can I ask to watch the company culture before accepting a job offer?

A reader writes:

I was recently interviewed and a offered a position at a fun-seeming nonprofit.

However, I was interviewed in a back office and didn’t really get to see the company culture at work (I did ask my interviewees what they thought it was like, and they mentioned it was fun, etc., but what organization wouldn’t say that?).

I’d essentially be working for less pay, but job satisfaction is super important to me, more than money and benefits, and I’d really like to see the exact space/type of environment I’d be working in before making a commitment. Is it rude to ask to see the working area in action (or the working area in general) before making my decision?

I’m essentially applying because while I enjoy the job I have now, the environment has remained stagnant in the two years I have been there (no upward growth unless the person directly above me moves out, no sign of health insurance, etc.), so while I’m stronger than entry-level, I’m still applying for an entry-level job (though am obviously in the process of negotiating), and hoping to build the position up to a stronger, more robust position (they mentioned hiring me for other skills that I possessed outside of the position’s scope, since I graduated with a dual degree two years ago).

Do you want to see the physical space you’d be working in, or do you want to see the office “in action” — how people interact, etc.?

It’s easier to ask for the first than the second — although even asking just to see the space can be a little tricky, because people so rarely do it.

Asking to observe people in action is going to be harder. I mean, sure, they could probably let you sit in on a meeting, but I’m not sure you’ll learn a ton from just a single meeting, and the small amount you might pick up is probably outweighed by the unusualness of the request.

And it’s the unusualness that’s the problem here. In theory, both of these requests are entirely reasonable, but since people so rarely bother to ask this, you’ll be taking the chance that you’ll come across as high-maintenance or a prima donna. Again, it shouldn’t be seen that way (in fact, employers should be glad if someone wants to make sure it’s a culture fit before accepting an offer), but it’s going to be judged against a backdrop of what other people do. And very few other people make seeing this stuff a condition of accepting an offer — and that goes double because it’s an entry-level position. So you risk raising eyebrows.

However, what you certainly could do is ask if you can meet others you’d be working with. That will probably get you more of a sense of what the culture is like, and it might expose you to more of the physical space too (and if it doesn’t, you can ask at the end of that meeting if they can show you where you’d be working).

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey

    This is a side issue, but I’m not sure leaving a “stagnant” entry level job for another entry level job is going to solve your problem. You’d be betting a lot that it would actually turn into something more. Otherwise you’d still be in another entry level job, but with less pay.

    1. Pussyfooter

      She could ask the interviewer about the flexibility of sideways moves, and how soon she’d be expected to move up through the ranks (what’s normal?), etc.

      What about the school of thought that says if the known quantity *will not* give you what you want, changing to an unknown quantity at least has the *chance* of new opportunity? Or is that more risk than I realize?

      1. Joey

        In my experience growth opportunity is a frequent promise that doesn’t materialize nearly as often or as quickly as promised. Its an easy promise to make, but a lot harder to actually deliver.

        1. Jessa

          Exactly. Unless the company in question has a clear upward path, growth as concept is never as straightforward as anyone would like. Mostly because at some point there’s a choke in the system. Too many people wanting too few jobs and a need for competent people to do the entry level stuff.

    2. Ruffingit

      She does mention the current employer doesn’t offer health insurance so even with less pay, if new employer offers benefits, that might make it worthwhile. Depends on what’s being offered of course.

  2. KayDee

    At my place of employment we regularly use a job preview as part of the recruitment and selection process. It gives the employer and the potential employee a chance to try each other on for size, even if it is only for a few hours.

      1. KayDee

        Sure. Once we narrow down the field to one or two candidates we arrange to have the candidate come in for a few hours. The hiring manager gives them a tour, introduces them to the rest of the immediate team and other staff they may interact with on a regular basis. The candidate gets a glimpse into the culture of the work team and has a lot of opportunities to ask questions. It is far more relaxed than a formal interview and we can really get a feel for whether or not they will fit in. We have changed directions after a job preview when it was evident that the fit wasn’t there. Anyone who has been through the process and then hired speaks highly of the experience.

