The Reverse Culture Interview: How to Avoid a Colossal Mistake on Your Next Gig!

Updated: Jan 18, 2019



A few weeks ago, I was inspired by a post from Dr. Art Markman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled, "What your New Boss is Revealing about Company Culture During Your Negotiation." The premise of the post, written to prospective job applicants, underscores the importance of conveyed culture in that process. I call this the reverse culture interview! So much time is spent educating hiring managers on how to both hire (and fire) on culture as a discipline that, when mastered, yields incredible results. I emphatically agreed with the notion of turning the table and building upon that theme! Culture matters, culture trumps, culture is the difference! I can't say enough about culture!


I want to explore deeper what happens when you are aren’t the hiring manager? How can you benefit from knowing how hiring and firing on culture works? How can you determine your go or no-go decision on that next big career move? My recommendation: turn the camera on you! Learn how to conduct the, “reverse,” culture interview in that next big opportunity. Your time is too valuable to miss this important personal step.


Without a doubt, you have spent some time in a job interview process. Whether you are just starting out or later in your career, you recognize and relish the chance to talk live with the hiring manager. Keep in mind, that interview only happens after a baseline of qualification has been established. You are qualified, that’s why you are there. Most questions that happen next should be more about how you think, react, and interact.

Companies spend millions on what questions are asked next! If you don’t believe me, ask anyone that’s been interviewed by the likes of Google, Amazon, or other cutting edge, talent hungry firms. My friends at Moment Factory in Montreal use a process they call, “casting.” An ingenious way of incorporating their creative and even theatrical, entertainment roots into the conversation. They know what they are looking for before you audition. Here’s my question to you: are you ready for the audition? Do you know what you are looking for?


Many people aren’t ready for that point in a live interview. As one who has interviewed and hired hundreds of entry level and executive talent, this is my favorite part of the conversation. I usually lead off with, “…what questions do you have for me?” In fact, I’ve been known to start interviews that way! It’s a probing question. I’m interested in where you go next. It’s an important part of the dialog to me. It should be to you!


The reverse culture interview is truly about you! This is your opportunity to seize upon the brokerage of your time and, most importantly, heart and soul with your future employer. Never settle for, “…just a job!” Here are a few tips on what you can do to pulse the culture of your potential suitor.


Ask Questions

Everyone expects to be asked questions in an interview. Are you ready to ask questions as the interviewee? Take the chance to think a little outside the box on this too. I recommend asking questions relating to measures of the culture you may be about to join. Here are a few examples:


  • What happens at 5PM here?

  • How does the team celebrate wins?

  • Tell me about a challenging situation your team faced and what you learned from it?

  • If you had the chance to apply for a position here, what role would you be looking for?

These are examples of questions that will reflect how your hiring company thinks. These may also be topics that are equally important to you. The point is, take time to consider a few deal breaker cultural measures and find direct ways to probe.


Look for Verbal, Non-Verbal, and Visual Cues

From the moment you arrive you will be inundated with a deluge of input data about the organization’s culture. It starts literally when you arrive in the parking lot. Here are some key questions to consider in your reverse culture analysis:

  • Did anyone in the parking lot greet you and say hello? Ask if they can help you?

  • What is the smile to no-smile ratio?

  • When they see you, do they make eye contact when they talk?

  • What is their tone? Can you sense an organization or, “brand,” voice in the conversation?

  • Do they cut you off when you are speaking?

  • How many awkward pauses in the conversations?

  • How are they dressed? Does the formality or casual environment align with your style?

Research suggests that as much as 93% of all communication is non-verbal. Within that 93%, 55% of non-verbal is body language and 38% is voice and tone. Take time to take notes, both mentally and, if needed, written. Don’t be afraid to bring it up if it really concerns you. You are about to make a significant personal time investment in this decision and should take care to understand what’s happening.


Observe Space

I’m a, “details all around,” person. There’s a great speech given by Al Pacino’s character in Any Given Sunday that talks about the inches around us being everywhere. When you observe the space, you are looking for the inches. And the inches add up! Here’s what I look for:

  • What does the building look like?

  • Are things generally neat and tidy or are things a hot mess?

  • What’s going on in the lobby? Is there music or other visual cultural cues?

  • What’s the name of the most prominent magazine on the table and what’s it’s date?

  • Furniture, carpet, paint, lighting, etc.? 1973 or 2019?

  • Audio cues? What music is playing? What does NO music mean to you?

  • Are there either subtle or significant branding cues in signage or tech, like video?

  • Space speaks! Let the space take on a voice in your cultural considerations.


Pulse Activity

I call this category the, “buzz,” factor. Is there a palpable vibe going on in the space? The real-estate market does a great job in this category. Consider your last apartment, condo, or home you either rented or bought. Was there a distinct aroma of freshly baked cookies in the air? There are a plethora of cues happening right before your eyes!

Here are a few categories you should consider a closer look:

  • Were people buzzing and moving about or was it a library? Which is more important to you?

  • How often were you interrupted in your interview by another?

  • Was your interviewer distracted on their cell phone or laptop during your interview?

  • What’s the tone of the activity? Tense or friendly? Aggressive or playful?

  • Were you ever forced to fight for attention by technology?

You are looking for movement here! But more than just movement, you can take a read on the discipline approach with that activity. The first time I visited United Shore’s sales floor at their Michigan HQ, for example, was a great example of a great vibe and activity, tempered by a culture and air of getting things done! They even have a sales VIP lounge dedicated to their top performers for them to take a break and recharge. How much of that speaks about culture!


The Next Step

Your next step is just that, a next step. The reverse culture interview is your tool to gauge your important career and time decisions. Employers are fighting for your attention. Sometimes, they may not realize the messages they may be sending. Your ability to pick up on those cues will speak volumes about the pace and vigor at which you chase that opportunity. And when the culture cues line up, you know you’ve got something truly special! That’s when it’s full steam ahead on that opportunity.


To employers out there, whether you are an executive, HR leader, line manager, or individual contributor, pay close attention to your interviewees 6th culture sense. Preempt the reverse culture interview by incorporating some of those questions into your dialog. What a great opportunity to get feedback and enhance a culture that inspires and attracts top talent.

© 2018 NORTH OF 10 LLC