So, uh, would you consider your organization a terrible place to work?
March 17, 2014 5:16 PM   Subscribe

How do you tell whether an organization or company is functional and pleasant to work for during the job application process-- before you've committed to them?

I'm a perpetually job searching millennial who does a lot of seasonal work and has worked for a lot of different organizations, some much more functional and healthy than others. I'm mostly working in nonprofits.

I'm specifically tired of working at places where: other people don't do their jobs and I pick up the slack; where I'm asked to put in more time than was agreed upon or is fair for my pay; where I am not given sufficient materials for my job; no opportunity for professional development etc. I think fairly typical stuff of poorly run or failing organizations.

I have also worked at incredible places where I felt totally supported, my time and effort were respected, I learned a ton from the people around me and I had some say in what I was doing and how I was going to realize my projects.

So, my question is: how can I tell organization A from organization B before I start working there, assuming no inside info? I realize nowhere is perfect, but some places are better than others, and there must be some tells. Or are there any questions I can ask during interviews that aren't too direct but will still give me a glimpse?
posted by geegollygosh to Work & Money (29 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Ask your potential employers to speak with a few of their long-term or new hire employees. Some companies build this into the hiring process, but if they don't you can ask the employer for some time with their coworkers/staff. Remember, you're interviewing the company as well.

I also often ask potential employers what the most common complaint about their corporate culture is.
posted by Jairus at 5:20 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know this skirts your question, but I once was on a team that interviewed a guy that I kind of had a lot in common with, and he emailed me offline and took me out for a couple beers and to ask me some polite but more off-line type questions. I don't want to work with someone that's not a good fit any more than they do, so I was truthful with him.

In retrospect, it would be really easy to mess this up on wording, etc, and he didn't do that, and we're a small and casual company - this might be verboten at bigger shops.
posted by ftm at 5:22 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Find someone else in the company that you can do informational interviews with, ideally someone with some sort of personal connection. I've found that the good old "Mefite to Mefite - can you give me a candid perspective on ...." works quite well.

YMMV, I've tried that with good success with alums of my undergrad institution, various fellowship communities I'm part of, etc. It sounds entirely cheesy but it seems to get good results.
posted by arnicae at 5:33 PM on March 17, 2014

Oh and also, find people with some sort of personal connection that no longer work there, ideally people that have quit. Obviously they will have a bit more of a slant on their time at X Company since they've made the decision to move on, but if you want candor, you have a lot better chance with someone who feels like they have moved on.
posted by arnicae at 5:34 PM on March 17, 2014

Agreed that you should get other perspectives from past/present employees. Find the appropriate people in LinkedIn and just message them, I've found people are surprisingly responsive to this if you present as a job seeker for that company. It's a good way to make networking connections within your industry too.
posted by artificialard at 5:41 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The absolute best way is to talk to people who used to work there, or have good friends/SOs/etc who work there. This is often better than talking to people who currently work there, because current employees have lots of reasons to sugarcoat things. But people who used to work there often have more perspective (and aren't as worried about trashing their employer) and friends/SOs of employees will often know the dirt.

If you've worked for lots of different organizations, you probably have a good network of people to call on - cultivate that network!

Another networking thing: do you have former bosses or other older/wiser people you've worked with that you stayed in touch with? Ask them. They will likely know more about the organization, its effectiveness, any weird internal politics, etc.
posted by lunasol at 5:43 PM on March 17, 2014

Do the people who are interviewing you seem to like each other? If there's tension in the air between the people who have already been working together for a while it's almost inevitably going to be a terrible place to work. You can also try asking them what they like best about working there. If it takes them forever to come up with an answer or if their answer sounds like they're trying to spin what is in fact a negative, it's a danger sign. (e.g. "There are always a lot of opportunities to fill in for other people and shoulder more responsibilty" could mean "Joe never does his work, so you're gonna be on the hook for getting it done.")
posted by MsMolly at 5:46 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Glassdoor is a good place to get a read based on people invested enough to leave a message on the site.

I usually take my cues from how I'm treated during the interview process. Is everyone nice to me, do they get back to me in the time frame they said they would? Is the office nice? Do you get free soda? Do you have to pay for coffee? Are there Mini-moos?

Ask important questions, "How long have you been here?" "What do you think of the culture? How would you describe the culture?"

