How can you tell if the company you’re interviewing with is rotten on the inside?

How can you tell the companies who are earnestly trying to improve apart from the ones who sound all polished and healthy from the outside, whilst rotting on the inside?

This seems to be on a lot of minds right now, what with the Great Resignation and all. There are no perfect companies, just like there are no perfect relationships; but there are many questions and techniques you can use to increase your confidence that a particular company is decent and self-aware, one whose quirks and foibles you are compatible with.

Interviews are designed to make you feel like you are under inspection, like the interviewer holds all the power. This is an illusion. Your labor is valuable — it is vital — and you should be scrutinizing them every bit as closely as they you. In fact, here is Tip #1:

  • If they allow you plenty of time to converse with your interviewers throughout the process, great. If they tack on a cursory “any questions for us?” while wrapping up, they don’t think it matters what you think of them. Pull the ripcord.

Collect and practice good interview questions for you to ask potential employers. Write them down — your mind is likely to go blank under stress, and you don’t want to let them off the hook. There is a LOT of signal to be gained by probing down below the surface answers.

Backchanneling

  1. Whisper networks and backchannels are incredibly important. It can be especially valuable to talk to someone who has recently left the company: why did they leave? Would they go there again?
  2. Alternately, do you know anyone who has worked for or with their leadership, even if not at that company?
  3. If you know any women or under-represented minorities (URM) who work there, buy them lunch and ask for the unvarnished truth. That’s where you usually turn up the real dirt. 🥂

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Just because a company has a diverse workforce doesn’t necessarily mean it is a healthy place to work. (But it’s fair to give some points up front, because that doesn’t usually happen by accident.)

  1. Do they have a diverse leadership team? A diverse board?
  2. Is their company diverse overall, or are minorities concentrated in a few (lower-paying, high-turnover) departments?
  3. You might not want to write off all the companies that don’t meet points one and two, if for no other reason than it dramatically shrinks your available option pool. If they don’t have a particularly diverse team, and this is something that matters to you, that’s your cue to dig deeper:
    • Are they bothered by their lack of diversity? What’s the plan? Do they just feel generically sad about it, or have they set specific goals to improve by specific dates? What investments are they making?
    • Who works on DEI stuff currently? (Answers like “HR and recruiting”, or “we have a woman who’s really good at it” are bad answers.)
    • Who is accountable for making sure those goals are hit? (The only right answer is “our execs”. Having a “chief diversity officer” is an anti-pattern in my book.)
    • If the team is all guys, for example, ask if they’ve ever had any women on the team in the past. Did she/they leave? Do they know why?
  4. This is a GREAT one: “As a white man, I’d ask what they’ve done to find qualified women and minorities for the role I’m interviewing for.” (via David Daly) 🔥🔥

Company stuff

  1. What are their values? Do they feel bloodless and ripped from the pages of HBR, or are they unique, lived-in, and give you a glimpse of what the people there care about? Are they mentioned over the course of your interview?
  2. Ask tough questions about the business and try to ascertain whether they are hitting their quarterly goals, how much funding they have in the bank, what the growth curve looks like, what users really think about their product, and what the biggest obstacles to success are.
    • Companies that are floundering are going to be really stressful places to work, and even if the leadership is decent, they may find themselves backed into making some really tough decisions.
    • You want to work at a company on a strong growth trajectory for lots of reasons, but a big one is your own growth potential. You will learn the most the fastest at places that are growing fast, and have way more openings for promotions and leadership roles than a slower-growing company.
  3. Are people willing to speak freely about things they’ve tried that have failed, and things that don’t work well currently? Being self-aware and comfortable with visible failure are two of the most important self-correcting mechanisms a company can cultivate.
  4. EVERYBODY thinks they value transparency, so I wouldn’t even bother asking. Instead, ask for specific examples of leadership being forthcoming with bad news to the team, and team members delivering hard feedback or bad news to upper leadership. Transparency shouldn’t be something they’re especially proud of, so much as it is taken for granted. It’s in the air that you breathe.

Planning and the unplanned

  1. Ask about how decisions get made. A chestnut is, “how does work end up on my plate?” — meaning is there a business strategy (owned by whom?), a technical strategy, a product strategy, quarterly KPIs, customer requests, manager delegation, JIRA tickets…? (The most important part may be how similar the answers you get are. 🙃)
  2. How often does work get pre-empted and why? It’s a good thing if product development has to get put on ice once in a while so the team can focus on reliability and maintenance work. It’s a bad thing if they’re expected to stuff reliability work in the cracks around their product development, or if they’re incapable of sticking to a plan.
  3. What does “crunch time” look like? Nearly every company has one from time to time (it might even be a bad sign if it never happens), but this is when you find out your leadership’s true colors.
    • Do they praise people or call them out to thank them for pulling all nighters and other extremist behaviors? 🚨BZZT🚨
    • Is it voluntary? Are you trusted to set your own pace, your own limits, or are you pressured to do more? Are people expected to participate to the extent that they are able, and not expected to justify how hard or how much (so long as they communicate their capacity, of course)?
    • How long did it last, and how often does it happen, and why? It should be rare (1-2x/year at most), involve the whole company, and move the business forward meaningfully
    • Did they follow through by making sure people took time off afterwards to recover? Not just give permission, but actually make sure the human beings had a chance to refresh themselves? Did leaders set a good example by taking a breather themselves?

