How to Vet a Startup’s Culture While Interviewing

November 7, 2019
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When you’re interviewing or working at startups, the idea of “company culture” comes up a lot. It’s a catch-all term for the way the company and its people work—their attitudes, their environment, and their shared values. Some companies articulate their culture intentionally; others simply let it emerge organically from their interpersonal dynamics, habits, and practices.  Company culture encompasses how team members work together, what the dynamic in the office is like, and how the team makes business decisions.

Hiring managers are looking for candidates who are culture fits or adds—ones who either fit well within the company dynamic or bring a unique perspective to the team. Knowing that culture can be an important factor in your odds of getting a role or being happy on the team, how do you assess a company’s culture during the interview process?

Company values

Whether they’re simply known among employees or written on the office walls, each company has their own unique set of core values that dictate how they operate, how they build the team, and how they encourage and empower their workers. While they’re no longer a startup, Airbnb’s four core values are a good example. Their team strives to

  1. champion the mission
  2. be a host
  3. embrace the adventure
  4. be a “Cereal Entrepreneur” (creatively turning bold ideas into reality). This is the blueprint for how they operate.

Today, a lot of startups tackle a specific problem because they think they can make a meaningful cultural impact, and it definitely resonates with potential employees. Many of the candidates that apply to specifically call out their interest in mission-driven organizations. These companies’ values are typically a little more apparent than the values of your average Fortune 500 firm. Some interviewers may speak to these values overtly or they may weave them into their questioning. Either way, getting a sense of what the company values can greatly inform your potential happiness and success on the team. Ask your interviewer what values they look for in team members, and what values they have as a company. If your personal and professional values align with theirs, then it might just be the perfect match.

Working style

An important part of figuring out if a new company is for you is getting a sense of how their work style compares to yours. Take inventory of the space and people when you head in for your in-person interview to determine if they’re conducive to how you like to work. If you have a list of requirements or preferences to ensure your happiness in a job, be sure to ask how the company feels about them:

  • If working remotely is important to you, is that something they’re open to?
  • If you like to stop checking emails after the workday is over, will you be missing out on crucial information?
  • If you need quiet to get your work done, are there separate rooms or areas where that’s possible?
  • What does their annual review process look like?
  • How well do teams collaborate?

The more you can get an idea of whether you’ll feel happy and comfortable in advance of signing on full time, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

Will you get along?

Startups are small, often tight-knit teams of people who generally don’t have the luxury of carving out autonomous projects and working on them until they’re ready to present. There’s a lot of shoulder-to-shoulder, cross-functional work, and the grind of the early years tends to mean long hours. Some companies prioritize and protect work-life balance, but plenty still go the “work hard, play hard” route—and even if they don’t, you’ll still be working closely all day, every day.

Because of all the facetime, it’s important for both parties in the hiring process to get a sense of each other as individuals. A good way to dig into your hiring manager’s psychology is to ask about motivations: ask questions like, “What drew you to this company?” or “What’s your favorite part about working here?” Making some questions a bit less about the work itself and more about the environment or mission will give you a broader frame of reference for what the employees are like. Then, if you’re already riffing and having a great conversation, feel free to drop a few hints about your (noncontroversial) interests to see how the interviewer will react to you as a person, not just as an employee.

As far as the “play hard” side goes, feel free to ask what the team does for fun (and how often). Iif you aren’t interested in the startup-stereotype party culture (or if you don’t want to feel pressured to hang out with your coworkers after hours), then perks like an office keg or mandatory happy hours might be indicative that it isn’t the place for you.

Employee investment & career advancement

One of the major draws to startups is that they’re designed for rapid growth. If you do good work and the company is successful, you can grow your career simultaneously. To understand how your career may advance during your tenure at a company, it’s important to get a sense from the hiring manager of how your professional goals align. Don’t be afraid to ask what the company and team will look like in six months, two years, or five years—and how your role may evolve. For instance, are they hiring you to execute now and plan on hiring a leader down the road to manage you? Or is there a possibility that you’ll be expected to manage the next round of hires?

Separately, consider their interest in fostering your skills along the way. Does their offer include potentially covering training or certification programs? What about conferences? What are the educational benefits offered?

Although it can be tricky to ask these kinds of questions while you’re still in the interviewing phase, you should try to find out what you can before signing on. Looking at the general layout of the company and how they invest in their employees can help you get a better sense of where the job can take you in your career.

Diversity & inclusion

Historically, the tech industry has been predominantly white and male. Some founders think it’s a pipeline issue and that real progress won’t happen for a while. Whether it’s as a result of the candidate pool or bad decisions made by higher-ups, there’s no denying that homogeneous teams are a problem. In recent years, companies have taken to diversifying the workforce not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it results in a better representation of all perspectives and viewpoints and leads to better financial returns.

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a recruiter or hiring manager about a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. You can also look at the company’s website—does the team have someone in charge of diversity and inclusion? Is there an internal committee dedicated to these topics? If at least one of these elements isn’t visible or if the questions you ask don’t get compelling answers, then diversity and inclusion might not be top of mind for the company. If that’s the case, then you might want to steer clear.

While knowing exactly what you’re in for at a new startup can be difficult before your first day in the office, these considerations and questions will improve your understanding of their culture before making things official. Be thoughtful, consider all the factors that go into a positive work experience, and stand up for what you need from an employer. You’ll be setting yourself up for life-long success, wherever you end up.

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