If it's important to you, ask for what you want.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:47 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

So I once upon a time left a place much like the one you described as one you're tired of (and it was the second company in a row where I'd had that experience, because I didn't learn the first time), and there were definitely tells in the interview that I, sadly, ignored because I really needed a job. Among them:

-overemphasis on cultural fit/ a lot of "work hard play hard" and "flat organization" type of talk
- instead of direct answers about specific responsibilities/future potential for the role or individual, there was a lot of "we want this person to really make it their own/own the role."

I'm not saying that these things automatically make a place a poor fit, but it took me about 6 months to realise that in my case, this meant:
- drunken and drugged antics in both private and professional venues on a semi regular basis
- unexpected increases in responsibility with no warning, no training, little or no feedback (positive or otherwise), no change in title, and no increase in pay
posted by sm1tten at 6:04 PM on March 17, 2014 [10 favorites] can be helpful for some organizations; but if it's a small company, there's no data, and if it's a large company with multiple sites, the mood can be vastly different in different buildings. But it can't hurt to check out, and also might give you tips on interviews and pay expectations.

Questions to ask, or things to notice during the interview:
- Do people eat lunch together; do people eat at their desks and work though lunch?
- What are the average working hours - does everyone get in and leave at about the same time? (or do people routinely stay late? and are those people salaried or hourly)
- Ask about flex time; even if you're hourly, you'd be interested to know whether salaried people are in and out at the same time every day, or if they're working super-late and whether it's a big deal to shift your hours for a doctor appointment (or whatever). In a bad context "flex time" is code for "work 3 hours extra every night this week and maybe you can leave at 4 on Friday without looking bad"
- How flexible are job descriptions? Do people pretty much have their own set tasks, or is everything done by everyone?
- What's your favorite thing about working for X organization?
- How much supervision is there for someone working at my level? (i.e. are you going to be hanging over my shoulder being sure I do this just right, are you going to set me loose in an empty room and an impossible task, or is there some kind of happy medium)
- Why are you filling this position? (someone left) Oh, are they still with the organization? Do you know what they found most challenging about this position?

If your interview includes a series of meetings with different people, don't be shy about asking some of the same questions so that you get multiple opinions on the answers.
posted by aimedwander at 6:35 PM on March 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

I was once openly told by an interviewer that they couldn't keep people in the job. (Yeah, I took & regretted it anyway.) I've at least noticed little things at some interviews that raised flags, e.g., problems scheduling a room "because IT people needed it" (not just saying it in a matter-of-fact or apologetic way, but with some indication there's regular friction and blame there). Or, walking through a place, and seeing people looking just flat, or yeah, tense, vs. looking like they're working on stuff & engaged.

There's use of humour - I've seen people toss off sarcastic one-liners or vague allusions prompting suppressed smirks/giggles from other panellists; that worries me. So does "wacky" or what I'd call inappropriate humour. I've also seen interviewers use the interview to voice frustrations. If the job you're interviewing for explicitly involves addressing particular issues, that's one thing, but if people are going into extended digressions about some other department and you're there for a coordinator role, that is not an indication of a healthy environment.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:07 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Assuming you're interviewing with someone more upper-managerial, as opposed to a technical skills evaluator, you could ask what their assessment of the workplace attitude is, what the organization's biggest weakness is, and what they would like to change most. It almost doesn't matter what the answer is and a smooth manager could make something up, I guess. What you're looking for is the "WTF are you talking about?" look. That's bad. A healthy organization is used to thinking and talking about this topic.
posted by ctmf at 7:14 PM on March 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I learned the hard way to look at the long term strategy of the company. For example, I took a job with a company that was making a lot of acquisitions of other companies. They promised me the moon so I would relocate. What they were actually looking for was a middle level manager to work to death during their merger. They completely changed my work agreement when I moved there, and the internal culture was awful. So, take a look at their long term corporate strategy.
posted by effluvia at 7:30 PM on March 17, 2014

When we're alone (e.g., one on one interview, or a phone screen) I've gotten shockingly candid answers by asking, "So what's the worst part of your job?" People will actually tell you, right as they sit there in the office. I've never understood how that could possibly work, but it does.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:20 PM on March 17, 2014 [14 favorites]

A few questions I always ask:

"Why is this position open?" If they hesitate, I follow it up, "Is it being backfilled or are you growing?" This gives a lot of insight about how desperate they are to hire someone. I have taken exactly one job where they were desperate and it worked out because they didn't know how to interview people correctly (but excelled at actually getting things done).

