Reading Culture Signs as an Interviewee

Many years ago, I was part of a cross-functional initiative that seemed headed for failure. I expressed my concerns to one of the coordinators. He closed his office door and said, "Julie, of course it's going to fail. Our job is to do our part well so that we can get our promotions, and so we don't get blamed for the failure." Yikes.  

At the time, I chalked this up to one obstinate individual not willing to do his job properly. I made a lot of noise and frustrated a lot of people trying to help this project succeed (it didn't). That coordinator got his promotion (I didn't). He understood what, at the time, I didn't: The culture of our organization was one that prioritized individual visibility and storytelling over critical feedback and results. Meanwhile, our values statement included honesty, openness, and excellence, among other values equally divorced from the actual behaviors of the team. 

Understanding the reality of an organization's culture is critical for any job seeker deciding whether to accept an offer. As I explore new career opportunities, I've been thinking about how to assess a team's practiced culture within the constraints of the interview process. 

Asking generic questions is an obvious dead-end. There is a right answer to the culture question, and everyone knows what it is. "We're agile and we fail fast!" "We're collaborative!" "We thrive on innovation!" "We value diversity!" "We are a team built on trust!" "We hire smart people and then get out of their way!" "We make a difference every day!" I've heard these phrases spouted by the leaders of cohesive orgs and dysfunctional ones alike. They reveal nothing. 

A better approach is to draw culture-related stories out of hiring managers without ever mentioning the word "culture." This is, of course, the art of behavioral interviewing. It should go both ways during an interview.  

I've used behavioral questions to assess culture during my past career transitions, with mixed results. Some surprises have been pleasant and others uncomfortable, but a common theme has been the discovery, over time, of how patchy a picture I had built from my interview process alone. This is to some degree inevitable. Nevertheless, in the spirit of improvement, I've been looking to my past. Knowing what I know now about the organizations I've been a part of, could I have done a better job of interviewing? Even if my career decisions would have been the same, could I have walked into certain situations with a clearer picture of what I was getting into? 

Of course I could have.  Here's a great example: 

One long-ago interview, for a job I ended up accepting, involved a standard full-day interview loop in the office. In the restroom, I noticed laminated signs in the stalls. I've forgotten the exact wording, but they read, roughly, "If you make a mess, clean it up!" I remember thinking the signs were patronizing. Only toddlers need reminding that they should clean up after themselves in the restroom (this particular company did not employ toddlers, literate or otherwise). Of course, I forgot about the signs immediately after leaving the restroom. They were silly and meaningless. 

Once I started working there, it became clear that the bathroom signs were indeed silly, but they were not meaningless. They were symptomatic of a culture generally lacking in trust. This mistrust manifested itself in HR and IT policies restricting and monitoring attire, communication, and software use. It showed up as outsized, executive-level reactions to small and honest mistakes. It came alive as micromanagement and defensiveness. This place also had good things going for it, of course. On another day I'll write about the mentors and role models who made my time there worthwhile and growth-filled, and about how they and I built cultures of trust within our own teams. 

So, what's the lesson to be learned here? For me, it came from asking myself what I would have done if one of my candidates, when I was a hiring manager, had simply said, "Tell me about the signs in the bathroom."* I'm pretty sure that my involuntary first response would have been to roll my eyes or sigh—clear invitations to a savvy candidate to probe further. Then I would have been forced to justify the signs, or else explain why I thought they were silly. Either answer would have contained significant clues about the corporate culture, for the candidate who was paying attention. A sign can be a sign

These days, I am the candidate who is paying attention. I'm learning from my past. I'm learning to ask about oddities like bathroom signs. I'm learning to respond to statements like, "We care about diversity!" with specific questions about what steps are being taken to improve it and what results have been achieved. I'm learning that companies that lead with, "We have ping pong!" are really saying, "We are not yet mindful about our culture." I'm learning that it is uncomfortable to ask these questions. But I already know that it's less uncomfortable than ending up in an environment whose culture doesn't leave me free to be myself. 

*By the time I was hiring, I had already removed the signs. With help from a trusted colleague.