Please not another Guess Culture office!
September 21, 2010 11:20 AM   Subscribe

What questions can I ask to suss out the corporate culture of a new place to work? Also, how short a gig is too short a gig?

I've been with my company for a year and a half, and I'm starting to look for a new job. This current gig came with a few warnings signs, but I needed the work and so took it anyway. Please help me not make the same mistake in my next job!

You know that part of the interview where they ask "Do you have any questions for me"? I'd like to use that time to best determine whether the new office is right for me.
What questions can I ask to figure out if the new boss (and new office culture) and I will get along?
Here are some ideas I've had so far:

Me: How's the documentation for processes here at ABC Corp? How's communication amongst the group here? Do you hold regular staff meetings?
Prospective Boss: Oh, we don't really have any. You can come to me with any questions you have.
(My conclusions: Boss is an information silo, likes to hold the reins of power. Doesn't share.)

Me: What would my training look like?
PB: We'd match you with someone currently in the role to be your point person. We're all a friendly bunch though, (etc)
(Conclusions: yay, they seem to care about helping the newbie out, and the use of "we" sounds like there's some camaraderie here)

Me: How many people are on staff that do (role they're hiring for)
PB: Just you!

Also, that 18 months I've been here? About 12 months too long. I knew this wasn't a great fit for me about 6 months in, but I was afraid to start looking to move then because I didn't want to seem like a "job hopper". (My personal employment history going backwards is 3 months at previous contract, then 9 years full time, then 2 years full time) Am I being too paranoid? I know short periods of employment can be explained away with "it wasn't a good fit", but is there a time limit after which that just sounds like sour grapes?
posted by travertina to Work & Money (13 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
How many people are married/ have kids?

People with families tend to arrive and leave work right on time. Younger, single people can tend to stay at work later, which leads to being expected to work later, which can lead to being relied upon to work later. A large percentage of young single people can be really fun and energizing, don't get me wrong, but it can definitely lead to hours creep and work/life balance issues.
posted by spatula at 11:32 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're a developer, you can quiz them on their processes and methodology. What is their process like from product design to development? What is their take on testing?

For instance, I learned the hard way that pairing all the time is unfortunate.

Other than that, I would imagine figuring out if they have a corporate firewall, what is their dress code, do they let you work from home, do they have flex time, etc.

In regards to job hopping, it looks like you've already got a solid resume. Short term gigs are fairly standard if you're a contractor - but in regards to my full time employment, I just drop places under 3 months.

Mind you, I'm at the beginning of my career so employment gaps are easier to explain.
posted by pmv at 11:40 AM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: My big question is about work/life balance - "What can you tell me about the company's culture in regards to work/life balance?" Just say that. If they ask me more, I say, "Well, I find I'm most productive when I have clear breaks from my work, otherwise I'll always be working," and smile. That gets you out of it.

I realize that in asking it it is likely going to be a flag for slave drivers. That's fine, I don't want to work there if you're a slave driver.

It's tough, because the people hiring you are there to sell you on the position. If you get to walk around the office at all, see what the vibe is, how people look, what the atmosphere is like. Friendly places will feel friendly. Unfriendly places will have people who are focused on what they're doing and no eye contact with anyone at all. Are the desks jammed together like a sweatshop? Are there cubicles or dividers? Are people getting up and walking around or does everyone seem like they're on a frantic deadline? If you can't get a chance to walk around, ask the receptionist if you can use the restroom before you leave, that might get you more of a view of the office.

As for how long is too short, it depends on the industry and what you do. In technology, to stay at a company for 5 years would be a very long time (with exceptions at the giants). But I've come to the realization that anyone who cares passionately about job hoppers wants someone so docile and complacent who will never, ever, ever leave their job. And these are employers in at will states.

18 months is not a job hopper. You came in and gave it a shot. I wouldn't say "it wasn't a good fit," I would say that you'd outgrown your position and it was a small company with no room for advancement. I would never advocate saying "it wasn't a good fit" even if it wasn't. I would talk about wanting to explore other interests or that you'd learned X and wanted to take your career in that direction or that business had been very slow and you weren't busy enough - there are a million other things you can say besides "wasn't a good fit" that will make you look good. That doesn't make you look good.
posted by micawber at 11:41 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: What are the advancement paths here at MoFoCo?