The other question I like to ask is "What do you wish you had asked when you were sitting in my shoes?" This often leads to the same answers as "What do you hate?" or gives other valuable information.
posted by bensherman at 8:54 PM on March 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

In additional to bensherman's great questions, I always ask "What is the person who used to have this position doing now?" Promotion? Great. Lateral move? Good. Moved on? Depends.

Another good one is to get a sense of how long your predecessor had the position. Six months is a much different situation than a couple years.
posted by sfkiddo at 9:14 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I hope I am not breaking some intergalactic askmefi law by reposting my own somewhat similar question from a while back.

In my experience, some red flags include: seeming a little bit too eager to hire even before they've gotten a lot of information; any sort of boundary-jumping while you're still in the interviewing stages (like calling references too early); and being rude or insulting at the interview. That last one should be obvious, but somehow it didn't sufficiently warn me off at the time. They should seem reasonably cautious without being accusatory in any way.
posted by ziggly at 9:14 PM on March 17, 2014

I refuse to work anywhere with acrimonious union relationships. That doesn't mean their can't be unions - the company I work for has tons of represented staff. Companies that screw over their unionized staff screw over their non-represented staff.

I also look at employee tenure. Most of the companies where I've worked have lots of long-term staff. We have plenty of 30 year, 20 year and 10 year employees. Not everyone is an old-timer, but many people choose to stay for many, many years That says a lot about working conditions and opportunities for long-term career development.
posted by 26.2 at 11:17 PM on March 17, 2014

Really high staff turnover - ie people not staying in the company for long. That doesn't necessarily tell you the whole story but it can tell you something about working conditions.

How long the position has been open for.

How long it takes them to get back to you about your application.

I agree that networking is really key. If you've been to a conference or something with someone who works at the company or who used to work there; if you know someone who knows someone who works there - use those connections.

One thing that my current (by no means perfect, but still pretty OK) employer does with interviewees which I think is great: After the interview, they introduce them to the rest of the team. I think this is a great way for interviewees to see that we're a sociable team who, even when busy, will stop what we're doing to smile and say hi to a new face.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:32 AM on March 18, 2014

Does your interviewer arrive late or call late? This can be a red flag for a place where people are chronically over-worked (no time, too many reports, too many interruptions) or where meetings are poorly organized or where your hiring manager is disorganized/procrastinating/whathaveyou. YMMV, but my experience is...
posted by whatzit at 4:18 AM on March 18, 2014

Just to follow up with 26.2's point about unions.

When I worked at The Phone Company, I started as a represented employee, hell, I was a shop-steward. One thing I noticed about managers was that they all respected the union and never talked smack about it. One of my managers a non-represented employee and I were talking and she said, "I was a union employee before I got into management, and the union gets me the same excellent benefits that it gets craft workers." Basically, good managers recognize that they too get union benefits, even if they're not in the union.

So, nthing that sentiment.

Solidarity forever!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on March 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of the upper management where I work once told me that she asked "How long have you worked here?" when she was being interviewed for the job, and when the average was over 10 years, she knew it was a good place to stay.
posted by telophase at 10:24 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Questions for would-be peers:

When you made the move to come here, what was the most compelling reason?
What keeps you here?
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were new here?
What are the important pieces of the history of this organization?
Who are the people "in the know" here?
What has been your biggest surprise? Disappointment?
What advice would you give me about being successful in this organization?
Who really does what around here?
posted by John Borrowman at 11:06 AM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Listen carefully to what people are telling you; read between the lines. Sometimes people can't afford to be straightforward with you but are still trying to send you a message. I was once told by an HR screener that I'd be working with "a lot of big personalities". Boy howdy did she end up right-- an HR rep can't tell you "these people are completely off the fucking deep end", but she got as close to that as realistically possible, and as that job began to go horrifically off the rails I really wished I had been picking up what she was putting down.
posted by threeants at 12:57 PM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

The phrase "work hard play hard" in any form is a huge red-flag that either it's going to be a sweatshop or a bullpen filled with coked-up bros.
posted by wcfields at 5:09 PM on March 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like to ask, "when you think about filling this position and working with a new team member, what are you the most excited or concerned about?" Peoples' answers can go a long way toward exposing patterns of problems ("I am so tired of training a new person only to have them leave a few months later") or identifying individual's needs, biases, etc ("I look forward to having someone else do all these things I hate doing," or "it will be hard to figure out how to work with a new person now that Susie is gone.") On the flip side, you also get to find out if the team members are welcoming and enthusiastic, and how much thought they've given to helping a new person succeed.

