactics to get the work done, collaborate under a new context, and continue to move the business forward.
If the role you are interviewing for is going to be remote, understanding how the team approaches distributed work, whether or not they have been doing this successfully for a long or short period of time, the tools and technologies the team uses and how they cultivate community and collaboration at a distance is important. As for the “office,” which may now be in your bedroom or kitchen, ask about the budget or equipment provided to set up your workspace.
The pandemic experience will transform the way many companies approach their office space and the way they expect their team members to show up, but even out of that context, confirming that the way the team operates and how it’s evolved will help you make sure it’s an environment that works for you.
Activity: Rank Your Top Priorities
Thinking about your priorities is only the first step. To pursue them requires an extra layer of attention and intention. Putting your priorities at the foundation of your job search enables and empowers you to focus your efforts and target the roles and companies where you’re most likely to find your match.
If you do not put yourself at the center of the search, the company’s priorities will take precedence throughout your conversations and in the final outcome.
Use this section to proactively articulate what you’re prioritizing at this stage in your career. Once you write it out, you’ll find yourself evaluating everything—a job post, a benefits package, a prospective team dynamic—more confidently.
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