Stop asking ‘What is company culture like?’ in job interviews—3 better alternatives

Brianna Doe has extensive experience on both ends of the hiring process. With a decade in marketing, seven years of conducting interviews, and now as the founder of her own agency, Verbatim, she is about to hire her full-time staff for the first time. This unique perspective has made her acutely aware that not all job interview questions are effective.

"When I was job-seeking, I didn’t always ask the right questions for myself or to help the employer understand me and what I was looking for," Doe tells CNBC Make It. One common question that often falls flat is: “What is the company culture like?” 

Understanding company culture is crucial—many workers prioritize it highly. However, Doe explains, “sometimes you will get a good answer, but often it’s too vague or generic. When I asked that question, the answers were typically, ‘We have a great culture’ or ‘We focus on collaboration.’” 

Accepting these generic responses isn’t advisable. "I had to learn that the hard way," Doe says, recalling a job she accepted without clarity on the company culture, which led to a difficult adjustment period. Reflecting on this experience, she realized the importance of being specific: “What is important to me in company culture? What does that mean to me? And what questions can I ask to get those specific answers?”

Doe suggests three alternative questions to gain a better insight into a company’s culture:

1. **What are the common themes among your highest performers?**

   This is Doe’s top recommendation because it reveals what it takes to thrive at the company. Additionally, it provides insight into the values of the interviewer, whether it’s a hiring manager or a potential colleague. Aligning their descriptions of high performance with your own values is crucial. For instance, if high performers are described as those who “work as many hours as needed” versus those who “pursue professional growth and step in regardless of their job title,” it indicates different workplace priorities.

2. **What would the first 30 days look like for the person in this role?**

   Doe learned the importance of this question from experience, having worked in start-ups with minimal onboarding processes. Asking this question helps you understand the initial expectations, the support you’ll receive, and how well-prepared the company is to integrate new hires.

3. **What are some ways that success will be measured in the first 90 days? In the first year?**

   This question can reveal how ready the team is for your arrival. A clear understanding of success metrics indicates thorough preparation and sets you up for early success. Conversely, unclear metrics might reflect changing business priorities or a new role. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on your preference for clear guidance versus shaping the role alongside the company.

In general, Doe advises, “the more prepared the team is for the new hire, the better it is. You can’t be successful if they haven’t defined success in the first place.”  

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