Assessing Company Culture

A critical part of the interview process is assessing fit – does the candidate fit the company culture and does the company culture fit the candidate?  How can a candidate accurately assess the culture of the company they are considering?

Do Your Research:  Don’t just look at the company website.  Social media will give you much better insight into the culture of the organization.  Look at what they post on Twitter or Facebook.  Check out their videos.  Also look at independent sites such as Glass Door to see feedback from employees.

Network:  Even with social media there is some level of company control over messages.  Talk to current and former employees.  Leverage your Linked In connections and alumni contacts to identify contacts who can tell you what it is like to work there.  Ask them why they chose to join the company.  What keeps them there?  What do they like most about their work there?  What do they like the least?

Observe:  Arrive a few minutes early for your interview.  While you are waiting in the lobby pay attention to how employees interact with one another.  If there is no interaction, that certainly tells you something about the culture.

Pay Attention to Heavy Emphasis:  If everyone you talk to in the interview process mentions the pool table in the lounge or the summer outing, you should do more probing.  If they are all talking about the same thing is the emphasis on the wrong things?  Do their actions support the scripted message?

Before you decide to spend several years of your career with a company, it is critical to gain insight into the culture to determine if this is a place where you would choose to spend your days.



Interview Feedback – Believe it or Not

You just can’t make this stuff up!  I often hear interview feedback that is hard to believe but unfortunately things happen.  Hopefully you can learn what not to do from these stories while I’m confident some will make you chuckle.

Make Yourself Comfortable   – An employer called to inform me that he would not be hiring the student they just interviewed.  While disappointed, I wanted to use it as a learning opportunity so I asked why.  The hiring manager was upset that the candidate put his feet on the manager’s desk during the interview.  I called the student to my office and asked how the interview went.  The student thought he had all the right answers but said he got a bad “vibe” from the manager as the interview ended.  I had to ask more detailed questions and was told “yes, I put my feet up on his desk.  He told me to make myself comfortable.”  Apparently the student did not realize that “make yourself comfortable” means it is ok to remove your jacket or even loosen your tie.

Expletive Not Deleted – In an interview you are putting your best forward to convince the hiring manager that you are the best person for their open position.  I had never occurred to me that we had to specifically tell students not to swear in an interview.  Clearly I was wrong.  I had a distraught employer share feedback that a student had used inappropriate language several times during the course of the interview.  When asked, the student explained that the hiring manager talked about the collaborative work environment so he felt he should just be himself.  Professionalism is certainly expected in most business settings and always in the interview.

White Socks –  We spend time in career management class talking about appropriate professional business attire.  We work to be very clear about our expectations to ensure that students are meeting the expectations of our employers.  You can imagine my horror when I saw a student leaving the interview room with an impeccable, well pressed suit, coordinating shirt and tie, and bright white socks.  I called the student to my office and closed the door.  The student was quick to explain that they were brand new socks.  He bought them for the interview to ensure that they were as clean and bright as possible.  We reviewed the dress code again.  He still thought he had done the right thing and asked if it mattered.  I asked him, “Do you want to be remembered for your experience and skills or for wearing white socks to the interview? “ I never saw him in white socks again.

Weakness with Emphasis – Students are often asked the question “what are your weaknesses?”  We practice that one in class so they are comfortable talking about a developmental area and how they are making progress in that area.  An employer asked that question of a student and she explained that she has a habit of never finishing anything.  She went on in great detail to talk about the closet full of unfinished projects and how after getting started she loses interest and doesn’t go back to a project.  Instead she starts something new and then adds to her collection of unfinished projects.  Not only did she go into significantly more detail than was appropriate she also failed to positively talk about how she was overcoming the issue.  Worse still, she didn’t consider the key skills required for the job – it was a project management job and keeping multiple projects on track and making progress was critical to success in the role.

Overstating Your Abilities – Anything on the resume is fair game and candidates should be expected to be asked about it in an interview.  One student listed proficiency in Mandarin on her resume.  Little did she know that the interview was fluent in Mandarin.  When asked a question in Mandarin, she was unable to answer.  Her credibility was blown early in the interview.  Another student claimed Advanced Excel skills.  When asked by the hiring manager questions about pivot tables and V lookup, the student was not able to respond.  Your credibility is too important to risk it by overstating your skills.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo – Some job applications ask if you were ever convicted of a felony.  It is critical that you answer honestly.  I had a student respond no on the application but the background report showed a conviction.  While there was an explanation and the conviction was eventually cleared, the company would not even consider the student for the job because of integrity issues.  You have to be honest.  If he had disclosed the conviction on the application is would not have been an issue.

