8 Questions to Ask in an Interview to Truly Understand Company Culture

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on July 22, 2019

You’ve made it to the interview stage of your job hunt, which means that employer thinks you might be a good match for their open position.

But now ask yourself this: Are they a good match for you?

It’s easy to forget that the hiring process is a two-way street. As much as companies are weeding through applicants to find the best fit, candidates are also sussing out organizations to find ones that are most aligned with their values and desires.

However, that’s not always such an easy undertaking. At most, you’re spending only a few hours inside those office walls during the interview rounds—which makes it almost impossible to get an understanding of what that company is really like.

Online research, careful observation, and even conversations with current and past employees can help you discover more about that organization’s culture. But, beyond that, you can also ask some thoughtful questions during the interview process to uncover more about what it’d actually be like to work there.

So, when your interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for me?” at the conclusion of your next job interview, pull out a few of the below. They’ll demonstrate your engagement in the hiring process, while also equipping you with some valuable information you can use to make the best decision about your next career step. 

1. What’s your favorite part about working here?

You’re going to spend at least 40 hours per week at work, which means it’s helpful to actually like your employer. But, that’s more challenging to find than you might think—especially when you consider that 30% of American workers say their job is “just a job to get them by.”

A question like this one puts your interviewer in the hot seat so you can discover more about what people love about working for that organization.

If your interviewer is slack-jawed for a moment before finally saying something about the decent dental plan, that’s a red flag that the culture isn’t quite as rosy as they’d like you to believe. In contrast, if he or she can’t say enough great things about the collaborative atmosphere or the professional development opportunities, that could be a sign that culture has a lot of positives to offer. 

2. What three words would you use to describe the work environment?

Similarly, you can learn a lot by challenging your interviewer to summarize the company culture in just three different adjectives. The key here is to pay close attention to the answers so you can make your best attempt at reading between the lines.

For example, words like “fast-paced” or “high-pressure” might indicate that’s an intense and oftentimes stressful work environment. If you’re looking for something more laidback, that might not be a good match for you.

However, if you hear words like “people-first” and “social,” you’re on the right track if you’re looking for an environment that’s team-centered. 

3. How safe is it to fail here?

I’m willing to bet that you don’t just want to clock in and clock out for a paycheck each day. You want to get off the proverbial hamster wheel and make a real impact for your employer.

That means you need the space and support to take risks and innovate—without the looming fear of failure and potential repercussions.

If creativity and innovation are indeed important to you in your career, this is a great question to ask. The interviewer’s answer will clue you in on how much encouragement you’ll have to push the boundaries and try new things within your position, rather than always sticking with the status quo. 

4. Can you tell me more about how company values [thing]?

When working through any job search, you need to have a good handle on your personal values. What are you looking for in your next career move? What aspects are most important to you?

Maybe you really want an employer who prioritizes professional development and advancement within the organization. Or perhaps you have your eye out for a company who emphasizes volunteerism and social good.

Once you know what really matters to you, don’t hesitate to ask about that directly in the interview to find out more about what initiatives that company has in place to demonstrate and live those values. Doing so will help you zone in on employers who are aligned with your own passions and ambitions. 

5. If you could, what’s one thing you’d change about this company?

Not all of your questions will be positive, and sometimes finding out about potential drawbacks is even more enlightening than hearing the spiel about all of the benefits.

This question is a tough one for interviewers to answer (hey, think of it as your chance to make them sweat!), but it can also reveal a lot of important information about that company’s culture.

Do they wish they had more opportunities to connect with colleagues outside of their own department? Maybe that company doesn’t put on a lot of social events or coordinated activities. Have they been asking for summer Fridays for years? That might mean they haven’t quite jumped on the flexible schedule bandwagon quite yet. 

It’s entirely possible that your interviewer will give a fluffy answer or avoid the question altogether. But, asking certainly doesn’t hurt! After all, a lack of an answer can often tell you just as much (ahem, perhaps employees aren’t encouraged to openly voice their opinions). 

6. Where have past employees in this position gone?

Here’s another one that you might not necessarily get a straight answer to—but it’s still well worth asking. 

Have the people who previously filled this position moved up to other roles within the company? That’s a good sign that they value internal advancement and career development. Have they all left for different employers? If so, how long were they in this position? 

The answers you get here may be limited. However, keep in mind that some level of turnover is totally normal—even the very best employers lose employees on a regular basis. So, remind yourself to take this answer with a grain of salt. 

7. Why do people leave this company?

For those who have actually moved on from that employer entirely (and not just up the ladder internally), ask why people have chosen to leave. Those are likely insights that company has from conducting their exit interviews.

Again, different employers might have restrictions or limitations on how much they can share with prospective employees. But, if you do manage to get an answer, it can tell you a lot about the inner workings of that organization and what drives some of their talent away. 

8. What activities and social events are offered for employees?

There are some people who don’t have a desire to forge a personal connection with their colleagues—they show up, do the work, and go home.

But, for many of us, we’re eager to establish a slightly stronger bond with the people we work with (especially since we spend countless hours with them). So, if that team-centered environment matters to you, ask what that company does to foster some bonding and friendly camaraderie.

Are there regular happy hours? A company kickball league? Gift exchanges? Birthday celebrations? Cross-departmental hack days? 

Whatever it is, get your hands on the specifics about how they blow off some steam and get to know each other. Not only does it give you insight into those extracurriculars, but it also gives you a grasp on just how people-focused they really are.

Get Ready to Find the Right Fit

We all want to avoid that sinking feeling that happens when you start a new job and realize that company isn’t actually a good match for you. 

Yet, it can be tough to assess your compatibility with an employer after only a few very formal hours at a conference room table—when everybody still has their party manners on.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure what it’s like to work somewhere until you’re actually in the thick of things. But, asking your interviewer some of these questions will help you get a better sense of what that work environment is really like. And, when in doubt, remember to trust your gut.

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


Ming (not verified) says...

Almost all of these questions would not work 90% of the time here in Asia. Having been on both sides of the interview table, it's my experience that asking some of these questions will be quite ineffective in this part of the world for the following reasons:

1) Questions like how safe is it to fail, and what social activities does the company organise for staff -- these run the risk of putting off the interviewer and the candidate's application will mysteriously disappear or get rejected with 'acceptable' justifications - e.g. candidate is determined to be too reckless / playful / incompetent /lacking in work ethic / etc.;

2) Many HR personnel (and hiring managers) are so well-versed with the art of BS that even with a question like "why do staff leave?" or "what would you change about this company?" - they would be able to put together a pretty convincing show after perhaps a few-second pause to think. After all, the ability to think quickly on one's feet and window-dress a mess into a win is often the reason why many in Asia get promoted. In Asia, saving face reigns supreme. While it's true that watching the quick pause taken by the interviewer might give you clues, there are also many who are skilled in controlling their facial expressions and body language. You would need to be extremely alert and sensitive to pick up any changes - and even then, your observations would be subject to interpretation error.

If a candidate truly wants to know what it's like working in a given company in Asia, what might be a more effective way to unearth what company culture is really like is to befriend existing employees - and once trust is established, ask about their work, workplace, colleagues and bosses. If you have the chance, the fly on the wall approach can be useful also - e.g. attending a corporate event hosted by that company and then observing the staff when they are not aware that they're being watched. For one prospective employer, I actually sat in a corner of the lobby for a full 3 hours towards the end of the work day on the pretext of 'waiting for a friend' and just watched the staff exiting and eavesdropped on bits and pieces of their conversation.

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