If you’ve read my book, The Arsonist in the Office, you know that not all cultures and  circumstances are equal. Some are great, some are average and some are, as one of my book reviews described, ‘The Ninth Circle of Hell’.

Not everyone gets set up to work with, as I did,  the uber-toxic employee deemed so explosive that the company felt they couldn’t fire her without facing even worse repercussions. But many have at least dealt with a job that didn’t quite fit.

I was interviewed recently by a well-known business and employment blog writer about questions people should ask to get an understanding of a company’s culture.

Some of those interviewed offered some great questions, including ‘What makes this company unique, special or different?’ and ‘What makes you proud to work here?’

Others suggested:  ‘What surprised you most about the company in your first year?’ and one offered a question regarding the bureaucracy within the company. Another said to ask what type of events are organized for employees during the year.

You can probably learn something by asking each of those questions in an interview.

And then I gave my $.02.  I said if people being interviewed want to know about a company’s culture, they should ask.  Not exactly an earth-shaking question, but according to at least one other source in the blog, asking a direct question like ‘Tell me about the company’s culture’ is the last thing you should do.

He said if you ask interviewers to describe a company’s culture, you may get the interviewer’s opinion of the culture and went on to add that culture means different things to different people.

And that’s a problem?  It’s far better than not asking at all.  Or asking questions that beat around the bush.

Culture does mean different things to different people. But if an interviewer can’t explain what their culture is, you may have found a giant red flag of an issue.  Or you see with you own eyes that the interviewer is reciting bullet points from a mental cue card, not the heart.  Finally, you may find that you get a phenomenal answer that gives you a strong understanding of the company and its values that makes you want to say ‘Yes!’ to the job before you leave the room.

If you dance around an important subject like culture (assuming it’s something you want to know) by asking about everything but, don’t be surprised when you’re not happy with the results.

Taking the wrong job at the wrong company can hurt you and hurt your career significantly.  You should find out what you’re getting into before you’re there.

What else should people do to find out about the culture?

I talk about ten different things in The Arsonist in the Office about what people can do to find out more about a company before they take a new job.  A few of them include:

  1. Check out reviews on Glassdoor–one bad review can be excused, but if there are major trends of lots of people saying the same thing? Well, you’ve been warned.
  2. LinkedIn connections or blind contacts–want to get an idea of what a company is like on the inside? Use LinkedIn to find people who are previous employees and send them a quick note asking if you can have two minutes of their time for a quick phone call.
  3. Do an eye and ear test.  Watch and listen to everything in the interview process to see if it matches up with the words you’re hearing about the company.  If you’re being told that the company is friendly, but the interviewers are cold to each other or the body language of employees you see in the hallways is like zombies in The Walking Dead, you are getting lots of information to work with. It’s a question of what you want to do with it.

If you have read my book, you know the consequences of walking into the line of fire in the workplace

If you don’t ask the questions or do your homework, don’t be surprised when you’re disappointed. Your next step in your career is the biggest move you’ll ever make. Make it a great fit, not a guess.

Pete Havel is a speaker, trainer, and consultant on workplace culture and leadership.  He’s also the author of “The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures,” named as a #1 Hot New Release by Amazon. It’s available at www.arsonistintheoffice.com

Pete can be reached at pete@petehavel.com and 214-244-7906.

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