Thank You Note Nightmare – I am a strong advocate of the importance of writing thank you notes.  Usually employers are very impressed when they receive thank you notes from our students.  While visiting an employer I had my first sense of doom when he said he wanted to show me a thank you note he received from a student.  My stomach sank as he reached into his drawer.  At the top of the note, his name was spelled incorrectly, crossed out, spelled incorrectly again, crossed out again, and spelled a third time incorrectly.  His reaction was two-fold – clearly attention to detail was an issue for the student but he also felt insulted that he wasn’t worth a fresh notecard instead of sending the note with two crossouts.  Definitely not how you make a positive impression.

Lack of Focus – While candidates should be selling themselves in their interviews, managers continue to report examples of students emphatically stating that they hate the functional area they are working for, the industry the company is in, or the type of work they would be asked to do.  It is important to review your feelings before you decide to apply for the job.  When in an interview you should know what is important in that job and not go out of your way to tell them you don’t like doing that.  Be positive.

Star Attire – We are very clear with our students that professional business attire is a suit.  One young woman with a strong desire to stand out in the crowd chose to wear a glittered mid-riff top under her suit jacket.  Employers to not want to see glimpses of her stomach during the interview and certainly questioned how she would dress in front of clients or prospects.  She stood out but not in the way she intended.

First Impressions Matter

According to humorist Will Rogers, “you never get a second chance, to make a first impression.”  That is never more true than in the interview process.  Candidates want to ensure they make the best possible first impression.

Why Does It Matter So Much?

Interviewers will form an impression of you in the first thirty seconds of the interview.  In their minds, they are trying to answer two questions:  “Do I like you and want to work with you?”  And “Are you good at what you do?”

Do I Like You?

The interviewer is making quick assessments of your warmth.  They register some quick initial impressions of you and spend the rest of the interview confirming or denying their impressions.  They want to know:  “Are you someone that fits well with the team?”  “Would they want to work with you?”  “How do you interact with people?”  How do you convey all this in your interview?  You start with a smile and a confident handshake.  As you start the interview you are attentive and make good eye contact.  If the interviewer tries to engage you in small talk, you respond.  Demonstrate your passion for the work you do with your answers to their questions and the stories you share to answer their behavioral questions.  Remember as you wrap up the interview to say think you and to express your genuine interest in the opportunity.  They may also ask the receptionist at the front desk or the administrative assistant who walks you from one office to another for their impressions as well.  Your interview begins the minute you open their front door.

Are You Good At What You Do?

The interviewer is also trying to evaluate your competence for this particular position.  They want to know how well you performed in your last position and how you plan to translate those skills to meet their needs.  Be prepared to share stories of how you solved problems or handled challenging situations.   Reading the job description will help you focus on what is important to the employer.  Use appropriate language to describe your work and share results where possible.  “What impact did your work have?”  “How did the company benefit from having you in this role?”  “How do you stay current in your field?”  “How do you handle challenges, deadlines, etc.?”  “How did you achieve both accuracy and timeliness in your work?”  While demonstrating your competence to do the job, you want them to start to envision you in their role as a successful contributor.

Remember, it is not just what you say that leaves a lasting impression.  Your content is influenced by how you say it and how you behave.  Don’t forget to smile and maintain eye contact.  Also watch the tone of your answers to ensure you are making the best possible first impression.

Interviewing the Interviewer

It is a common best practice for job seekers to prepare to put their best foot forward in an interviewer.  They will do research on the company and the position.  They will practice common interview questions.  Based on the job description they will consider likely behavioral interview questions and practice their responses.  They should also talk with their networking contacts about the company, the department and the role.  In spite of all this careful preparation, many candidates neglect to prepare for the critical aspect of interviewing the interviewer.

