Several of my current clients are in the phase of job hunting where they know exactly what role they're looking for, but not what company. Having been burnt before by toxic work environments (as most of us have), many are understandably wary of applying to jobs because they aren't sure what the culture will be like. Why leave toxic culture #1 only to land in toxic culture #2?
Luckily with a little detective work, some of that doubt can be cast aside. The trick is to have a few informational interviews with people who are not in a position to hire you (and therefore more likely to be honest, nor judge you for asking). You can find these people in a couple of different ways: Linkedin, on the company website, or asking someone you already know who works there to hook you up with a coworker in a department you're interested in. It's no longer necessary to ask to meet for coffee and make a big hour-long deal of it. You can simply call or email the person you want to interview and ask for 10 minutes of their time on the phone when it's convenient for them. If they aren't interested or don't have time, simply ask for someone else who might be able to talk to you. Your persistence at this stage will save you a lot of heartache and stress later on if you don't do your homework.
But what do you ask? And will they be honest?
While you can't guarantee honesty, you can let them know that you are very interested in a role/department that would let you _________ (make autonomous decisions, move up in a few years, travel less than 20% of the time, etc). What's important to you? Ask if the company is somewhere you can be/have/do that. Rather than making the person feel like they have to bad mouth their own job, by framing it as a 'if I need this, is this company likely to be a fit for me?' is a lot less icky than “How's the marketing management? Is it awful?” Big difference. And that will help the person on the other end of the phone be honest with you.
Now, here are some ideas of what to ask, but don't ask them all to one person! You know what's most important to you, of course, so focus there first. The following questions are what my clients most frequently express concern about, with additional questions inspired by this article.
Is the organization walking its talk?
Do you feel like you're making a difference? Doing meaningful work or more busy work?
How much do you work on a team versus alone?
What team accomplishments make you proud?
What is the onboarding process like?
Are people competing with one another, or are they united behind the institution or project goals?
Do you have mentors? Do leaders actively coach you?
Is there a clear path to move up or ability to move up? Do people stand in your way when you're ready to move up?
Do people know what’s going on overall? How transparent is the company?
Do people say what they think? Are they direct or indirect?
(If you're a parent) How is parenthood perceived? Is there a place for pumping? Can I leave work if my child is sick without repercussions?
Is everyone encouraged to participate in discussions and have dissenting opinions? Does the boss listen?
What is the ratio of men to women in the department/company? What about people of color to white people? Are people generally closed to those who are different from them, or open? (This can come up in many ways: at a religiously-affiliated institution when you aren't a member of that religion, when you're the only lesbian at the organization, when you moved from “the big city” to the middle of nowhere, etc.)
Are people avoiding or dealing with difficult issues?
What does success look like on your team?
How is performance determined?
How much time are people typically putting in each week? Are people expected to work evenings and weekends?
Is it frowned upon to come and go as needed or is that okay as long as the job gets done?
How is negative feedback communicated (privately and respectfully or publicly?)?
Are the right people involved in decisions at the right time?
Do you get to work fairly autonomously, or is someone else able to change the direction of your plans?
(If there was a recent change in leadership or a merger) How have things been since the merger?
Do supervisors have an open-door policy or is it rare to get any face time?
Describe the office environment (open concept, cubes? Dark and depressing, full of light?).
What do you wish you would've known before you started working here?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years (if they laugh and say “Not here!” that obviously says something. If they say, “Well, I'd hope to have moved up by then, but.... things move slowly here.” That also says something)?
Finally, listen for what isn't said. The deep sigh or the pause before answering. When you can tell someone is being polite because they don't want to say how bad something really is. Listen for energy- a feeling of excitement, accomplishment or purpose. You can often hear if someone is smiling, for example. These are all indicators of what working there will be like.
Do you have any cultural-fit questions you like to ask? I want to hear them!
Life Purpose and Career Coach
Career Clarity Now