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Culture Questions for Candidates

Employers and candidates alike are told that organizational culture plays an important role in job success. While many people use the term culture, it is not always clear what they mean. In my mind, organizational culture is the collective way employees do things. It involves a learned set of behaviors that guide perceptions, understanding of events, and what is important. Every organization has a culture, even those that can’t define it. Culture is something you experience and live.

All of the current focus on culture is for good reason. Harvard Business Review reports that culture “can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” Therefore, employers are looking for candidates that will “fit” their culture. But as a candidate, how can you determine the organizational culture of a place you have likely never visited? The following are three questions you can ask to get some insights into the culture of any organization:

What's the best thing about working at your company that I won't be able to see from an office tour?
This question gives the employer a chance to talk about their cultural values and what they think is important from a belief and behavioral perspective. Listen to the description and see if it aligns with how you like to work. For example, if they tell you that it is an innovative environment where employees are individually rewarded for their efforts this may mean that the environment is competitive with few work teams and limited collaboration. Or, if they tell you “we are like a family” this could mean that employees are social and have a high level of interaction.

How do you collect employee opinions and input?
Use this question to get beyond the established value and talk about interactions. An employer who responds by saying they do an annual employee opinion survey may represent a culture where employee input is not frequently sought or valued. If an employer says things like: “we encourage debate and discussion on all projects” or “our meetings are an exchange of ideas and not one person lecturing” you may be interviewing at an organization where employees are expected to share opinions and views.

What are the top two employee misconceptions about your company?
This question is designed to give the employer a chance to address anything about their culture that might not be ideal or misunderstood. Be wary of an employer who says they are well understood and does not give a direct response. Ideally, the employer will talk about specific challenges and most importantly, what they are doing to address them. Common cultural challenges are encouraging new thinking, collaboration, and knowledge sharing. The ideal response to this question will demonstrate that the employer is aware of what employees think and is interested in making improvements.

In the end, an organization’s culture is a combination of how they define the desired environment and what they do to ensure the definition becomes a reality. During your interview use these, and questions of your own, to figure out if the organization is the best place for you.