You have a lot to cover in a job interview, between asking about the role’s responsibilities and sharing what experience you can bring to the company. You also need to get a good sense of the workplace and what it feels like to be “in” it every day.
A bad workplace can ruin an otherwise exciting opportunity. Even if the company isn’t “toxic,” it just might not be a good match for your strengths and needs. Asking the right interview questions can help you figure out if the company culture is one you want to be part of.
What is "company culture"?
Company culture includes the values and behaviors that shape how a workplace functions. It’s both the official, written “rules” of a company and its unspoken expectations.
For example, how do employees and managers interact—is there a lot of checking in, recognition, and career development? Do they follow an open door policy and encourage conversation? Are there a lot of growth opportunities? Team activities? Is everyone expected to work long hours and be available after hours? Is it competitive, collaborative, or a mix?
It helps before you go into an interview to know the kind of company culture you prefer, as well as what you don’t want. And be honest with yourself—sure, you can get a lot of work done independently, but do you prefer a more team-based environment? Knowing that will give you a better idea of what to ask to find out if the workplace is good for you.
Here are some specific interview questions to get the company culture answers you need.
Read more: How to Navigate a New Work Culture
Questions to ask an interviewer to learn about a company’s culture
You can try the direct approach: Ask your interviewer how they would describe the company culture. Note the adjectives they use. Note their tone—are they excited and happy when they talk about the workplace?
Of course, part of the interviewer’s job is to “sell” the company. There’s a chance they can make it sound better than what it really is, or keep their answer more vague than helpful.
I talked to career coach Tazeen Raza about what her “must-ask” interview questions were to learn about company culture, beyond asking directly. She says to start with why they’re hiring, which can tell you more about the whole company.
“My favorite question to ask about a company's culture is, 'Why the job is vacant?'” Raza says. “Did the last incumbent get promoted or leave the company? This will give an idea as to the type of growth opportunities there are in the company.”
Again, pay attention to the interviewer’s tone, not just what they say, when they answer your company culture questions.
“If the interviewer seems surprised or uncomfortable about the reason for vacancy, it’s fair to say the incumbent likely left on bad terms,” Raza says. “If you get an indirect answer, that is also a red flag.”
If the interviewer’s answer doesn’t address the company’s opportunities, you can follow up by asking about growth specifically, especially if it’s one of your top priorities. Ask where the manager sees their team or company in a few years.
“Another question you could ask in terms of company culture would be what type of hours are generally required for the role,” Raza says. “This will give you an idea of how many hours a week you would be working in addition to the 40 and how often this is expected.”
This question will help you find out if the company can offer you the work-life balance you’re aiming for.
“Asking about work-life balance can potentially be a turn off for some employers; however, you can ask this question in a way that doesn’t make it seem like you will be an unreliable or lazy employee,” Raza says. “Instead, ask pointed questions that will give you an idea about work-life balance, such as: Do you offer work from home options? Do you offer flexibility in working hours?”
Finally, it’s also a good idea to try to talk to people who work there outside of the interview—either through friends who know them, or LinkedIn, or reading anonymous company reviews. They might be more transparent about what’s expected in terms of weekly hours, and about the company culture overall.
Read more: Interview Questions and Answers About Workplace Diversity
How many questions to ask the interviewer
You need answers to know if this is a company you want to work for, but you don’t have all day. So what’s the sweet spot of enough questions to hear what they’re all about while not staying longer than your parking meter allows?
“A good rule of thumb for an hour interview is to ask three to four questions,” Raza says. “One should be about the company culture and anything new the company is doing, and two questions should be related to the actual job.”
If your interviewer isn’t a talker, you might have plenty of time to ask more—and you might need to, if they didn’t properly answer. Don’t be shy about getting clarity.
It’s also a good time to get a feel for what it would be like to work with this person. Do they give clear answers? Are you enjoying the conversation? This could be what your future meetings will be like.
For more interview tips and questions, check out InHerSight’s job interview articles and resources here.