How do I figure out workplace a job-seeker?
December 28, 2013 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently employed, but looking for a new position, due in part to cultural aspects of my current job that are a bad fit. How do I figure out the culture of a prospective employer without dooming my candidacy?

These are the kinds of issues I'm talking about:

1) My current job requires me to start at 9 a.m. Most days I'm the first one in (and well before 9), but I've also been scolded for arriving at 9:07. This is not shift work, and no one is affected by my running a few minutes late. I don't have a problem with being at work at 9, but I do have a problem with being talked to on the rare day that I'm not. Ideally I'd work for a company that doesn't care when you start as long as you get your work done, but realistically I'd like to find a manager who trusts me to arrive at a reasonable time and notify him/her if I'll be significantly delayed.

2) My boss won't permit me to wear headphones (which is how I best drown out distractions and focus on work), claiming it's unprofessional, but she has no problem with my coworkers making numerous personal calls a day from their desks. This seems illogical and unfair.

3) Everyone in my current department has worked together for more than a decade. I've been there less than two years. I don't mind being friendly with coworkers--hell, I met my spouse when we worked together years ago!--but I'm also tired of being the odd one out through no fault of my own.

4) Although my company allows telecommuting, no one in my department is permitted to work from home except my boss--not even on an occasional, circumstantial basis like waiting for a repairperson to arrive.

None of these are dealbreakers, and I understand that companies have reasons for the way they do things. I guess what I'm looking for is a place that is thoughtful about these kinds of issues and values employees enough to address them. I wouldn't care so much about not being permitted to work from home except that no one can explain to me why I can't. So how do I find those kinds of companies and managers?

I always look through a company's site and skim Glassdoor before an interview, but often those aren't specific enough. What kinds of questions can I ask in an interview or a networking situation to suss out these kinds of things--and how can I ask in a way that doesn't make me look like a terrible candidate?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
To me, questions like, "What is your work culture like?" will lead to some of the information you're looking for. Also ask what people's typical hours are, and how long the person interviewing you has been with the company. It is perfectly okay to ask about telecommuting, too. The only thing I absolutely would not ask about is the headphones. To me, it's going to be very rare that you'd be allowed to do that, depending on what industry you're in.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:50 AM on December 28, 2013

It's perfectly reasonable to ask what kind of boss your potential boss is like. Tell him or her that you prefer to work in an environment where you're allowed the freedom to work on projects with minimal oversight (after proving yourself, of course) and with the freedom to make many of your own decisions.

You can also ask how the company is you see a lot of new faces regularly? Do people get promoted or move around in the company? That is (to my ears) a better question than, "Will I always be the newest person here?"

The headphones thing is tricky, depending on what you do. I'm in an office where people wear them all day long, but the floor is 95% programmers who have to concentrate on what's in front of them most of the time.

Telecommuting is also something that a manager either believes in or doesn't, so I would just ask outright.
posted by xingcat at 7:03 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Companies may have a culture that one manager will put the kibosh on. I worked for one prior to my current job. Telecommuting was predominant, except under our manager. SHE telecommuted and didn't want her reports to do so! If you want the ability to telecommute, when you speak to the hiring manager, simply say, "I enjoy the flexibility of flex-time and telecommuting occasionally, is that an issue for you?" Basically, ask for what you want. If it's a good fit they want to make you happy too.

At my current job, everyone is plugged into their music with headphones. When walking through the office, you'll see it. You can comment on it in your discussion with the hiring manager, "Hey, lots of folks listening to music here, that's great."

As for who your work friends are, you have NO control over that. I've found as I get older, that I'm less and less a part of the "friend-clot". I'm friendly with my co-workers, but given that I could be their mom, we don't have meshing interests, I go my way at 5 and they go theirs.

