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October 21, 2019 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Interviewing for a position but I’m not sure if yellow flags were thrown in the first interview. Nerves and time prevented me from asking me more questions about work life balance and workplace culture. However, the interviewer said “Feel free to contact me if you have more questions about the position!” How should I politely ask about this and should I do it before the second round interview?

Well, unexpectedly in my escape, I applied to a job at a nonprofit in a bigger city about 30 minutes south of me. I didn’t expect ANYTHING to come of it. But I went in an interviewed. I was excited about the position, because whew, the person I would be working for is really well known in my field for doing amazing projects. It also would give me lots of experience in a specific area I’ve been interested in. Also, unlike my last ask, the salary would be a step up, rather than a $25k pay cut.

However, I’m super curious about the work life balance and the workload. I asked about the culture, how they liked working there, etc. here’s what I heard. Are these yellow flags for “we will work you to death”?

-They said they are understaffed at this time. They said the team will pitch in to help out but expect juggling things that would normally be delegated to others.

-They asked “Are you comfortable with early mornings or late nights and occasional weekends?” I clarified weekends, and they said this is very occasional. I am used to working early morning or late nights, but I wasn’t sure if that meant every single day, or just for special community events. I felt too nervous to ask.

-When asked about the typical day, the person (leaving the position) said “It really changes everyday, but I’m here around 7am and then around 4pm I get back to my office. Then I can really hunker down and focus on other tasks for a few hours.” I took that to mean... really long days. I’m imagining he’s there until 7pm with the way he worded it.

-I looked on Glassdoor and this company has good reviews, but I can’t find anything on this specific department. The person leaving their position has been here for 6 years and is leaving this week to move cities. From social media and in person, this person sounds like they really love their job.

My questions are this:

-Is it ok to reach out to the person leaving their position and ask “Do you often work late? How’s your work life balance?” Or Does that come off badly? Are there better questions to ask about work life balance?

I would’ve asked in person but his manager and the hiring manager were there, and I felt awkward asking those candid questions. How many questions are too many? In my current toxic job, I feel like I didn’t ask enough. And they were really great about hiding things (asked about culture and they said, “It’s great! We like to laugh.” Upon hire, said that was a lie because they didn’t want to scare me off. Well.) I know I can’t ask a bajillion questions, but these are the ones I’m most curious about. I feel a dread in my gut that they might work you the bone.

I googled and nothing I found suggests asking those questions, because it May come off as a slacker. There’s some roundabout ways of asking, but I’m not sure if it’s too soon to ask. I have a second interview this week with the head of department. I totally don’t mind working late or early during busy seasons or what not, but I also used to work consistent 60 hour weeks, and that DRAINED me. As amazing as this job sounds, I don’t want to be that drained. and if I take it, I would want to stay for a minimum of two years for my resume. The process is moving very fast, and I would rather self select myself out earlier than later I think. Thank you again in advance x
posted by buttonedup to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hmm, yes, I think you're right about the yellow flags. Let me put it this way: if they told you it was a sixty-hour-a-week job, would you definitely say no? If yes, then there's no harm to you in being more direct about the hours expectations. "Work-life balance" is a silly, meaningless phrase. Be concrete. Ask the interviewer what sort of hours the person in the position should be expecting to routinely handle, and what peak hours are like.
posted by praemunire at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

I would wait until the second interview and bring it up then. I think one way to go at it would be to say, "I heard a lot about odd hours or long days in my last interviews, and I understand there will be a bit of crunch time around Event/Season, but is that a year-round situation? Someone mentioned understaffing meaning extra work, and I realize you're interviewing me so there's obviously something in progress to relieve that, but what's your anticipated timeline for getting fully-staffed?"

If a mild request for clarification is enough for them to decide not to hire you, then clearly you and they are a bad match so it doesn't matter.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:34 PM on October 21, 2019 [21 favorites]

I wouldn’t reach out to the departing employee outside the recruitment process - if they’re on good terms with their boss, you risk them forwarding your email with a “Someone doesn’t like long hours!” added, which makes you look sneaky as well as reluctant to work long hours.

I’d practice your poker face and ask, straight-faced, in the next interview: “I get the impression x works about 7am to 7pm most days, is that about right?”

If they say “Yes, is that OK with you?” you can always say it’s fine, and then reconsider later if you receive an offer.
posted by penguin pie at 1:36 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

At every understaffed non profit I’ve ever worked for or knew someone who worked there, 60 hr weeks and doing the jobs of multiple people was normal. If that’s not what you’re looking for, I’d say that your yellow flags are actually red.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:44 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't do nonprofits but I work somewhere that's chronically understaffed. The overwhelm never stops. And "occasional" can spread once you're in the job, right?

I think you're right to think that there is no work life balance here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:59 PM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the advice so far! A clarification, the second interview is with the head (just them) and from what I understand, they are quite hands off so they would not know how much the position typically worked. It’s more give a project idea and that position executes it. It’s not a very closely managed position from what I understand. I think the only person who could give me a clear answer is the person leaving? I will definitely ask the head in the off chance that she knows, but if she has no clue, would it be OK to reach out to the leaving person? Perhaps over phone rather than risk a forwarded email?
posted by buttonedup at 2:17 PM on October 21, 2019

If the head doesn't know what kind of hours their direct report is working, that's itself a bad sign.
posted by praemunire at 2:26 PM on October 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

If it comes off badly to even ask about work-life balance, then you should assume it's a place with no work-life balance and you don't want it, right? Any good office or good manager will realize people have families and lives outside of their jobs. And the thing is, if they do want someone who works constantly, they won't want to hire someone who doesn't want that, and it's in both of your best interests for you to ask and be sure about that.

