Many companies today aim to hire for “fit” rather than specific skill sets. Skills can be taught, but the innate qualities an employee will need to fit in with the company’s culture and environment — those need to be present from the start.
As a job seeker, it can be tempting to ignore any signs you see that you may not fit in. You really want to be hired, so what’s the harm in trying to be flexible? Well, “18 months into the job, once the shine’s worn off, you’re in a job that stinks,” says Steve Browne, executive director of HR at the LaRosa’s Inc. You’ll be miserable and your employer likely won’t be pleased with you either.
You can save yourself some trouble if you ask about the culture during your interview. Browne recommends open-ended questions that will get people talking and that aren’t seeking any kind of confirmation or denial. “Is your culture great?” is a weak question because obviously your interviewer will never say “no” even though it may not be great. “Anyone can convince you that you want to work there,” Browne says. It’s up to you to delve beneath the sales pitch and see what’s what.
Here are some specific questions that will help.
People love talking about themselves, and most interviewers expect to be asked questions about the company, not specifics about themselves. If you ask this, you may pleasantly surprise your interviewer and she may give up some really useful information.
If you frame this neither positively or negatively — not “what’s your favorite or worst thing about this job” — you’ll likely get a mix of both, Browne says, and this way it won’t seem like you asked for negative information. It will have been offered up willingly.
During the conversation, you can ask additional questions of your interviewer, such as “How is your role appreciated in the office?” and “How do members of your team interact with others?” “This can show you whether the mentality is collaborative, quota-driven or a mix of both,” Browne says.
Asking about a typical day is like opening a secret vault. There’s a wealth of information in there if you listen for it and know how to interpret it.
“This is where you can find out if this position is flexible or structured, if there’s any ambiguity or if everything will be crystal clear and rote,” Browne says. You may hear about how many people in the marketing department are parents and they like starting earlier and finishing in time to get kids from school, or working some at home. You may also hear that the finance team routinely stays late to close out the month, quarter, etc. Both of these responses are fine as long as they’re truthful, but they do give you more information than what it seems on the surface.
Why is the finance team running late every month? They see it coming, so is someone not up to par? Is there a culture of disorganization? On the other hand, because so many people in marketing like the amended schedule, is it now expected of everyone? What if you don’t have kids and want to start later?
This is a good time to interject questions about the company structure to find out if there’s a clear organizational hierarchy and who you’ll be reporting to. Or perhaps you’ll straddle departments or the company takes the “everyone’s a manager” approach. “Whatever your preference is here is fine. Some people really like structure, and others really need or want flexibility. Just be sure you get what works for you,” Browne says.
Anyone can say there’s “room for growth in this role,” but what does that mean? Are they truly grooming people for higher roles or is there no path for promotion? To find out, ask for specifics, Browne says.
If the interviewer says something along the lines of “I got my such-and-such certification last year with help from the company” or “We each go through management classes in our first two years” then that’s a good sign that the company values education and wants people to evolve. If the interviewer says something like “We all had to take harassment training last year. Ugh. That was boring,” that says a lot about the company’s priorities too, Browne says. Now it’s up to you to decide which you prefer.
If you’ve got all the certifications you ever want to have and are sick to death of conferences, look for an organization that won’t require this of you. However, “if you want to be active in professional organizations, attend or speak at conferences, or get additional certifications, ask how that’s viewed,” he says. If this company hates that, you won’t fit.
Additionally, if the organization seems not to prioritize additional training, you should inquire what success will look like in this role at 90 days and one year into the job. Will success mean more skills will be needed? How will those skills be acquired?
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