Research shows that organizations with a positive culture not only have happier, more engaged employees, but also enjoy improved collaboration, creativity and business results. That being said, a company’s culture is an intangible asset, defined by everything from its physical space to how people interact face-to-face—which can make assessing the culture a difficult proposition during a remote interview (and for the moment, the vast majority of job interviews are still remote).
So what’s the best way to assess a company’s culture during the interview process? Yes, it’s difficult to do a full vetting through your laptop screen, but you can still watch out for some key signals and red flags.
Look for Outward Culture Signs
Studying how the company describes its culture to candidates on social media and its website can reveal key insights into its culture.
Culture-first companies tend to showcase their values and the way they treat people, since it makes their company more appealing to top talent, explained Matt Liptak, director of Talent Acquisition for cloud cybersecurity firm Mimecast. (For instance, here are some examples of well-defined software engineering cultures.)
Even in a company with a distributed workforce, a strong culture should be evident in everything they do, whether that’s a group chat or daily discussion on Slack, Liptak noted.
Once you have identified the culture, check the reviews on sites such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn, and be prepared to ask some reverse behavioral questions to see if their claims are true or just lip service (a recent survey showed that just 28 percent of employees strongly agree that their employers’ values and actions are aligned).
For instance, if the company prides itself on fostering entrepreneurial autonomy, you could ask: “Can you give me an example of your decision-making process? Or would I be allowed to discuss changes to the product design or strategy directly with the product manager?”
Perform a ‘Mini Culture Audit’
Even if a company’s culture is not formally stated or documented, it still exists. (For instance, Netflix launched in April 1998, but didn’t publish its first culture deck until 2009.)
If that’s the case, don’t make assumptions, cautioned Maria Clyde, director of Human Resource at B+H Insurance. The onus will fall on the job-seeker to discern the company’s stated and implicit values, how work gets done, and how you might fit in if you join.
How to begin your personal culture audit? By posing questions that are often part of a more formal, larger-scale culture check or audit, you can gain an awareness of the company’s culture and identify problem areas. (Here are some examples to get you started.)
Be on the lookout for signs of toxicity and cultural risk such as unethical behavior, a lack of accountability, conflicts or inconstancies.
“Everyone you meet during the hiring process should be able to describe the culture to you in a consistent way, and if they can’t, that’s a red flag,” Liptak noted.
Pay Attention to the Hiring Process
The way a company conducts the hiring process speaks volumes about its work environment and cultural values.
Even at a startup, the process should be well-organized, professional and address the needs of the candidate. For instance, it’s a red flag if the company won’t let you have a video meet-and-greet with several team members during the later parts of the interview process. Likewise, be cautious if the hiring manager leaves you hanging or appears to be disheveled or disengaged.
Pay special attention to essential and vital aspects of communication, because that speaks to culture and empowerment, Clyde added. For instance, an honest company with an empowering culture will anticipate your need for information and provide proactive and transparent details about its culture and policies, as well as procedures for onboarding new hires and mapping their development (once you’ve reached that stage of the interview process, of course).
Does the interviewer invite and value your opinion? Do the various team members seem relaxed and comfortable with each other? Does the company have a formal plan for building trust and fostering collaboration when employees rarely meet face-to-face? How people interact with each other is indicative of the culture—and that’s something you can pick up from remote and virtual interactions, even if you don’t set foot in an office during the interviewing period.
Follow the Leaders
High-performing companies don’t let culture “just happen.” Their leaders work to deliberately shape a positive, unique culture that unites employees.
“Corporate culture is usually derived from the top-down, so you definitely want to get a feel for what the executives and founders are like and whether they have a formal strategy for maintaining the culture as the company grows or transitions to remote,” Liptak said.
For instance, if the co-founders argue or they are difficult to work with—and that comes through during the interview—there’s a good chance that their company will have a toxic work culture.
Getting the culture thing right is hard… and great leaders admit that. But they still make an effort to consciously design their culture to be an essential asset that attracts top talent.