A major goal of the interview is for both parties to assess fit.  They only way the candidate can do this effectively is the have questions prepared to ask the interviewer.  Here are some valuable questions to consider:

Why is this position open at this time?  If it is a new position, you want to understand what business needs supported approval of a new position.  If it is a replacement, was the person promoted and they are backfilling the position or did the employee leave?  If the employee left, how long were they in the position?  How frequently is this position open?  You are seeking insight into the business need for the job, the success of people in this job and how this job is treated within the organization.

How will you evaluate success in this position in the first three, six and twelve months?  You want to know if they have clear expectations of what success looks like and how it is measured.  Are they realistic about the time it will take to ramp up in this new position?

Why did you choose to join this company?  What keeps you here?  Asking a general question about what the culture of the organization is like with likely get you a general answer.  When you personalize it you will hear a much more honest response.

How does this organization develop staff?  No one will promise you a promotion in so many months, and if they do it is likely a red flag.  Instead ask about how they invest in their staff to prepare them for future opportunities.  Do they provide training or support outside training?  Are staff members encouraged to attend relevant conferences?  Is there any type of mentoring program?

Ask about the future of the business  Do enough research to understand key growth initiatives and ask a relevant question that results in valuable information while also demonstrating that you did your homework.  Maybe it relates to a recent press release or a new product but you need to identify something that feels relevant and ask a specific question.

A job candidate can nail their responses to the interviewer’s questions but may not get the job if they are not also interviewing the interviewer.  In addition to the valuable insights you gain to help you assess fit, you are also demonstrating your interest and your preparation.

Anticipate Unusual Interview Questions

Job candidates tend to focus their interview preparation on researching the company and the interviewers while also preparing their responses to “tried and true” interview questions and behavioral questions.  This preparation is all critical to success on the interview.  However candidates must also be prepared for the unexpected if they hope to shine in the interview.

Why do employers ask unusual questions or ask candidates to respond to mini-case situations?  All other interviews are focused on your past performance and the hiring managers are trying to use that data to anticipate how you will perform in their new role.  Case and unusual questions offer the employers and opportunity to see how you think and how you perform under pressure.  It is less about finding the right answer and more about how you think and logically process the information.

Advice for Success in Mini-Case Situations or Unusual Questions

  • Be well prepared for your “tried and true” questions and have several stories prepared that you can use to address a variety of behavioral questions.  The better prepared you are for these questions the less disruptive the unique questions will be.
  • Have key facts in your head in round numbers.  US population and world population for example.  Know key facts about the company and the industry.
  • Practice answering unique questions in advance.  Use online lists of questions to test yourself.  Practice case questions in advance.  The more you practice the better you will perform in the interview.

Examples of Unusual Questions or Mini-Case Situations


  • “What you would do if you were in this job and the CEO called and asked you why sales were down in the X division last month and then told you she needed an answer in an hour before her executive team meeting?”  This isn’t the time to talk about surveying customers or implementing tracking programs for new promotions.  What information do you need to put your hands on?  How would you use that information?  What kinds of questions do you need to ask?  You need to talk them through your thought process to show that you are thinking logically about the issue and finding actionable data.
  • “We’ve experienced disruption in the manufacturing department for each of the last three months due to timing delays of getting the six specific component parts to the assembly station for a critical part of the manufacturing process.  The VP of Manufacturing is very upset and has assured the CEO it won’t happen again next month.  He needs your recommendations first thing in the morning.”  What information do you need and what possible solutions can you offer?  Think through the process out loud so they can see your thought process.
  • “What would you do if the major project you were working on had a deadline of next week to the senior VP and the team can’t agree on next steps?”
  • “What would you do if you lived on an island that ran out of diapers and any materials commonly used to produce diapers?”  I actually had an employer ask this of our students and students enjoyed thinking of creative solutions.  It is less about the specific answer and more about how you think creatively about a problem.  Students who could not provide any response did not advance in the process.
  • If you could be an animal, what type would you be and why?  Clearly no right or wrong answer but they want to see how you think on your feet.
  • “How many cars would be in the parking lot in our ABC store on a Thursday morning between10 and 12?”  Think about what you need to know about their business and that location.  Think about the categories of cars that would be there.  Make assumptions and explain your thought process.
  • “How many replacement tires are sold in the US in a given year?”  Use round numbers to talk through your assumptions and make an informed guess.
  • “What was your favorite thing to play as a child?”

