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Unpacking Organizational Culture During an Interview

Emily Lamia profile image

Emily Lamia

A woman at the head of a meeting table smiling.

Culture. It’s a big word. But what does it really mean?

We seem to know how to identify bad organizational culture: constant stress, unreasonable workloads, and passive aggressive or mean people. But aside from unlimited snacks, casual Fridays, and a summer picnic, what goes into determining how to define positive organizational culture?

The truth is, everyone’s version of a positive culture is different. This is why it’s important to have your own definition of what a good culture looks like to you in order to truly thrive in your social-impact career.

Start with the elements that are important to you

Begin by thinking about the top three to four qualities or characteristics you envision for a positive work environment. For example, they may be things like:

  • Good work-life balance
  • People are appreciated for their work
  • Organized structures and clear processes (or perhaps, not a lot of structure or processes)
  • People get along and enjoy working together

Once you identify the most important elements, create questions that you would be comfortable asking in an interview to help you uncover whether those qualities are part of the organizational culture.

Craft questions on those elements that go deeper

Sure, you could come right out and ask whether people enjoy working together, but most interviewers or hiring managers are just going to say “yes.”

To get a more honest answer, try asking:

  • How social are people in the office?
  • Do people interact outside of work together?
  • Do people eat lunch at their desks, or together in a lunch room, or do they go out together?
  • Is there any type of organizational committee that focuses on social gatherings and teambuilding?

These questions can help you understand if people are likely to spend time together even when they don’t have to. If they don’t, it may not mean they don’t enjoy working together—but if you’re looking for an office where the relationships continue after five, the above questions may give you at least some of the information you’re looking for. And don't be fooled by the beer on tap! Just because an office has beer in the kitchen, a ping-pong table, and plenty of couches to hang out doesn't mean that the actual culture of the office is a friendly one that encourages social interaction. In an interview, you'll want to ask questions that go beyond those more superficial features in an office setting.

If you’re someone who likes to know what’s expected of you and want to feel supported with your work, you may prefer to have clearly defined systems and processes. To understand how organized a team or workplace may be, ask for an example of a recent project that involved lots of moving pieces and listen for cues. Try asking:

  • How were the project roles divvied up between team members and what was the process for deciding those roles?
  • Were there last minute changes? And if so, how were those communicated and managed?
  • Did things get delivered on time?

If process and structure are important to you, consider asking what type of project management and communication platforms the organization favors.

Conducting research on an organization's culture ahead of time will help you clarify the important questions you want to ask during an interview as well.

Listen and watch for subtle cues

After you ask your questions, keep an eye out for how stressed the person seems when sharing the example and listen not only to what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. Does it take them a long time to find the "right" way to answer your question? Are they vague? Do they look uncomfortable or at ease?

Don't confuse culture elements

Many people would prefer more autonomy and the ability to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to their work. But be mindful that you’re not confusing the ability to have non-standard hours with a need for autonomy and ownership over your work. Wanting to work from home one day a week or take a long lunch may just mean you want flexibility in your day, and not necessarily evidence of a non-negotiable need for autonomy.

Here are a few examples of questions that can help you uncover other parts of organizational culture:

  • How do people know when they’re doing a good job in their work? This question helps you learn about how people are appreciated.
  • How often do you meet with your direct reports? Who’s responsible for the agenda when you do check ins with staff, and what is a typical agenda? This question helps you understand your potential boss’s management style.
  • How many projects do people typically work on at one time and how long do they last? This question helps you understand how varied the work is, and can help you get clarity if you find working on many projects at one time energizing or overwhelming.
  • What would you say are the top three personal qualities that are necessary in order for people to be successful in this organization? Consider what would you think if the answers were confidence, ambition, and stamina versus collaborative, flexible, and curious?

Here are some other approaches and examples of questions to ask that are interview appropriate to help you get more of the inside scoop.

Ask for specific examples

Remember, it’s common for you to be asked in an interview to name specific examples of a time when you did something in particular, or other behavioral questions. Organizations ask these in order to figure out how you’re likely to respond and the track record you bring. Why not ask the same of your interviewer? Ask for specific examples of projects or events, or try an appropriate behavioral question, like "Can you share a story about a time when the team didn't meet a deadline?"

If you’re further along in the interview process, particularly for a newly created role, you can ask "what if" questions to understand how something might play out. For example, "If I were faced with XYZ situation, what would you, as my manager, do?"

It takes time and energy to put this kind of thought into an upcoming interview, but if you want to make an informed decision on organizational culture, it can be a critical effort with a big payoff. This is the difference between doing your homework for an interview and truly preparing for it.

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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.

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