You are at your job to work. The most important thing is salary, bonus and benefits. These are very small issues, and if this is the worst thing you're encountering at your are very lucky indeed. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be looking for something better, just realize that if your current manager moved to a different job tomorrow, everything you dislike about your job would change over-night.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just ask the questions that you want to ask. If they are offended by the questions you just got the answer you were looking for. No awesome, flexible, telecommuting friendly company is going to shred your resume because you asked about telecommuting in the interview.
posted by COD at 7:06 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

"The only thing I absolutely would not ask about is the headphones. To me, it's going to be very rare that you'd be allowed to do that, depending on what industry you're in."

Every job I've ever had that didn't require face-to-face contact with customers allowed employees to wear headphones. This was across several industries: manufacturing, online sales, academia, and general office work.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:08 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Even within a company a lot depends on your manager. #1 and 2 seem to fall under micro-managing. So ask questions about their management style and also about what it takes to be successful as an employee and what their expectations are. For #3 you can ask questions about the team.

Telecommuting you can ask about directly.

I have a friend who has asked to see where she would be sitting if she took the job, that might be something to consider.

The ideal is to know someone who has worked under that manager, and ask them. But often that's not possible.
posted by bunderful at 7:17 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Flexible hours and working remotely is not at all uncommon, depending on the industry. Headphones at work is also common. But more to the point, why would it matter if you use your headphones at work as long as you're getting your work done and you're never interacting with customers or clients? Your boss sounds like an old fogey who is set in his ways.

I personally hate being poorly managed. I want to be treated like a responsible adult and a respected professional at work, not like an indentured servant. I consider arbitrary and inflexible restrictions on how I can work, given with no reasoning or explanation, a form of mistreatment.

However, I agree with Ruthless Bunny that bad management can make any job a nightmare, no matter the pay or the perks or the culture. My first job was generally laid back and attracted like-minded people, so I stayed there for a few years. But my first position at the company was under a horrible, controlling junior manager who freaked out if you weren't at your desk at 9am sharp or if you were looking at your computer during a meeting (we were in software, so we constantly needed to look at our computers). Worse, he communicated these policies in a passive aggressive and condescending manner. One day he invited me to a mystery meeting and handed me a sheet of paper that said I needed to be more punctual. We sat right next to each other! This guy was simply not cut out to be a manager. Other managers I had at the company were fine.

But as a job applicant, there's not much you can do about the failings of your individual manager if you don't even know who he or she will be yet. You have to trust that the company you're going to work for is smart enough to sniff out lousy managers in the hiring and promotion process. When you're looking for a job, it is sensible to try to find companies that prioritize giving their employees the tools they need to do their best work over the whims of individual managers.

If you are a professional and a responsible person, you don't need someone imposing arbitrary constraints on how you perform your job. I would just focus on your own professional needs when this comes up in an interview – e.g., "I work best with headphones on to avoid distractions in the office.", "I'm usually in the office by 9am but sometimes the train is running late in the mornings, is that going to be an issue?", "Working from home once a week helps me avoid feeling burnt out, and helps me get my projects done. Is that an option in this position?"

Also, it helps to ask the people at the bottom of the food chain about the company culture rather than the HR people or the hiring manager. I recently interviewed at several companies that explicitly forbid working remotely for any reason. When I asked the HR people why, reasons ranged from "well, we tried it and we [meaning the CEO or some other important person] didn't like it" to the vague and unhelpful "that's not how we work best". Often these policies are set by an executive somewhere up the chain of command. Managers are often reluctant to discuss management policy, but the people at the bottom of the food chain will spill their guts when pressed.

posted by deathpanels at 8:02 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to straight up asking about work culture I would ask the person you interview with (if the person would be your supervisor), what their management style is? Do they have regular check-ins with employees? How often are there staff meetings? How does he/she like to motivate/incentivize staff?

I've worked in situations where there is a lot of active management and others where there isn't and I have my preference. Asking those kinds of questions will get you a lot of the information you seek.

One thing to note, I would wait to ask these questions in a 2nd round of interviews when you know for sure the company has some actual interest in you. Then they're interested in meeting your needs.

Also if you make it to a second round of interviews ask if you can meet or interview with other staff. That's a chance to ask the culture/management questions from other people.
posted by brookeb at 8:14 AM on December 28, 2013

I think you're really smart to think about these issues of work culture, as it's things like this that impact your day-to-day life a lot more than a small pay increase or a cool job title.

