Like most buzzwords, “work-life balance” rose to massive popularity only to rapidly become defunct and outdated. If you Google “work-life balance” and “dead,” you will find a host of articles making the case of why the idea of balance is a fallacy, why work-life balance is not the largest predictor of job satisfaction or a detailed explanation of the newly favored term “work-life integration” that seeks to merge all the things we value into one seamless life experience.
No matter the words you use to describe it, having a desire to work in a place that will share and support your values isn’t going away. The challenge remains in figuring out how to test and evaluate a company’s often unspoken work-life beliefs during the interview process.
You want to be selected for the job and don’t want to inadvertently signal that you are less than committed to your career, but you also don’t want to end up in a place that is mismatched to the work-life dynamics you need to thrive.
These three interview questions will help you gain insight into the company’s values and how they will ultimately treat you once you are hired.
1. How would you describe the culture?
This is a standard question and one that interviewers are expecting. Some will have canned answers based on talking points HR provided. Others will give you an honest, from the gut response. Pay attention to which one you are receiving as the latter will be more insightful. But either way, ask each interviewer this question to get a well-rounded view of how the culture is perceived at different levels and functions.
Certain buzzwords will tell you a lot. “Work hard, play hard,” notoriously means that they work long, demanding hours, but have frequent, often extravagant, social outings that will further commit you to being around colleagues instead of your other priorities. Depending on your demands outside of work, this can be attractive or a major red flag.
Other phrases to listen for are “family environment” which likely indicates a people-first philosophy that will at times prioritize individual needs over the clearest or easiest business decision.
“The best idea wins” phrase points to a results-oriented and transparent organization that probably values quality output over hours worked.
Excessive use of the word “collaborative” is a yellow flag of a workplace that may be bogged down with management layers and slow decision-making, which creates the need to spend more time in the office selling your ideas and dealing with politics.
2. What is the best way to communicate with the boss?
If possible, ask this question of your peers or of the boss themselves. Work-life red flags are answers such as, “I’m in meetings most of the day but I catch up on email at night” or “You can usually catch up with her on Sunday evenings,” which show an expectation to work extensively during time you may have allocated to home life or other activities. Pause and consider if this is a problem for you. For some people, it is not, but be honest about what working dynamics would best fit your life.
Other yellow flags are answers about an open-door policy or “We grab each other in the hallway” as these may reflect an in-office culture that could limit your flexibility.
Remote and flexible working has forced many executives to be deliberate about how and when to communicate with team members. If the interviewer has already set up clear 1:1 time slots or communication meetings with their team, it is likely a sign that flexible working necessitated this and is their workplace norm.
3. What is the next step in the hiring process?
You can learn a lot about a company’s values simply from observing your hiring process. Companies that prioritize an employee’s overall life will be thoughtful about your candidate experience.
Was your interview schedule an exhausting all-day ordeal without food or breaks? This is a warning that employee experience may not be a top priority.
How many people are making the hiring decision and how long does it take? This will provide insight into how their business decisions get made, which is especially important if your role will be spearheading new initiatives or trying to bring about organizational change. Consider if they might be prone to acting rashly or moving too slow.
Finally, make sure you understand when and how they will get back to you. Pay attention not just to the timing they give but the manner in which they communicate with you as a candidate. Are they being thoughtful about the time you have already invested and how hard it is to wait for a decision? Do they care about how you might be feeling? Or are they using their power to make the process as easy and noncommittal for them as possible? These small actions can point to larger disconnects between their values and the kind of company you want to work for.
Ask each of these questions and pay attention to the answers. Turn down the instinct to assume the grass will be greener in a new job. If you want to build a career that is aligned with your values, you have to be willing to walk away from companies that aren’t a fit.
Kourtney Whitehead is a career expert and author of Working Whole. You can learn more about her work at Simply Service.