Believe it or not, crunch time done correctly can be an enormously exciting, intense, bonding time for a group of people who love what they do, culminating in a surge of collective triumph and celebration, followed by recovery time. If it was done correctly, and you ask about it afterwards, people will 💡light up💡.

Team stuff

  1. Unfortunately, culture can vary widely from function to function, even from manager to manager. Make sure you get a real interview slot with your actual manager — not just a screener or wrap-up call — and as much of the team as possible, too.
  2. Ask your potential manager about the last person they had to let go. Why? What was the process? What was the impact on the team? How did the person feel afterwards?
  3. Who is on call? How often do people get paged outside of hours, and how frequently do they work an incident? (Do managers track this?) Are you expected to keep shipping product during on call weeks, or devote your time to making the system better?
  4. If you had to ship a single line of code to production using the deploy pipeline, how long would that take? Remember, the lower the deploy interval, the happier and more productive you are likely to be as an engineer there. Under 15 minutes is great. Under an hour is tolerable. More than that, proceed with great caution.

The interview itself

  1. Was your interview well-organized and conducted in a timely fashion? Were you given detailed information about what to expect, and were your interviewers well-prepared, and conversational? Were the questions fair, open-ended, and relevant to the job in question?
  2. If they asked you to perform any kind of take-home labor of more than an hour or so, did they compensate you for your time?
  3. Did they get back to you swiftly at each step of the way to let you know where you stand and what comes next?
  4. Did you find the questions interesting and challenging? Do they have a clear idea of what success looks like for you in this role? Did you leave excited and buzzing with ideas about the work you could do together?
    • This is 👆 definitely more of a “how good is this job” question than “is this a shithole” question, but one of our honeycombers brought it up as an example of how a great interview can make you decide to leave a job , even one you’re perfectly happy with.
  5. The questions they ask you while interviewing you are the questions they ask everyone else. So…did they ask you about your views on diversity and team dynamics while interviewing you? Or is that not part of their filters, only their advertised persona?

Three more

  1. Do their employees seem to speak freely on twitter? If you are an agitator of sorts, are there others who agitate about similar issues — either with company support, or at least lack of censorship?
  2. How does the company respond to criticism and feedback? For that matter, how do they treat their competitors? Being competitive is fine, being mean is not.
  3. Get clear on your own expectations. What’s on your wishlist, and what’s make-or-break for you? If something is very important to you, consider telling the hiring manager up front. For example, “These are my expectations for how women are treated. How do you think your company matches up?” Their answers will speak volumes, and so will their comfort level with the question.

In closing

If you a join a new company, and two or three weeks in you’re just not feeling it, you’re wondering if you made a mistake — leave. You do not owe them a year of your life. Trust your instincts. Just leave it off your resume entirely and roll the dice again.

Employers are all too accustomed to feeling (and acting) like they hold all the power. They do not. Every tech company is a talent business, which rises and falls on the caliber of the people they can convince to stay. They aren’t doing you a favor by employing you; you are doing THEM a favor by lending them your creativity, labor, and a third of the hours in your day.

Do they deserve it? Will their success make the world a better place? If not, stop supporting them with your work and lend your muscle to a company that deserves it.

In the hottest job market of my lifetime, with millions of opportunities newly open to people who live literally anywhere, you owe it to yourself, your future self, and your family to take a good hard look at where you sit. 🍄 Are you happy? 🍄 Are you compensated well, is your time valued? 🍄 Are you still learning new things and improving your skills every day? 🍄 Is your company still on a growth trajectory? 🍄 Do you trust your leadership and your team, 🍄 do still you believe in the mission, and 🍄 do you think your labor contributes meaningfully to making the world a better place?

If not, consider joining the Great Resignation. I hear they have cookies.

Huge thanks to Amy Davis, Phillip Carter, Ian Smith, Sarah Voegeli, Kent Quirk, Liz Fong-Jones, Amanda Shapiro, Nick Rycar, Fred Hebert and David Daly, all of whom contributed to this post!

How can you tell if the company you’re interviewing with is rotten on the inside?

11 thoughts on “How can you tell if the company you’re interviewing with is rotten on the inside?

  1. Horst says:

    “So…did they ask you about your views on diversity and team dynamics while interviewing you? Or is that not part of their filters, only their advertised persona?”

    That’s ridiculous quality metric.

  2. Hiring says:

    For one person who turns their nose from an opportunity, there are 10 hungry people with worse accents and less entitlement

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