These trick questions can help you uncover company culture in an interview

Nov 06, 2023

3 mins

These trick questions can help you uncover company culture in an interview
Michele O'Brien

Writer and podcast producer based in Brooklyn, NY

Have you ever felt that you could be getting more from your job interviews than just run-of-the-mill information and practical insights? Like, maybe there are some magic words you could use that will uncover a company’s true culture so you can have a sense of what you’re getting into before you accept an offer. Turns out there are no magic words, but LinkedIn Top Voice and tech career coach Dr. Kyle Elliott gave us a crash course on how to make sure you’re asking questions wisely and judiciously when you’re interviewing for a new role.

You’re an individual—ask like it!

Though there are plenty of LinkedIn posts and articles extolling the virtues of asking this question or that question, regurgitating online talking points won’t help you stand out. Elliott suggests first taking some time to figure out “what you really want to know about the company, about their culture, about their values, and then craft questions based on what you actually want to know.” Maybe you’re a new parent, or require a hybrid schedule—ask questions to get a sense of whether this company can provide what you need.

There’s also an opportunity to use the questions you have for the hiring manager to share more about yourself. Elliott uses himself as an example. “I could ask ‘Oh, does [company] support employee mental health?’, but I could pivot that question and say, ‘You know what, I’m passionate about mental health. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on mental health. I’m curious … how it is that [company] supports employee mental health?’” By framing it this way, you can give the hiring manager a clear sense of your own priorities and make a memorable, lasting impression.

Flip the script

If you ask a hiring manager a yes-or-no question, says Elliott, you’ll be able to glean far less than if you ask something more open-ended that requires a specific answer. So, consider taking the approach that many hiring managers will take with you and ask a behavioral question. One suggestion from Elliot is, “‘Can you tell me about a time that you changed or the company changed policy or process or a system as a result of employee feedback?’” The way a hiring manager answers that question (or another one with the ‘tell me about a time …’ framing) will give you more crucial information about what the company culture is actually like.

Read the nonverbal room

Sometimes, you’re asking a question to get an answer, but it can also be a great practice to ask a question in order to observe body language. For example, ask your interviewer what their favorite part is of working at their company. Does it take them a long time to answer? Do they stammer before answering? Or do they enthusiastically share about the people, the culture, or the perks?

Likewise, if you’re interviewing with a panel of multiple people, clock the interpersonal dynamics: is there one person who is clearly dominating the conversation? Do other interviewers hesitate and check in with them before they answer? Does it seem like anybody is fearful of anybody else, or does the panel seem like a united team? “Trust your intuition,” advises Elliott. Nonverbal communication is an important way to gauge whether the company is a fit for you.

Do your research

In addition to the verbal and nonverbal information you can glean in the interview, make sure you’re using all possible channels to get the skinny about the companies you’re interviewing with. Of course, LinkedIn is the gold standard: you can use it to research and contact former employees of the company, and possibly even the people who’ve held the open role themselves in the past. (You can also use it to get a sense of how long employees stay at the company, and whether they advance.) Elliott also suggests poking around Reddit to find current or former employees to ask about the culture. There are also industry-specific communities like Blind, or perhaps even Facebook groups and listservs. People are often willing to talk to prospective employees, so don’t be shy about reaching out with clear, specific questions.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t just use stock questions; think critically about what a company culture needs to provide in order to meet your needs and tailor your questions to that.
  • Ask open-ended questions so the hiring manager has to be specific!
  • Make sure you’re picking up on non-verbal cues as well as the verbal answers to your questions.

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