Bonus benefit: if you take the position, having asked this question can help you go in with a fair sense of who your natural allies are and what you need to do to build effective relationships with colleagues who were a harder sell.
posted by christinenewkirk at 7:21 PM on March 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

aimedwander's list of questions are really good.

I interview people on a weekly basis and it's only very occasionally that I have people ask what I consider to be good questions about the corporate culture or seem to be trying to determine whether they'd "fit" well. And that's too bad. It is really not safe to leave the "fit" issue up to the company/interviewer. You as the interviewee have the most to lose if you don't fit in, because you'll be miserable.

In particular, the "does everyone eat lunch together (or do you eat lunch at your desks like goddamn animals)", flex time policy, and average working hours / how often do you work late questions would have filtered out all the dysfunctional organizations I've ever worked at or considered working at. The other questions are a bonus, but those three are dead giveaways.

I'm not really sold on the value of open-ended non-factual questions like "what's your favorite part of working here," but that's just me. I think it gives people the opportunity to bullshit. OTOH, it could give them the opportunity to overshare and say something revealing by accident, but if you only have time for a couple of questions (as one generally does during an interview), that's not how I'd spend my time. Also, it sounds like one of those wishy-washy questions interviewees are told to ask interviewers to impress them, and I hate those. I'd rather get tough questions about overtime or vacation policies or education reimbursement.

Sometimes people can't afford to be straightforward with you but are still trying to send you a message.

This is also very true. Sometimes, companies make people conduct interviews for positions that they know are doomed, or are going to be really, really shitty. If you build a rapport with the interviewer, they just might throw you a bone. But it doesn't mean they can come right out and tell you "this job is really going to suck and you should only take it if you're desperate and I mean like really desperate as in someone is going to break your legs next week." But they might imply it / dogwhistle a bit, if you're listening.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:37 AM on March 21, 2014

So, I just started a new job, and on day 1 I figured out what some of those cues from the interview had actually meant:

* 'Rockstar' - They were kind of gushing over me, and saying they thought I could be a real 'Rockstar'. I thought this was just recruiting speak, but I realise that what they actually meant, was, no one has any training for this role, but it has a heap of responsibility, so what we need is a rockstar, because a normal, productive human being probably won't cut it.

* They were way too happy to learn that I'd kind of taught myself several jobs, and was the one who would figure out and document things for everyone else.

* I should have asked them what they felt the difference between a team lead and a manager is, because those can be really vague terms, and I was used to the former dealing with the more technical side, but instead, I think they were using it interchangeably (less status, but still the person allocating work, authorising timesheets, hours, time off etc).

I guess I just should have asked more about what responsibilities the role had, and if they didn't know, asking why the person who did know, wasn't there?

In my case, it's because the person who'd be training me, would be a Vendor Representative who'd been trying to do the job for a month, after only getting 3 days training themselves, after the prior person had to leave early on the third day to go have a baby.

So yeah. Always ask who will be training you, and ask how comfortable they are with knowing their way around the role.

Anyway, it's interesting times, basically.
posted by Elysum at 4:19 AM on March 29, 2014

Coming across this late, but in case it's useful: try to schedule your interviews for the late afternoon or end of the day. This is very reasonable to ask for if you're already working, and decent to good employers are usually happy to accommodate it (or won't hold it against you if they can't.)

Then, you're able to observe how people act - after your interview, are people heading out for the day, or at least wrapping up last tasks and starting to chat about their evenings? Or is it 5:45 and everyone in the office is still bustling around frantically?

Not foolproof, as depending on the programs and mission of the org some times of year might be better than others, but poorly run nonprofits can be godawful in terms of working hours, and this is an easy way to observe conditions outside the interview vacuum.
posted by superfluousm at 12:03 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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