At this point, we are seeing most employers asking a mix of all three types of questions to get as good a sense as possible of how well the candidate will fit in their organization and how well they will be able to perform the specific job.

Remember, employers are assessing not only your skills to perform the job but also you fit with their team and the company.





Selling Yourself in an Interview

Congratulations, you got the interview!  Clearly the hiring manager saw something in your resume and cover letter than earned you a coveted interview slot.  Now the challenge is to sell yourself.

It is important to do your research on the company so you have insightful questions prepared.  You can also practice answering commonly asked interview questions to help you be prepared.  But, it is often the questions they don’t ask directly that make or break the decision.  Being aware of those questions and how they impact your responses can be critical to your success.

Interviewers will ask a lot of questions about your past work.  They may also ask behavioral questions to see how you handle certain situations.  Bottom line, what they really want to know is:

  • Why they should hire you?
  • What you can do for them that others can’t?
  • How well do you fit their organization and team?

Ensure that in your responses to questions about your work, education, skills etc. that you are really answering these underlying questions.  Articulate clearly the skills, expertise and experience you bring that would enable you to succeed in this position.  Demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm for the job and the company.  While they are assessing your fit with their team you need to form your own opinion of how well you fit the culture of the company and the specific work team.

Focus on your transferable skills.  Highlight the results you delivered in your previous work.  Results are much more important and impactful than responsibilities.  Clearly articulate your skills that differentiate you from other candidates.  Use your passion and enthusiasm as a differentiator.  Demonstrate your knowledge of the company and your strong interest by having questions prepared, having held networking meetings with employees of the company, identifying alumni within the organization, and your knowledge of what’s going on in the company and the industry.

To assess fit think about what environment enables you to do your best work.  Are you a team collaborator or an individual contributor?  What do you need from manager?  How would your current manager and colleagues describe you?  Do you research in advance about the culture using online resources and your networking contacts and seek to confirm that information in your interview by observing how people work together.  It can be very revealing to arrive a few minutes early and watch the interaction or lack there off among the employees.

When considering your answers to interview questions, be sure to frame your responses in light of what employers really want to know.  A great way to end your interview is to ask, “what concerns do you have about me as a candidate for this position.”  While it can be scary to hear what they consider obstacles, asking the question demonstrates your strong interest and gives you an opportunity to address those issues or concerns.  You can leave the interviewers with a very positive impression on your way out the door.

Overcoming Objections in an Interview

Job descriptions are often a wish list of all the skills and experience they hope to find in the perfect candidate.  You may not have everything on their wish list but clearly they saw something of value on your resume if you are invited to interview.  As you research the company and prepare your questions for the interviewer as well as practice your responses to anticipated interview questions, don’t forget to prepare for the objections.

There are few absolutely perfect candidates out there so it is likely the interviewer will have some objections or concerns.  If you have multiple interviewers, they may even have different concerns.  You will address those objections more positively if you are prepared for them.  To anticipate objections, review the job description in detail and highlight any qualifications that you do not meet or any experience you do not have.  Think about how you would address each item if your asked.  Some general advice includes:

Do Not Apologize – Never apologize for skills or experience you do not have.  They had your resume and chose to speak with you.  Focus instead on what you do have, how the skills are transferrable or even your track record of learning new systems, industries, whatever.

Embrace the Opportunity – Giving you an opportunity to address the objections is truly a gift.  Instead of leaving them worried about some aspect of your background, they are offering you the opportunity to address it proactively.  If you ae prepared to do so this can strengthen your candidacy.  Never get defensive, just address what you do bring to the table and how you would add value to the company in this role based on the skills and experience you do offer.

Confront the Elephant in the Room – Sometimes you will be doing fine in the interview, the conversation is flowing and things start to wrap up when you realize no have voiced any objections or concerns.  Instead of thinking that means you got the job, you need to confront the issue so you have an opportunity to address it.  Maybe they are not asking because they assume there is something critical missing and you will not advance.  Don’t leave things to chance.  Ask the interviewer if they have any concerns about your ability to make an impact in this role.  That way, if they do have concerns, it puts on them on the table so you have an opportunity to address them.  Better to address any concerns they have than to leave them hidden.

If you can anticipate possible objections and enter the interview prepared to address them, you are more likely to be successful.  It also helps to keep your confidence intact throughout the interview if you are prepared to address the concerns.