How to use culture fit to impress your interviewer

Students often make the mistake of underestimating the importance of culture. Here’s how to ask tailored, unique questions to understand a company’s culture and impress the interviewer.

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“What’s the culture like?” — the student asks the recruiter.

Probably the 4 most useless words in the job hunting process. You may not realize it, but what the student really means is:“I don’t care enough about this job to do any research on the culture, so I’m going to ask an extremely vague question and want you to say something that sounds pleasant.”

Okay, a bit harsh… but it’s the truth.

Hang on! Isn’t asking about the company culture just a ploy for people to suck up to recruiters and interviewers? Who cares about silly stuff like that!

You should, and here’s why:

Culture = day-to-day happiness

You cannot ignore culture if you value being happy and fulfilled in your full-time job.

  • Do you want to wake up everyday excited for work?
  • Do you want to enjoy your weekends AND look forward to work on Monday?
  • Do you want to have a great social life with your work friends?
  • Do you want to be valued by your managers and peers?
  • Do you want mentors to look out for your professional development and career growth?

The list is infinite and the answers are all highly correlated to culture.

Unfortunately, some of the best and most prestigious companies in the world are notorious for having some of the worst cultures. That being said, I won’t say that you should make your final employment decision purely off of culture, but it is an important factor that deserves your attention.

Furthermore, understanding the company culture will give you a massive competitive advantage in interviews. Consider 2 candidates for a job:

Candidate 1: “…and that’s why I want to work here, [insert company name] has a fantastic culture and seems like a good fit for me”

Candidate 2: “…and that’s why I want to work here, I value [insert company name]’s hands-off culture and focus on professional development through honest feedback. Through my past internships, I realized I do best in flexible environments that allow me to be a bit more entrepreneurial in my work. I also got in the habit of asking my co-workers for feedback after every work deliverable to constantly push my learning. All of this reaffirms my belief that [insert company name] is a great culture fit”

Now, imagine you’re the interviewer. Which candidate is selling you on their culture fit? Which one would you give the offer to?

Passing an interview is not only about technical competency. I’ve heard of some top-notch companies with hiring processes that focus mostly on culture fit.

So what do you ask instead of “What’s the culture like?” The rest of this article will arm you with specific questions and a framework to help you dig into a company’s culture.

How to find the truth about a company’s culture

When asking questions about culture in an info session, career fair, or interview, there are 2 types of responses you will get.

Response #1: The fluffy recruiting answer that always sounds great but never actually tells you anything.

Response #2: A raw, unprepared answer with a higher likelihood of exposing the honest reality of working at that company.

I’m sure you can guess which response we are going for.

The key to getting response #2 is to ask specific questions about an objective fact, action, or event in the workplace that will reveal what the culture is actually like.

Enough theory — let’s get to the examples. I’ve split my favorite questions into 3 categories.

Social

  1. Do people hang out with each other (coworkers) outside of work? What are some things you all like to do together?
  2. How does lunch work? Do people generally eat with coworkers or do their own thing?
  3. Are you still in touch with people who left? Is the team pretty close-knit?

What we are looking for: Do you genuinely enjoy being around your coworkers? Studies show that employees with a best friend at work are more focused, more passionate, and more loyal to their organizations. They get sick less often, suffer fewer accidents, and change jobs less frequently.1

Work Environment

  1. How does the way this team operates differ from other teams in the company?
  2. Does this team work closely with other teams? Which ones and how so?
  3. Do people work in groups/teams or individually? What would you say is the percentage breakdown between group and individual work?
  4. Can you walk me through the process of a typical project? What are the phases and how does it change hands between the analysts [or other level of role you are applying for] and management?
  5. What are the typical hours like? Is there weekend work? How often?

What we are looking for: Does this seem like a team-oriented work environment where we are working together? Will the work culture enable me to perform my best and feel appreciated?

Development

  1. Who would I report to?
  2. Would there be regular 1 on 1’s, or are their occasional touch-bases throughout projects?
  3. Is there any flexibility in the type of work I’ll be doing or is it mostly determined by what needs to get done?
  4. What types of behavior are expected or rewarded that may be different from a __ and __? (A friend of mine used this question to learn more about a corporate strategy job. He wanted to learn how it was different from a consulting firm or investment bank)
  5. What is the general progression of analysts [or role you’re applying for] who do well?

What we are looking for: Does the company care about my professional and personal development? Are they invested in my growth or do they just want to squeeze as much work output from me as possible? Do they value their employees enough to promote upon strong performance?

As you can see, most of these questions are relatively objective in nature. For example, rather than asking what the social culture is like, you could ask, “Do you eat with your coworkers or hang with each other outside of work?” Unless the person lies, you will likely be able to get a read on the company culture from their response.  

Ask about facts, actions, or events, and deduce what the culture is like from that information. This is a great discussion topic to get more value out of informational networking calls, career fairs, and even first round interviews.

How do you come up with questions?

You may recall from an earlier article that my goal with 2 by 22 is not to tell you what to think, but rather to offer a different mindset for solving recruiting and career problems.

I view the step-by-step guides, conversational scripts, and questions outlined earlier as telling you what to say.

And from the response, it’s safe to assume that this type of information is very helpful. I get it… we all like being told specifically how to do things.

At risk of sounding a bit academic, it’s also important to understand the rational and “why” behind the “what”. That’s why my articles aren’t just 500 words of “here’s what to do.” I encourage you to challenge or adapt my ideas and how-to’s to best fit your life.

So how does that apply here?

You need to come up with your own personalized questions. Use my list to start, but take responsibility and craft custom questions to dig for the company cultures that best fit your personality.

And how do you come up with culture questions?

Simple — reflect on your experiences. Think through any meaningful professional experience you have up until this point. Any internships, part-time jobs, school projects, classes, student organization involvement, nonprofit work, even sports (not professional, but still)… literally anything.

What did you like about each experience? Was there anything that stood out to you that you didn’t like?

If you’ve done 2 internships and are involved with a student club, you probably have enough data to figure out what types of cultures you thrive in. Reflect on the likes and dislikes of each, and form your hypothesis.

In other words, if you woke up tomorrow in a dream world where you absolutely loved your job, what would it look like? Describe it… reply back to this email with your response.

Once you have your hypothesis of a dream-world company culture, come up with a handful of fact/action/event-based questions and start scheduling networking calls.

And when you make it to the final round where the interviewer asks “why do you want to work here,” you’ll be prepared with specific components of the company culture that resonate with you.

That, is how you stand out.  

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