A woman in a red business suit sits at the end of a row of chairs nervously holding a CV before a job interview.
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6 questions you should ask to assess company culture

29 Jun 2021

Virti’s Mark Ashworth looks at the importance of company culture and offers advice on how jobseekers can assess it at the interview stage.

It’s hardly surprising that a company’s culture plays a big part in how happy and fulfilled its employees are. In fact, more than half of the 5,000 respondents in a 2019 Glassdoor survey said that company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.

“People leave managers, not companies” is a common expression you will hear in the workplace, and it’s true. Just under half of UK employees have quit their job due to the negative relationship they have with their boss, according to a 2019 survey.

An interview process is typically a small window on an overall organisation. While you might be excited about the manager hiring you, you should recognise that you will need the engagement of many stakeholders to get things done, or that your career path may continue under a different leader. So ideally, you should discover whether the qualities you like in that hiring manager are reflected across the company.

Of course, this is easier said than done. For a start, although many companies like to boast about their unique or exceptional culture, it’s difficult to find an agreed-upon definition or explanation of what this ubiquitous term actually means.

Company culture grows out of an organisation’s mission, values, practices and beliefs. It’s shaped by leaders, drives the behaviour of the team and influences almost every aspect of employee experience.

Trying to get a rounded picture of the real culture of a company prior to having worked there is like trying to describe a foreign country before you’ve actually visited. However, there is one opportunity to cut through the rhetoric and add some colour to your mental picture of a company: your interview.

Here are six questions that will help you drill down into the reality of company culture while also making a good impression on your potential employer.

What qualities do you value most highly in your team members?

The answer that you receive to this question will speak volumes about a company’s priorities and way of working. It’s also one of the most powerful ways to determine whether you’ll be a good fit for a company.

When your interviewers answer this question, first ask yourself if these are qualities that you believe yourself to possess and then consider if they are qualities that you value in your colleagues. If the answer is yes to both, it’s likely that your own values are in close alignment – and that’s a great sign.

However, be sure to ask for clarification of subjective terms such as ‘fun’ or ‘likeable’, as well as catch-all terms like ‘commitment’ or ‘dedication’ as this could be a coded way of saying, “We expect you to work until 11pm every night and on Sundays.”

How do you support team members to develop their professional skills and interests beyond doing their job?

By asking this question, you’ll learn exactly how seriously the company takes the long-term retention and growth of its team members.

Ideally, there should be regular and high-quality opportunities for all employees to both widen and deepen their knowledge and their skillset. These could include ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, mentoring from senior colleagues, conference tickets, or even paid time to spend pursuing your own passion projects.

Ultimately, you need to think about your own professional goals – will this company proactively help you to achieve them?

How do you celebrate individual and collective wins and how do you reflect on losses?

Celebrating progress towards company goals – both big and small – is incredibly important in building team morale, motivation and camaraderie. Everyone loves to receive recognition for their hard work and celebrating together is the perfect way to build positive relationships between teams and colleagues.

From annual company holidays or Thursday evening drinks to rewards for new business wins, every company favours a different method of reflecting on and celebrating shared achievements. After asking this question, you’ll be able to gauge whether celebration is embedded in company culture, or whether success is taken for granted. You can then decide whether this is in accordance with how you prefer to celebrate success.

Just as important as recognising and rewarding success is the maturity of the organisation in reflecting on what it could have done better. If failure to win a major contract is a cue to anger, blame and recrimination, that may be something you want to know. If an organisation deals maturely with failure and treats it as a learning opportunity, then it is a business that is more likely to succeed in the long run – and, most likely, a more rewarding and enjoyable place to be.

How were the company values chosen, and what do they mean to you personally?

This is a clever way of establishing whether the company is really guided by its values, or if they are just wheeled out as part of the PR strategy. Hearing a more personal interpretation – ideally from two or more different people – will help you to see past the clichés and understand what these values actually mean on the office floor.

Don’t take it as a negative sign if there is some variation in interpretations. This is a healthy sign that independent thought is promoted in the company. Ideally, employers should speak confidently and positively about the core company values and be able to give examples of how they inform actions on a day-to-day basis.

What practical steps are you currently taking to promote diversity and inclusion?

If you want to make sure that your potential employer does more than give lip service to the principles of diversity and inclusion, this question is the way to find out.

A diverse team is one that has members from across the spectrum of race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation and nationality, and an inclusive company has systems in place that allow every employee to feel comfortable and to excel.

It’s unlikely that the company you’re interviewing for will be perfectly diverse and inclusive – very few are. What matters is that they are actively working towards becoming more inclusive and diverse, and that it’s a top priority for them going forward. Try to drill down into the practical steps they’re taking and take note if your interviewers talk around the subject and fail to give any concrete examples of inclusive changes they’re implementing.

You could follow up this question by asking how their recruitment process promotes diversity, or how the company supports working parents or disabled colleagues.

Could I speak to some of my prospective peers?

Having a broader view of the organisation that the small window afforded by the interview process will give you a much richer view of the soul of the company. The hiring manager, assuming they have had a degree of training, ought to be reasonably good at selling the company’s virtues.

The five preceding questions will be a significant challenge to that veneer and unlock a truer picture of the organisation. But the opportunity to engage with others will add much more.

And if the company grants your request, what should you ask? Simple, repeat questions one to five.

By Mark Ashworth

Mark Ashworth is the COO and CFO of Virti, an augmented and virtual reality training platform for employees. 

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