That said, I would strongly suggest not asking these specific questions in the job interview.

The goal of a job interview is to get the job. That's it. You should ask questions...but you should ask questions that will help you get the job. Generic questions about the work culture are fine...but specific questions about work hours, telecommuting and headphone use are probably not, in and of themselves, the best representation of who you are as a worker. While I think what you wrote above is completely legitimate, if a candidate asked me those three questions in a job interview, I'd consider those red flags. If asked to explain it to someone who wasn't in the interview, I'd probably point to the questions and say that I had concerns about whether you were a hard worker who got along well with others, or whether you were just a lone wolf who wanted to work from home all the time. Maybe that's not fair - but in interviews you have to make quick judgments based on the info people are giving you - and often the questions they ask are some of the best indications you have of the types of problems that might come up with that employee.

So, I'd suggest instead that you go into the interview only with the intention of getting the job. Only ask questions that contribute to the interviewers seeing you in a positive light.

After you get the job offer, that's when I'd ask to schedule a follow-up conversation with the manager and a member of the team. You can say that you're deciding between jobs and have a few follow-up questions about the position. Then ask all your questions (plus probably some specific questions about the work itself). Once you've been offered the job, you're more likely to get detailed answers, and you won't hurt your candidacy. Good luck!
posted by leitmotif at 9:08 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

1) Ask "What are the regular hours like?" "Does everyone have the same schedule?"
- my work for instance people arrive anywhere from 8am to 9:30am, and just must work for 8 hours.

2) "I tend to focus better if I can listen to my own music, are headphones encouraged?"
-I would bring this up after larger questions are answered. Or perhaps not bring it up at all. (Or maybe bring it up when a job is offered like "In getting prepared for this job I'm wondering if I can bring headphones."
Although, I would just pop in headphones when going to work and if it's an issue they'll let you know. Literally everyone in my department uses headphones when they work. (My coworker even gifted people headphones for Christmas.)

3) This one is a little trickier. Maybe ask about the tenure of others or if they have been expanding? I'm not sure if there's a way to figure this out in a standard interview. Maybe just asking about the company expansion as a whole as that generally will let you know if new people have been joining.

4) I think it's totally fine to ask about telecommuting. "I undertand my job is to be in the office, but I was wondering about the possibility of telecommuting if needed." You can even say you've telecommuted in the past (if you have).

I would also wait to ask these things until the "do you have any questions for us" section. But yea just start with "Can you tell me more about the day-to-day routine and the office culture? Is it more relaxed and casual." etc.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:45 AM on December 28, 2013

I just went through a lengthy job search and I had some of the same concerns as you. I was very picky about office culture and lifestyle and spoke to many companies.

Basically, I asked upfront about work-life balance (which is code for "how long are the hours?") and that gave me pretty good insight. The position I just accepted was one where when asked about that question, they said it's a flexible place and I will be able to set my own expectations for how early I come in. Some people are there at 8, others will get in some time before 10. They said if something breaks at 5 p.m., normally they will deal with it the next day. And telecommuting is not a big deal and they will let people work from home, they told me unprompted. The places I did not accept a job at were places who answered that question with red flags. Multiple places told me things like "We're getting better at it" and "we're trying to find a better balance for people." Basically, I wanted to say "Well call me once you've figured out how to let your employees have a life." I don't really plan to telecommute or come in at 10, but the option and not feeling the pressure is nice. I've worked at places where I got scolded for coming in at 9:07am and it's some serious bullshit. The company I've accepted a job for sounds results oriented -- they don't care how you get the job done, as long as you get it done. It sounds like that's what you need. I did ask some places what a typical day is like and how my role would interact with the other departments or higher-ranking staff, which gave some good insight too.

