Interviewing with several startups? Here are some tips to help you assess where you’ll enjoy working the most. 
By Karen Catlin (CEO, Athentica)

“How I can evaluate a company’s culture?” I recently got this question from a young woman I mentor. She’s in her senior year at an Ivy League university, where she’s majoring in computer science. As you can imagine, she’s being heavily recruited by software companies.

When I first spoke with her, she was interviewing with four companies and trying to figure out which one she liked best. She was evaluating the where and the what – where the offices were located and what products she’d work on. Next, she wanted to assess the how – how the team works together. Specifically, what was the company culture, and would it be a good fit for her?

Bravo! It’s important to identify how the work gets accomplished at a company and if we think we’ll be happy and successful there. No one can figure this out for us. We’re all unique, and different things will energize and motivate us to do our best. We need to know what we want in a company culture, or, at least, what we don’t want.

Without knowing what this young woman was looking for, I suggested she ask behavioral-style interview questions. Specific, yet open-ended, they allow you to understand behavior without leading the witness or injecting your bias. Employers often use this style of interview questions to understand how candidates behave in various scenarios, and you can use them just as easily to understand how a team or company behaves. Some examples are:

Behavioral-Style Question Biased Question
“Tell me about the last deadline your team faced. What was it like?” “Do you have to pull all-nighters to meet deadlines?”
“Do you socialize together after work? What are your favorite activities to do with the team?” “I hope the team doesn’t play video games together after work. I’m not a gamer.”
“What was the best piece of advice you’ve received from your manager?” “Have you ever been chewed out by your manager?”
“Tell me about the last disagreement you witnessed. What was it about? How was it resolved?” “Do people yell at each other when they don’t agree?”

By asking behavioral-style questions, you can gain great insight into the culture of the team you’re considering joining. So, before your next job move, think about assumptions you might have about the culture, or specific things you are looking for. Come up with behavioral questions for these assumptions or desires, and you’ll be prepared to assess how a team works together to get the job done.

If you’re getting ready to interview or thinking about interviewing soon, and want some practice on this topic, then come out to our next Femgineer Forum on, “Finding a Fit: How to Evaluate a Company’s Culture and the Opportunity” on January 29, 2014.

Of course, this approach is just one way to assess culture.

Have you used other techniques? Please leave a comment.

This post originally appeared on Femgineer. Image credit: Ed Schipul via Flickr.  
kcatlinAbout the blogger: Karen is the CEO of Athentica, an online learning startup. Formerly, she was a vice president in the CTO’s office at Adobe Systems, and most recently, co-founder of Femgineer. Karen blogs about the intersection of parenting and leadership at Use Your Inside Voice. Follow her on Twitter @kecatlin.