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Susan Zheng is the co-founder and CEO of Planted (NYC ’14), a platform that helps companies hire junior, non-technical talent.

Here’s a scenario: You’ve just spent countless hours on fine tuning and perfecting your resume (while consuming ungodly amounts of caffeine). It finally paid off and you got that interview! Hooray! Obviously, you are now preparing for all the questions that the interviewer may throw at you. But unfortunately there’s an essential part of interview prep that you might be forgetting.

When you go into an office for an interview, it’s really your first peek into the company’s culture. There are as many different office cultures as there are companies, and if you want to be happy with where you end up, you need to be sure that the company culture is the right fit for you. Here are some ways that you can use that first interview to gauge a company’s culture:

1. Did You Feel the Company’s Culture When You Walked In?

The elevator door opens and… Do you hear music? Are people talking, laughing, yelling, or congratulating the sales team on a job well-done? Does it smell like cake? An office, like a home, can have a very strong vibe that is instantly distinguishable as soon as you enter. For example, grandma’s house might have plastic on the furniture and it might smell faintly of cigarettes. Your uncle’s apartment may feel warm and “lived in” with worn out couches and Pringle crumbs on the floor. An office can embody all the same attributes of a home and can give off an instant cultural vibe. Here are some things to observe when you are visiting for the first time:

  • What does it sound like? Music playing is generally good, but the lack of music doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad. What you really should be listening for is conversation. When people are talking about work or fun (or fun things about work), it generally means that the environment is conducive to open collaboration.
  • Are there dogs or other pets? Not that you should only work in an office with dogs, but the presence of animals generally depicts a laid back and accepting culture. If dogs are important to you, we can suggest some startups with very pawesome dog-centric cultures.
  • What do people have on their desks? Are they super sterile, neat, and clean? Are they disheveled and messy? Do they have toys or other knick-knacks? Pictures of family and friends? You can tell a lot about a person’s personality from their desk, so make sure you take note.
  • Are people walking around and talking or is everyone plugged in, focused, and in the zone? Checking out this sort of behavior allows you to understand if work is more collaboratively focused or if people prefer to tackle projects on their own.

2. Did You Meet Nice People?

A company’s culture is ultimately decided by its leadership and carried out by its employees. If the leadership team has outlined a company culture around kindness and generosity, you may notice employees smiling at you, asking who you are there to see, and striking up a conversation with you while you wait for your interview. If everybody in the office ignores you as you walk in, the culture might be rather closed and very task-oriented. If nobody greets you, that also says something about the office culture… or about the way you smell. Either way, really pay attention to how people treat you and keep an eye out for collaboration, laughter, and camaraderie. The actions and behaviors of the employees are big indicators of the company’s culture, so pay attention!

3. How Was the Interview Structured?

The very process of being interviewed will shed lots of light on the company’s culture. While you are acing all the questions the interviewer has for you, try to remain aware of these things:

  • The organization of the interview process: If you knew who you would meet before showing up and they were able to meet with you on time, the company likely values a culture of planning. If people are running around, trying to find others to pull into the interview, it is likely the company values a culture that is very unstructured, flexible, or bootstrapped.
  • The questions being asked: If an interviewer is able to ask you questions that are deeper than your resume, chances are that it is not their first rodeo. These questions will be obvious indicators of the company culture. When they ask about hobbies, interests, travel, etc, they are sizing up your cultural fit in the organization. Likewise, they are indirectly telling you what their company culture values. If the questions they ask excite you, then it’s more likely than not a solid cultural fit. On the flip side, if those questions don’t appeal to you or you have trouble answering them, then you might want to land a few more interviews elsewhere.

4. Does It All Match Up?

Have you ever gone to an event only to find out that it was NOTHING like the Facebook invite said it would be? Your first interview is a great time to validate what the company’s website says about their culture. If the website says that the company is a team of dog lovers but you only see pictures of cats all over everyone’s desk and computers, then the website may have been wrong. Make sure to evaluate whether the company’s representation of themselves is in line with reality.


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This post was originally published on the Planted blog.


Susan Zheng Susan Zheng
Susan Zheng, co-founder and CEO @ Planted, a platform that helps companies hire junior, non-technical talent.