The other helpful thing is going there for an interview and talking to as many people as you can. I think this company I just accepted with was ready to hire over the phone since I am out of state, but I insisted on a face-to-face interview and I was fortunate that they set aside time for me to meet with a whole bunch of people in the company. That really gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions and explore different areas of the office to see what it was like. Insist on meeting there and getting an office tour, and try to interview with multiple people. For me, it was a little daunting to have that many in-person interviews, but I came into the situation with an upper hand as they seemed to want me and I was still unsure. By asking people what the company could be doing better with regards to my position or what the company needs to do more of in the future, I got a good sense of what their weaknesses were and, fortunately for me, they need skills I bring to the table in a big way. Everyone seemed pleased about the organization itself, which was reassuring. If you're going to be picky and cautious, you might as well insist on meeting multiple people and really get a feel for the place.

I'll let you know if a couple months if the job is everything I hoped for. ;)
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:46 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I see all the other responses now, and I would never ask about running late or how long the hours are on a job interview. Never. I don't know what level you are, and maybe that makes a difference -- I am a step above "professional," so I guess I am "managerial" but not executive -- but if I said "How long are the hours" or "Is it OK if I am late sometimes" I wouldn't be surprised if prospective employers thought I was already planning to come in late and leave work early. I think these people are giving you bad advice. Ask about work-life balance because every office knows their workers have lives; do not ask about being late for work, for goodness sake. You can also straight-up ask what the office culture is like and see what they say. If they don't know how to answer the question, you can ask what the management style is like or what the typical day-to-day is like.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:57 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think that you can answer a lot of these questions by observation of the office during your interview. People wearing headphones would indicate that it is allowed. Otherwise, it may not be. As someone who interviews job applicants, I would find the question of "can I wear headphones while I work?" to be off-putting. I don't know your industry, so maybe that sort of thing is more commonplace. FWIW, questions about "work-life" balance are a red flag for me as an interviewer.

Is your job one where people punch a clock and are expected to be timely? My experience is that salaried employees are generally not going to get a hard time about rolling in at 9:15. Things are stricter for hourly employees, which I take from your question because headphones would be used for cancellation of aural distractions in a cubicle or open-floor office - salaried employees would be more likely to have an office with a door that could be closed.

I'm afraid there is nothing that can be done to change your newcomer status. At any new job, you will automatically be the newcomer.

On telecommuting, I think this again depends on the industry. I'm a lawyer, and it wouldn't make sense for an hourly staff member to work from home. Salaried lawyers might do it on occasion like waiting for a home repair or while sick, but it's not a regular occurrence. As someone who interviews, I would find a telecommuting question not to be very positive. Other industries might be different. I think it is worth considering that if your job can be done from home, your job can be done from anywhere on the planet by someone who is not you.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:36 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

A question about tenure is probably fine even during the interview process -- shows engagement -- something like "What's the typical tenure at the company and background of the people who'll be my colleagues" (or if you get to meet the colleagues, ask them this directly.)

After you get the offer a generic question about business hours and a neutrally worded question on telecommuting ("How often do staff work from home or the road") would be appropriate, but don't expect to get a straight answer on whether its a big deal to show up a bit late or leave a bit early. Unless you punch a clock or would earn overtime, that's going to be very informally policed, and by colleagues, subordinates and clients as much or more than by bosses -- in other words, your boss might make murmurings about just-get-the-job-done professionalism, but your group might actually have a group meeting that starts at 9:00 sharp every morning.

I don't think you should ever ask about wearing headphones on the job. Give yourself a few weeks on the job to figure out that kind of cultural thing, and only wear headphones if most other people are doing so.
posted by MattD at 1:29 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked in a newsroom with a somewhat difficult head editor — the type of person who would humiliate you in front of coworkers just to put you in your place, but who would also go to bat for you in front of corporate. It was SOP when we were considering new hires for the reporting staff to take the interviewee out for a few drinks after the interview, SANS editor. It was very important for everyone in that newsroom to mostly get along, so it was as much the prospect interviewing us as it was us interviewing them. The alcohol loosened things up a bit and allowed people to talk about the culture of the office without the editor hanging overhead.
posted by Brittanie at 5:54 PM on December 28, 2013

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