This could help you discover if they like to promote/hire from within, if there are formalized mechanisms for moving people around within the org, or whether you stand a chance of basically being pigeonholed at your hired position.
posted by jquinby at 11:44 AM on September 21, 2010

How much work actually gets done at the bar? There's probably a more politic way to phrase that, but I have yet to find it.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:44 AM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: Hah, well from your examples I think we can glean that your current boss dumped you into a poorly-documented position by yourself with no training. I tend to ask about the day-to-day work and how often X, Y and Z happen. I also like to ask about management habits and a nice, classic "why do you want this job?" table-turner is to ask the boss what their management style is. Also, and this may be more projecting from my own history, but ask them how they deal with boss-things that you might experience: what if you come to them asking how to prioritize conflicting tasks? What if people from other departments are tasking you behind your boss' back, will they step up and provide the needed wall? If something necessary is poorly documented, who's responsibility is it?

Thing is, don't start fresh. Your questions ask about policies that myay not be written or may be routinely ignored. Too dry. Instead, put them in terms of the person you are talking to: when was the last training you had? How was it? What do they do if they think a process is poorly documented?

And P.S. if they say only one person is going to be doing the job, that's a clue to ask for more money.
posted by rhizome at 11:48 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've usually just asked, "What's the work environment like?"

My last job, the answer went something like, "We like to work hard and play hard. People around here like challenges and new opportunities, and tend to socialize a lot after work." What that really meant: being paid for forty hours, expected to work eighty. You socialize with your coworkers because you don't have time for any other friends. Horribly understaffed with no intention to hire nearly the number of people they need.

My current job, my (now) boss told me straight up, "If you're consistently working more than forty hours a week, something's wrong. Also, I hope you're going to get your master's degree because we pride ourselves on the number of folks with advanced education." No bullshit here, and I get to go home on time.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:13 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've heard (on some interviewing guide handbook or website?) that asking people about their last vacation is a good question to find out whether the culture encourages employees to feel guilty about taking time off. I think the idea was that if people only ever take long weekends, not actually being gone for a week or more, that's a bad sign.

Of course, my experience at my perfectly reasonable and relaxed workplace is that people with with young kids spend all their vacation days with sick kids, so I'm not sure that question is actually as enlightening as it was intended to be.
posted by aimedwander at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2010

I'm not sure how your would find out this information, but I would want to know what their firing rate is. Do they dump workers in the crapper on a regular basis?
Some bosses see no difference between the words "employer" and unemployer."
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:26 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all! I marked a few besties, but these are all really helpful.

(Thanks also, micawber, for the reassurance on the job-hopper question. I agree that 18 months isn't at all hopper-ish, but I'm realizing that I agree totally with your thoughts on employers who are looking for "docile" workers. Lightbulb! Worries abated!)
posted by travertina at 1:31 PM on September 21, 2010

Questions for the person who would be your direct supervisor:

1. When you made the move to come here, what was the most compelling reason? What keeps you here?
2. Profile your top performer for me. What does he/she do that makes him/her so much better?
3.When it comes to work, what keeps you up at night?
4. How can I stand out in the first 60 days?

Questions for those who would be your peers:

1. When you made the move to come here, what was the most compelling reason? What keeps you here?
2. What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were new here?
3. What are the important pieces of the history of this organization?
4. What has been your biggest surprise? Disappointment?
5. What advice would you give me about being successful in this organization?
posted by John Borrowman at 2:39 PM on September 21, 2010 [10 favorites]

To address your 18 months job-hopper note- of all the places that called me for interviews when I was in the market for a job, only one made any comment about the fact that I have just about 2 years at all of my jobs. They pushed and pushed about the "job hopping" and made me realize that they were a horrible choice for me. No one else cared in the least.
posted by Zophi at 3:32 PM on September 21, 2010

On the job-hopping question, I have several engagements that were less than a year. Being in IT as a manager, I hit the dot-com bubble and several of my jobs were eliminated after I go there (bad luck on my part or bad choices). Anyway, if they ask about it, be honest. Hiring managers can smoke out a lie about why you are leaving. If the job changed from what you expected, say that. It happens to everyone.

I agree with a lot of the comments here, but here are some other questions that I've used to find out about how I would fit in the company.

* Why do you work here? What makes this place special? What keeps you here?
* What do you expect from me within the first 90 days? What will I work on? - Hint: if they can't tell you what you will work on, then they don't have a plan for you!
* Why is this position open? Did some one fill this position before? What were they like? Why did they leave? - If you are being compared to someone who was well liked, you should know what you will be facing. You also want to know if the company is growing or shrinking.
* What kind of tools and technologies do you have to support me? Seriously, if you walk in having worked in a solid tech environment and find your self going 10 years into the past, you will be frustrated.
* Can I see where I will be working? You will be there for 8-10 hours a day. Might as well see where you will be sitting!
* What are your policies for training and development? If they don't have one, then don't expect to get any. If they do, they will sing its praises.
* What social activities or events does the company host? If they have some, then they care at least a little.

Hope this helps.
posted by pxharder at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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