Dear Elizabeth: I have an interview coming up. It’s important to me that I find a company with a culture that fits my values and the way I like to work. What questions should I be asking as a project manager to ensure that job is going to be a good fit for me? What are some of the red flags to look out for in the responses?
It’s great that you are thinking about this! So often I speak to people who are just looking at the interview process as a way of showing off their own skills. They forget that interviews are two-way conversations. You need to “interview” the company as well and find out if it is somewhere you would like to work.
After all, we spend so much time at work. It’s going to be miserable for you if you end up taking a job that doesn’t fit with your working style and values. Plus, when you leave after such a short period of time after realizing your mistake, you then have some explaining to do on your CV.
But you aren’t going to have that, because you are going to find a company that is a perfect fit. You’ll be making the right choice because you know you will be happy there.
First, think about the things you want from a working environment. That could be:
- Flexible working and being able to work from home occasionally
- Knowing that the talent pipeline supports diversity and that there are strong diversity networks in place
- Not having to travel, or the opportunity to travel a lot
- A small team, or a large team, or a medium-sized team environment
Think about the way you do your work. Do you love Scrum but don’t get on so well with Kanban? Do you struggle with some tech but love other applications? Would you be prepared to learn new ways of working if it was required or would you rather fit into a team that uses the tools you are already familiar with?
Some Questions to Ask
Craft your questions around the things you identified above. So if you know that being able to work from home a day a week is a deal breaker for you, be open about it: “I’d like to work from home one day a week. Is that a common working pattern in your organization?” A closed question like this (where they can really only answer yes or no) is a good way to get the information you need. If they are hesitant, or if they say no, you can follow up with: “Would that be something you’d consider for me if I was successful in securing the position?”
Here are some other, more general questions you can ask in the interview to get a feel for the culture of an organization:
- What training can I expect to receive in this role?
- What support do you have for new starters? Is there a mentoring scheme?
- What kind of projects will I be working on?
- How big is my team? Is that the only team doing this kind of work?
- How long do most people stay in their roles here? Do you encourage promotion from within? What happened to the last person in this role – why is there a vacancy?
I like to ask, “How many women are on the senior leadership team?” Adapt this list so that what is important to you is covered.
What to Look Out For
Your interviewers aren’t going to know everything about everything in the business. Asking for their thoughts on what caused the stock price to drop a few months ago could make them feel uncomfortable and as if you are testing them and trying to prove how much research you’ve done on the company. By all means ask your question, but be prepared for them to hedge the response if it isn’t relevant to their role. They are only human.
However, here are some red flags to watch out for:
- Saying yes to everything and promising the earth. Unless you can see evidence of that from what you see walking around the office, you should verify claims that seem too good to be true.
- Not answering the questions or saying, “We can sort that out after you join.” No good. You shouldn’t have to join the company first to work out if you are entitled to childcare help or to understand their flexible working policy.
- Getting the feeling that they don’t support their staff; hearing that they don’t promote from within; learning that the team hasn’t been together for long because people leave their jobs quickly. While it’s always harder to walk into an established team, it’s more positive to join a team that is expanding because business is growing or because someone has been promoted into a new opportunity, leaving a you-sized gap to fill.
You may only get this one chance to ask your questions in the interview, so make it count! You won’t lose anything by asking everything that matters to you. On the contrary, you can only gain by having more information with which to make your ultimate decision. Even if they offer you the job, if you have uncovered insights that would make you think twice about saying yes, you are still a winner because you managed to dodge taking a job that would ultimately make you unhappy.