What can you learn from an interview?
When going on a job interview, there is a lot you can learn about an organization through observation. I always think it’s important to pay close attention to certain factors to assess whether you are really interested in the job or would be a good fit. Here are some things to look at:
Who’s on the search committee?
- If the organization doesn’t include the people who would be your future co-workers, direct reports, or even worse, your future boss, that tells you there are some political issues going on.
- If your future direct reports aren’t in the decision-making, you are probably going to be entering a very hierarchical organization and/or one where you are being hired to do a turnaround effort or change the organizational culture.
- I was once interviewed by an organization where my future boss wasn’t in the discussion—because I was being brought in to be an organizational change agent but without the authority to make serious change. That was a red flag if I ever saw one.
- The number of people who interview, as well as their level in the organization, is a direct reflection of the importance of your job. If you are only interviewed by one low- or mid-level person, chances are your job is an entry-level one. If you are interviewed in 3 rounds or more and by more than 10 people including the top person in the organization, your job is a key hire.
What do people wear?
- Suits with ties or “office/business formal” dark suits indicate a businesslike or corporate environment
- Sweaters and nice blouses, or button-down shirt and khaki pants indicates an office-casual environment
- Tie-dyed t-shirts and jeans or shorts indicate a totally casual environment, typically seen in a grass-roots nonprofit or a technology startup.
How is the office environment organized and decorated?
- What pictures are on the wall? Are there awards prominently displayed? The culture of the organization is often directly reflected in the way it’s decorated—an international nonprofit might display textiles made my people in the countries where they work; an environmental organization might have a LEED-certified building, etc.
- Is the office well-organized, or are there piles of unfiled papers everywhere?
- Is the office newly painted, with up-to-date computers and furnishings? Or is it covered in orange shag carpeting from the 1970’s, with old khaki filing cabinets and broken-down furniture? This is a clue about how much funding is available.
- How professional are the decorations? An informal office environment might allow everyone to prominently display pictures of their cat or dog, or a funny or cute joke picture around, remnants from an office party, etc. A more formal one might not allow these.
- Are there other clues to the culture on display? For instance, I was once interviewed by someone who had a large “Want a Raise? Take a Number” picture on display on his desk. I was hopeful this was meant as a joke—but it might not have been. Other little clues might be pictures of kids indicating a family-friendly environment; a “safe zone” decal indicating a LGBT-friendly environment, etc.
- Are there a lot of empty desks, possibly indicating recent layoffs? Or is the place packed to the gills, indicating a need for expansion or recent growth?
- Hierarchy is also reflected in the way the office is organized. Do most people have small cubicles, but the boss has a corner office? Or is everyone in an open office, or with conference rooms with class walls, indicating a flat hierarchy and open communications? Some companies have a special floor on the highest level of a skyscraper which has nicer wooden desks and special food and drinks only for the senior corporate executives. Some dispense with such hierarchy and keep the senior executives on the same floor.
All of these clues help guide you towards deciding if the organization is a good fit for you or not.