12 Small Clues You Can’t Ignore When Interviewing

Yesterday at a department store, I heard an employee telling a co-worker about an upcoming job interview. “They want me to shave my beard, but I don’t want to.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe he should cancel the interview altogether.”

Sure, refusing to shave a beard seems like a trivial – or even childish – reason to lose out on a job.  But the employee’s (emotional) attachment to his facial hair is also a red flag for job misalignment. Every job interview is a window into the company’s culture. If you are asked to make unwanted changes before you even start working for the company, is the job really for you?

In the short amount of time it takes to interview for a position, I guarantee you will see and hear plenty of clues about your future happiness at the company. Make sure you pay attention to any obvious personal disconnects. Here are 12 seemingly small, but hugely important things you should consider before you accept your next job.

1. Time Off

A few months ago, I talked with a friend of mine who values family time more than anything else. Despite this, he took a job at a company that only offers two weeks vacation a year, including sick time. With such a stingy time off policy, the company obviously does not value the same things. When I recently asked my friend how things were going, he said he probably wouldn’t be there long.

2. Working Hours

Like vacation time, if personal time outside of work is important to you, find out what the normal working hours are – NOT what the published working hours are. These are frequently two separate things.

I have worked for companies that said their work hours were 9 to 5, but in reality most people were working from 8 to 8. One way to get the scoop about a company’s real working hours is to drive by the parking lot an hour before and after the company’s official “work hours” and count the cars. If the location is in a big city without accessible parking lots and working hours are important to you, ask the question directly.

3. Work Location

If you need to relocate or drive a distance to a new office, make sure you are comfortable living in one of the surrounding communities and with the commute. I have withdrawn my name from good job opportunities because my wife and I did not want to live in the area.

Other questions: Will you be required to work in the office or is there a remote working option? How flexible and results oriented is the company culture? If you don’t like being stuck in an office five days a week, don’t take a job at a company that requires it. You will most likely find the greatest flexibility in Results-Only Work Environments.

4. Acknowledgement

While you were waiting for your interview, did anyone passing through the lobby acknowledge you or say hello? How about when you walked through the halls to get to your meetings? Friendly employees are a sign of an engaged workforce.

5. Care

The interest and respect you experience before and during the interview also speaks volumes about how a company treats its employees. Did you have to wait in the lobby well past your scheduled interview time? If so, did anyone apologize or explain the reason why?

Once in the interview, did your interviewers let you speak and fully answer the questions they asked or did they cut you off every chance they got? Did they seem present with you or distracted by others, incoming emails or phone calls? Interviewers who don’t care are likely to be employers who don’t put a lot of effort into supporting their employees.

Were your interviewers prepared for your interview? Had they reviewed your resume? Did they have thoughtful questions to ask you based on what they knew about you? Preparation is a sign of care for others.

If you are – or you see others – treated poorly or inconsiderately during your interview stage, you can guarantee that it will be magnified by 10 when you start working for the company.

6. Receptionist Interaction

From my personal interviewing experience, a receptionist can tell you a lot about the culture of a company. Even if they are contractors, the first person you meet at any company should be important to the company.

If you find the receptionist unfriendly, unhelpful, or clearly uninterested in your presence or their job, you should take note. Their disengagement may reflect the entire workforce. Pay special attention to how the receptionist interacts with other passing employees too.

7. Availability

Did your interview get rescheduled numerous times or take weeks to book? It could be that all the interviewers are extremely busy or traveling a lot – a key indication of the company culture. If it is difficult to pin down your future manager for an interview, you may find the same frustration when you try to reach them as an employee.

8. Websites

As an HR professional and writer I have had numerous companies interested in telling me about their progressive workplace environments. When I looked at some of their websites, there was not a single mention of their employees or culture. If it is not highlighted on their website, you probably won’t find it at the company either.

9. Cleanliness

What does the lobby look like? Hallways? Offices? Are they clean and well kept or dirty and unorganized? Is this the type of working environment that will make you comfortable? Unorganized and un-kept environments can be a sign of much bigger organizational issues like low employee engagement and even ethics problems – disrespect for company property, rules, policies, and laws.

In retail organizations, you can usually find a lot of great cultural information by their store’s restrooms or employee break rooms. I frequently check for them and what I find tells me a lot about their employee recognition programs, community and charity involvement, and employee engagement initiatives.  In non-retail environments, the “bathroom location” rule usually still applies because it is a high traffic area.

10. Dress Code

If you love wearing jeans or shorts and t-shirts to work, don’t take a job that requires suits and business attire. If you like wearing suits, you will not be comfortable coming to work in jeans. Being comfortable at work will improve your confidence, productivity, and engagement.

11. Recruiter Insights

I was once called to interview for a company where the recruiter warned me not to be late. “The president has a real pet peeve about tardiness,” he told me. While I appreciate the importance of being on time for any meeting, the fact that the recruiter made a special point of highlighting this personality trait prior to my interview made me question how rigid a boss this guy may be. Personally, I did not want to work for someone that I would have to fear if I was running five minutes late.

In another circumstance, a recruiter apologized to me for an unorganized process and poor follow-up – not the best first impression for any company and a clear indication of potential engagement and quality of work issues.

12. Visual Messages

The other day I had the pleasure of touring a progressive software company based in Arizona named Infusionsoft. On my tour I passed a key ring that read “EGO” hanging on a hook in the lobby, statements of the company’s values and mission painted on the walls, a banner above an indoor football field reading “We do what we say we’ll do,” a free “cereal bar,” a game room, a large open “dream room” with comfortable sitting areas and a reference library with a proclamation that “We believe in people and their dreams” above the entry.

While you’ll likely not find as many obvious cultural clues at most companies, you should keep your eyes open for them during your interview.  The more signs you see, the stronger the culture will most likely be. You should make a point of asking how these statements and visuals are embraced and lived in the organization.

Sometimes the most important information you need about a potential employer is the information that is right in front of your face. Decide what is important to you, keep your eyes and ears open, and only take a job that meets your basic criteria.


Published on Forbes, 21st November 2013.