Interviewing is tough. The process can be exhausting: hours-long on sites, take-home assignments, sending follow-ups and thank-you notes. While interviewing, it can feel like a one-way street — the company is evaluating you and determining if you’re the right fit for them. But the reverse is also true. You’re interviewing the company to learn if the role and organization match your career goals, values, and ideal work environment.
One of the best ways to learn if working at the company will be a positive experience is by asking questions during the interview process. This is your chance to learn what the company’s culture and environment are actually like and what your day-to-day will be. As Carrie Mah, Senior Product Designer at Clearco, explains, “At the interview, the company is trying to be on their best behavior, so if there’s anything you feel weird about or need clarifications on, this is your opportunity to raise any of your concerns.” Sometimes, though, getting an honest or candid answer is difficult. Employees want to cast their company in a positive light, just as you’re trying to present your best self, so you may receive vague or canned answers.
Getting to that honest, real answer — so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to join a company — isn’t always easy. If you’re earlier in your career and/or from an underrepresented group, you might feel hesitant to ask a question or follow up for specifics. We spoke to both interviewers and interviewees about the best way to approach this challenge.
A first step to getting honest answers is knowing what you want to ask. This will depend largely on your personal experiences, career goals, and working style. Some topics you might want to know more about are:
- Career growth: Will I be able to move into the next phase of my career, or will I be focused on improving at my current seniority level? Will I receive one-on-one mentorship, or will I need to do a lot of self-directed learning? Will the company invest in my development, or will I need to grow my skill set outside of work? There’s no right answer — ask yourself what your goals are for your next job.
- Company culture: Although a vague and loaded term, you might want to know if ideas are encouraged from bottom-up — or instead if mandates are driven top-down. Maybe it’s important to you that teammates develop close working relationships or you prefer working relationships to be more transactional and impersonal.
- Work-life balance: In an era of remote work and hustle culture, you might wonder if this job will take over your life. Will I be working 80 hours a week? Will I be able to maintain side hobbies and friendships? You might be in a place where you’re willing to put in long hours for the career benefits the job will provide, or you might be focused on preserving personal time.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI): Will I be welcomed as my authentic self? If the company has a commitment to DEI, what does that look like? A DEI committee or officer? Do the employees represent a range of backgrounds?
- Team process and structure: If you’re a product manager, you might care a lot about the team’s product development process. (Will I receive features to build from the executive team, or will I be able to develop my own roadmap?) If you’re a designer, you might want to know if the company has a strong design culture. (Does the company value design?) If you’re an engineer, you might want to know if engineers prioritize speed or quality. (Will I be dictated to by a PM, or do PMs and engineers work together?)
Before you interview, rank the factors that are most important to you. Write out some questions you could ask. A question is more likely to receive an honest answer if it prompts specifics. Opt for questions that start with “Could you describe a time…” or “How would you handle…” Some examples:
- “Could you describe a time when your team was up against a tight deadline?”
- “Could you tell me about a time when your team disagreed with leadership? How did you resolve it?”
- “If a teammate was struggling on a project, how would you and your team help them?”
- “How is your career ladder for my position structured? How frequently does the company perform reviews?”
- “What kind of learning and development budget does the company offer to employees?”
Also, do your homework on the company. What industry are they in? How big are they? For example, companies may not have career ladders defined yet, and they may not have the resources to support learning and development budgets. Conversely, large companies may have different cultures from team to team and even manager to manager — talking to people you’ll be working with will be important.
In the interview
An interview is often 30 to 45 minutes, which often doesn’t feel like a lot of time! Depending on how the interviews are structured, you’ll probably spend the majority of the time answering questions or doing an exercise, so how do you make the best of the time that’s available when you get to ask the questions? Below are some tips and tricks.
- Don’t wait until the end of the interview to ask questions that may take a while to answer, because those conversations may last 5–10 minutes on their own. If you and the interviewer run out of time, ask to follow up by email: “Hey, I didn’t get a chance to ask a question about x. Would it be okay if I sent an email to follow up?” If you’re not able to get their email address, ask the recruiter if they could forward a message to them (I usually do this by attaching a PDF to an email to the recruiter).