Anyway, I would ask this at the second interview. I assume the second interview will be you face-to-face with the people you'd actually be working with. In my experience, hiring managers are there to help you the process and stuff like salary, benefits, etc. but they don't know the ins-and-outs of the day-to-day of the position. You're better off asking the people interviewing you.

I agree that a good ask is, "It sounds like so-and-so worked from 7am to 7pm - is that about what I should expect?" If as you say, they are hands off and just want results, maybe you should ask for a typical project of X, what is the turnaround time for that? That could at least give you an idea of if their deadlines require crazy days, or if the previous person was just slow.

In my previous interviews, I just simply said: "What's the work-life balance like?" At one job, the answer I got was "We're working on it, but we tend to work most weekends." I did not accept that job. At another place, they said "Oh, we realize that people have lives outside of work so we generally stick to normal hours." I took that job and the work-life balance was great. I think asking about work-life balance is a fine and normal question, and the only way to really know is to ask.

FWIW, I worked at an "understaffed" non-profit but for me that meant taking on duties outside of my actual job, not working crazy hours because everyone still wanted to go home at 5pm. In my case, I liked it - it allowed me to expand my role into an area that is more of the career path I wanted. I even got a new title out of it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:29 PM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't reach out to the leaving person. There is basically no upside (they say something, and you can't judge how to take it, because they're leaving!) and lots of downside (as stated above, they tip off the person interviewing you). It may be taken as overstepping or having poor boundaries.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:20 PM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

I interviewed at a startup once that told me that their crunch time hours were mandatory-in-the-office 8 AM to 6 PM every day Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday. I could understand that as crunch time can be a very intensive time at a startup.

Thank God I asked them about how long crunch time had been going on and how long they expected it to last: the answer was two years and one year respectively. So yeah definitely ask.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:33 PM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

but if she has no clue, would it be OK to reach out to the leaving person? Perhaps over phone rather than risk a forwarded email?

So - I see that she said at the interview that you could reach out to her with further questions, but however you do it, I imagine she’s going to feed back to the recruiters about any conversation you’ve had, in any format.

If you do follow up with her, I think you can only ask about the hours for a second time if you do it super straight-faced as I suggested above, with no hint that you’ve a preference one way or the other, you’re just gathering information.

Given the potential cost, be sure that you’re sure there’s a genuine potential benefit - is she actually likely to say much more than she said in the interview? (Genuine question, I’m not pre-judging the answer).

Also bear in mind that she’ll be wanting a reference, so she’s not about to go all “OK, now I can tell you the truth, this place stinks!” on you. Just asking a straight factual question where her answer will not be obviously positive or negative would be the best way to proceed. Maybe pad it out with a few other questions so you’re not only getting in touch about that.
posted by penguin pie at 3:37 PM on October 21, 2019

The advice to ask what you would do if you were advised straight-up that it’s a hell-hole is good. If the answer is “I’d pass,” I would ask directly about it. If the answer is “I’d take it anyway,” then I would not bother asking.

My opinion of hell-holes is that they never change. If it isn’t “it’s crunch time,” it will be “now that it’s not crunch time we can reduce staff costs by moving people to part-time to save on benefits” or some other self-interested nonsense. But I am old and cranky and I recognize people have to get that way somehow. Best of luck in any event.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:59 PM on October 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I want to put in one thing to consider that I don't think has been touched on when you consider if you'll have to put in 12 hour days.

Not everyone working is doing so at equal efficiency.

At every job I've had, I've taken processes that would take entire days for my predecessors and automated/slimmed them down to sometimes seriously under 5 minutes. People are SERIOUSLY bad at working efficiently, especially if they derive genuine satisfaction from being busy and that is their identity.

So y'know, consider how efficient you are or could be. I'm managing something now that my boss and coworker think is overwhelming me because it did them in previous years, yet... I automated it. It's not overwhelming me at all. It's too bad they don't know what Excel macros are or even the concatenate formula is because a lot of stuff is bullshit busywork! (I've tried to explain, they're just not into it.)

Jobs also tend to throw in extra steps that don't solidify data or processes, and those must be ruthlessly weeded out and better systems put in place.

edit: I spent 8.5 years in nonprofits and took on many tasks that people were losing just ungodly amounts of time and automated them. The best was our Halloween items in our point of sale system at Goodwill where we had an intern go in and edit 3,000+ items. I figured out how to mass do that and verify in about 5 minutes. I didn't know the intern was doing it and hadn't taken over the sale system. The woman who had run it for 10 years was SO INTO her 60+ hour workweeks... yeah, no, not for me. She wanted it to be inefficient and time consuming. Nonprofits are full of those people.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:50 AM on October 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

If your previous colleague loved the job, you may want to also consider that they may have worked longer hours than strictly necessary. Relative efficiency aside, people talk about "getting the work done" but in professional jobs there's often a lot of flexibility in how you define the scope of your work. There is always "above and beyond" work available to do, if someone is really attached to their job and derives a lot of satisfaction from doing it.

So, you might want to ask specifically what would be expected from you, in addition to what the outgoing person did. You're a different person, you'll work in different ways, and one of those might be that you'll only usually work after 5 if there's a specific event requiring it. If you're confident in your boundaries, then there's no harm in asking.

If you're just worried in general, maybe you could ask some more general questions about their flexibility and what the folks who work there see as their perks.

Also, see if they understand that being understaffed means some things will slip, as opposed to assuming it's a burden carried entirely by the workers. I'd ask about that - what the business impacts of being understaffed have been and when they're planning to resolve it - in the second interview.
posted by Lady Li at 12:58 PM on October 22, 2019

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