In the months before college graduation, a lot of well-meaning advisers, experts and other mentors brought in for career fairs emphasized the importance of preparing for job interviews. They told us to dress professionally and how that meant a lot of neutral colors and no cleavage or flip-flops or tattoos. They told us about researching the company beforehand to appear knowledgeable and about the importance of eye contact and a firm handshake. These things made sense and were easy to follow through on. The piece of advice that was much more elusive was that one should always have questions for the interviewers: "You're interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you," we were told.
This made less sense for several reasons. For one thing, when you've never had a professional job before in a down economy, the idea of interviewing a company seems a little laughable. The unspoken line of thinking amongst us graduates was that we would be lucky to get one job offer, much less going about things as if we had our pick of several companies. For another thing, when you haven't had a professional job before, you don't really know what would be an effective question to ask when the time comes or what signs to look for. The first time I tested this advice, the best I could do was to lamely ask the women interviewing me what they liked about working at the company. I had no idea how to evaluate a workspace or co-workers or how to read between the lines. It's taken three years, several jobs and countless interviews to understand better what "interviewing the company" means.
Interviewing the company means more than having some clever questions prepared for your interviewers. It's partly about being aware of your surroundings and making educated guesses. If your interview is at the office in which you'd be working, take a look around. How are the employees dressed? Are they chatting amongst themselves between tasks or listening to music on their headphones? Does it feel relaxed, or is there an air of palpable tension? Trust your gut the way you might size up your blind date. Look for clues that might tell you if the supervisor is an anal micromanager who rules with an iron fist or if the environment is one of friendly collaboration and mutual support.
Contemplate the layout. Are there cubicles or open-office desks? Do the employees on the floor have small, cramped workspaces with poor layouts while management is in sprawling, custom-painted offices? Just observing your surroundings will tell you a lot of things about company culture. I once worked at a company where most of the employees had big, nice offices, and a handful of entry-level employees (including myself) were relegated to gray, 1980s-style cubicles shoved into an awkward corner.
In hindsight, I should have seen that the company had too many chiefs and not enough Indians. It was badly managed and had a toxic work environment. The few of us cubicle-dwellers lived in terror of our competitive managerial overlords. At other companies where most of the employees work together on the floor—whether in cubes or in open workspaces—and where there are only a few offices for a select number of managers, the work culture has been much more egalitarian and well-managed.
Remember during your interview that just as you are putting on your best face for the people you are meeting, they are doing the same for you. The company you're talking to is singing that Cheap Trick Song, "I Want You to Want Me." They need to hire someone, and they want that person to be into it. So they are going to try to gloss over their bad points as much as you are trying to avoid mentioning the fact you are, say, never on time no matter how hard you try or that you have a terror of public speaking. Just as they are trying to get past your canned answers to see how you really think, you should try to read between their lines.
For example, I asked a former supervisor at the interview how she would describe her management style. What was really important to her? She mentioned punctuality. I made a mental note that would be hard for me. Sure enough, we never got along, and I never could find a way to please her. It wasn't just that I have a tendency to run late, it was that I should have paid attention to the fact her top priority is one of my biggest faults. We were incompatible in myriad other ways and set one another up for failure by missing that clue. Now I know how important it is to understand what kind of a person your supervisor would be from minute one. I try to find out how they will manage and what their priorities are. If we aren't compatible people who can see eye to eye on how the job should be done, I know I won't be happy or successful in that position.
Lastly, when you are invited to ask the interviewer a question, this one always knocks them dead. Simply ask, "What made you want to work at this company?" This does well for several reasons. One, it doesn't make you seem desperate. It implies you are considering whether to take the job and subtly suggests you have options. People like that kind of confidence. Two, it's a chance to get honest, valuable insight. Three, interviewers always seem surprised and delighted to be asked this, which is a good reaction to get.
It's really hard when you haven't had a lot of work experience to know enough about what being an employee is like to decide if you'll be happy. Think about what different answers you'd get if you asked middle-schoolers and college juniors what it takes to be successful in university classes. It's the same with inexperienced and experienced professionals. With these tips from a few years at work, I hope you'll have a better sense of how to interview your potential employers.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.