- Ask for examples and specifics. To get detailed answers, Brennan Moore, former Head of Engineering at Cityblock Health, suggests a framework called the STAR method (situation, task, action, result). Rather than asking, “How do teams collaborate?” you can prompt, “Can you tell me about a time when two teams had to work together to achieve a goal?” If you’d like to know more about how managers interact with their employees, you might say, “Can you describe your ideal relationship with someone you manage?”
- Don’t be afraid to dig deeper. If you receive a vague answer to “How do teammates give feedback to each other?” you can ask follow-up questions, like “Could you describe a time when you had to give feedback to a teammate?”
- Frame your question to highlight a positive quality about you. Maybe at a previous job you had a difficult relationship with another department. You can say, “It’s really important to me to have strong cross-departmental communication. How do departments communicate cross-functionally?” If you’re worried that your remote team, spread across time zones, means you’ll always be “on,” you might say, “I’ve noticed I do my best work in the mornings, followed by a break in the afternoon before doing some more work in the evening. How would this schedule work for the rest of the team?”
- Provide hypotheticals. In a remote working environment with teams operating across time zones, it can be hard to know the expectations for availability and time management. If you’re located on the east coast, you might say, “If my west coast teammate has a question at 8 pm my time, how quickly would they expect a response?”
- Avoid the canned question. Angélique Bélizaire, Senior Product Designer at Eden Health, commented, “If you’re going to ask a vague question, you’re going to have to accept a vague answer where you have to read between the lines.” Asking “How would you describe the company culture?” will probably result in variations on “collaborative.” Instead, you might ask, “What’s something that exemplifies the company culture that could only happen at this company?”
Beyond the interview
You can ask more questions outside the interview. The interview is a formal channel for gaining information, but looking to other sources can provide information you weren’t able to get while interviewing with the company directly.
- Reach out informally to current or former employees. Think of this as a reverse reference check. If you have connections in your network, ask for an introduction to other employees, whether they’re still working there or have moved on. Current or former employees have on-the-ground experience and can tell you more about the company informally, which means they’re more likely to be candid.
- See if you can speak to someone who’s in your role now if you haven’t already. A larger company will, most likely, already have someone in your current role or would be an individual contributor on your team. Ask if you can meet with them — they’ll be able to give you a better sense of the team culture.
- Read the company’s website. A company’s website can offer a wealth of information, from commitment to diversity to company values. The tone of the website (brand colors, company description, and slogans/mottos) can indicate if the company is aggressive, laid-back, oriented to men, etc. What kind of vibe would you like from your employer? Also, most companies have a leadership page — how many executives are from an underrepresented group (e.g., women, Black, Latinx)? If the company has an employees page, what’s the makeup of the team? Will you be the only person in your group at the company, and if so, are you okay with that?
- Look at the company’s LinkedIn. If the company doesn’t have an employee page on their website, you can usually get this information from LinkedIn. Take a look at some employee profiles — how long do folks usually tend to work there? If they’ve been with the company a while, have they been promoted? Not everyone keeps their LinkedIn profile completely up-to-date, but they can still provide signals.
- Read reviews but take them with a grain of salt. Glassdoor is notorious for only including really positive and really negative reviews with nothing in the middle, but reading between the lines or spotting patterns can raise red flags. Do multiple reviews mention a toxic environment, like a bro culture, or working long hours? Do most people approve or disapprove of the CEO?
There’s no perfect job
If you receive an offer, congrats! You now have a decision to make: whether to take the job. Remember that no matter the research you do and the questions you ask, there will still be surprises at your new job.
As Jim Lindstrom, VP of Product & Engineering at Augintel, says, “The number of ways a job can disappoint you are infinite,” so defining what’s important to you going into the interview is crucial.
The ideal working environment and the perfect role doesn’t exist. However, asking questions about the aspects that matter most to you will give you the best chance of finding the right fit for you, but keep in mind that “fit” is subjective: an ideal work-life balance or manager-managee relationship is personal to each individual.
Get help and practice
If you’re not sure how to ask these questions or get a candid answer, asking for advice is always helpful. Try practicing with a mentor, like those on Merit, who can help you workshop your questions and practice asking them.