Idealist logoidealist
Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action
Subscribe to Our Newsletter

4 Interview Questions You Should Ask to Uncover Company Culture

Emily Lamia profile image

Emily Lamia

A hand shovel full of dirt.

So… you sent in your resume, you did a 20-minute phone call where they confirmed you’re not a crazy person and they asked you in for an in-person interview.

You’re excited about the job, and you think the organization has the potential to be the right fit for you.

You prep for the interview, arrive on time and share your best responses. You’re feeling pretty good your interview performance and what your interviewer says about the work and the organization.

The end of the interview comes and they ask, “What questions do you have that we can answer for you?”

What you really might want to ask is, “Could you just be honest and open and tell me what it’s really like to work here? Are you a good boss who’s going to let me grow, or are you going to micromanage me to death so I slowly waste away in a cubicle with no development opportunities?

But you can’t say that. So you don’t and you’re left wondering…

What would I really be getting into if I took this job?

I’ve talked with a lot of people about how challenging it is to get the “real scoop” on what it’s like to work somewhere.

One option is to ask someone in the company who you didn’t interview with. If you know someone who works there, you can get a little more real with some pointed questions. And if you don’t have a direct contact, comb through your network and see if there’s anyone you know who can connect you to someone at the organization. Once they make an introduction, you could ask that person about the organizational culture.

This is a great place to start because you can have a more honest conversation. And given the mutual relationship you hold in common, they’re probably not going to lie to you. They might not tell you everything, but you can pick up subtle hints. If they uncomfortable discussing your future boss, or the team you’d be working on, or what the culture is like, these can all be clues.

When it comes to the questions to ask the employer directly, however; it’s important to ask specific questions at the appropriate times. Some questions are appropriate to ask in the interview process. Other ones are better to ask after you’ve gotten the job offer and the ball is placed more firmly in your court.

So here are some of my favorite ways to phrase your questions for your “need to know” answers:

What you want to find out:

Am I going to work in a dysfunctional work environment?

It’s perfectly reasonable that you’ll want to know what you’re getting into before signing your employment agreement. How can you get the information you need without sounding offensive?

Try asking:

The job description noted how “fast-paced” this job/organization is. Can you tell me more about what ‘fast-paced’ means here? Maybe with an example that demonstrates it?”

Getting clear on the way work gets done in this “fast-paced” environment is critical to knowing what you might be stepping into. Remember that the hiring manager’s definition of “fast paced” might be different from yours.

It could mean that you’ll be doing a lot of work very fast even though the work always follows the same timeline, process, and you’d have the same manager and goals.

“Fast-paced” could also mean that the work can shift quickly based on changing priorities or deadlines...or perhaps the process or even the manager might be in flux as well! So ask them to be specific about what this popular descriptor means for them.

What you want to find out: Am I going to be able to grow and develop in this job?

We all want opportunities to learn and grow, and chances are every person who interviews you is going to tell you there is opportunity for that.

Try asking:

Can you tell me about two people here at this organization who have grown in their roles in a significant way? Perhaps a few people who started off in a certain job, and are now in a different role, or whose job has evolved and grown?

Most employers have that one person they think of who actually broke out of an admin job and went onto a different role. Find out if there multiple examples of it, and if it happens on many different teams. Identify whether it was your potential manager who supervised them.

Get specific. Don’t feel bad - you’re just asking for data and facts and examples.

What you want to find out:

Are you a good manager or not?

People usually fall into asking, “What’s your management style?”

Ugh. I hate when people think that this is a good question to ask… it’s not at all specific, so what the person says in response is going to be super vague!

Try asking:

As a manager, how often do you meet with your direct reports? Who’s responsible for the agenda for those meetings?

How do you run meetings? Are there distinctions between meetings that are for day-to-day check in’s on work, verses bigger conversations around performance and development? How often do those happen?

If they are taken aback, or don’t have clear answers, it might indicate that they don’t think of their management style in a very structured way. Maybe that’s good for you! Maybe that’s not so good for you…

Knowing what you need in a manager is super important. If you know how you like to be managed, then the answers to those specific questions can tell you how you’re likely to fit with that potential boss.

What you want to find out:

Is this a fun place to work?

So they tell you about the free snacks, the pizza on Fridays, and the summer picnic. But there is SO much more to culture that’s not food and employee event related.

Try asking:

Do people hang out outside of work, or keep their work and personal lives separate?

What departments or teams are seen as really “cool” or innovative?

How long is average tenure of staff here? If it’s short, why do you think that is? If it’s long, why do you think that is?

Keep in mind that there’s no right or wrong answer to these questions - you just want to learn more and get a better sense and feeling of what you’d be stepping into.

There are tons of other questions you could ask to get under what the company or job is really going to be like. Get creative! And if you know what you’re looking for (with specifics!) you can ask if those elements and characteristics are present in that environment.

Most of all, asking these thoughtful and deeper questions is sure to impress your potential boss with how you approach your work and the consideration and detail you invest in your work.

Emily Lamia profile image

Emily Lamia

Emily Lamia is the Founder of Pivot Journeys, which offers career coaching, group programs, and organizational consulting to teams that want to build strengths-based cultures that increase engagement, collaboration, and productivity.

Explore Jobs on Idealist