        1. ChristineSW

          I love that! I’m racking my brain trying to think of the various interviews I’ve been on over the years, and the only one I can think of that was somewhat close is was at an interview for a job I eventually took. The manager gave me a tour of the general area where I’d be working and I only remember meeting one eventual coworker (who was buried under a mammoth stack of charts because another coworker had been MIA; that should’ve been a red flag, but I was naive at the time…long story).

          It’s been awhile since I’ve been on an interview, but something like what you describe could really go a long way…bravo!

      2. S.A.

        At my last job, we had a few instances where fit was VERY important (due to seriously bad employees who previously made the work environment very difficult) so management brought in people for an hour or so after going through the interview process. The perspective employees got to watch what we did, ask questions, and we got to ask questions of them. Not only was it extremely helpful in getting a feel for the person beforehand (with the understanding that management was going to do what they were going to do, regardless of what we in the office though), in one instance, I found out A LOT about the coworker I had currently and how she handled the situation. I ended up having a very interesting conversation with management about the current employee and her behavior vs. the rather positive endorsement I gave to the interviewee. I would, on the whole, definitely encourage people to not only implement that strategy at their current jobs to see how potential employees fit in, but also to see what sort of things you can learn about your current employees.

      3. Also Lauren

        My company is also very open to providing shadowing experiences to potential employees. However, we usually offer it proactively – few candidates request it on their own.

        Because this is unusual for most companies, I’d suggest being as specific as possible in your request. Do you want to shadow someone who does similar work? Meet the team you’d be joining? Sit down with your manager-to-be? Tour the facility?

        “Culture” is a hard thing to assess, so if you have a clear picture of what you’re after, the company will be more able to help you get it. Also, I’d suggest explaining *why* this is important to you. You mentioned in your post that job satisfaction and environment are most important to you – and good employers will respect that.

      4. Kat M

        A former employer of mine does this as well. After a phone screen and in-person interview, the final stage is a “practical interview,” in which the candidate is left for about 30 minutes with a couple of experienced staff members who are doing their jobs. It gives them an opportunity to speak candidly with employees without management around, and also gives those employees a chance to see how the candidate interacts with others in the environment they’d be working in. The directors took this stage very seriously. I know that my input has decided whether to offer someone a lead vs. assistant role, and in one case a front-runner was not offered a position after their practical, due to a clear culture mis-match.

        I really respect their hiring process a lot, and would work for them again in a heartbeat if I hadn’t changed fields.

  3. Lauren

    I ask for a tour of the office. This way you can scope out the lunch room, where you’ll be working etc. I’ve found it very helpful many times. Usually you can meet other staff at the same time. It’s not really seeing them in action but its better than nothing.

  4. Liz in a library

    Interesting…I don’t know if it is just my field, but I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed without getting a tour, including getting to chat with several people apart from my interviewers (albeit quickly) during the work day in their work spaces.

    1. Kacie

      I got a library branch manager job without meeting any of my direct reports. I scoped out the branch on my own time, and didn’t speak to any of my staff until I showed up for work (with some awkward ice-breaking with my direct manager in tow). I don’t recommend this, but it all worked out well.

  5. Verde

    We always offer a tour of our space as part of the interview – there is a reason for it. We get a lot of people saying they “want to make a change” and work for “something that means something to them”. But in reality, they can’t hack moving from the for-profit to non-profit world.

    Our office is crowded, all of our work spaces are shared, there is currently no public gathering/seating space other than our tiny kitchen, so you have to eat out or eat at your desk, the conference room is fought over, and almost everything comes with a certain level of DIY-ness to it. We want the potential employee to get a sense of this, so they know what they are getting in to. For real, not just for a romantic ideal.

    By all means, ask for a tour – get a sense of where you would be sitting, how it feels, and do you really think you can make the culture shift? Remember that a non-profit often will not have the budget for things such as a newer desk or chair, and what you see if often what you’re getting.

  6. Brton3

    My office is a 4-person shop. At my interview, all three of the other staff members were there, in addition to 2 board members. While I know people have varying opinions about panel interviews, this was excellent and I totally “got” the workplace culture.

  7. Michele

    During my interview process I always had candidates that I felt were a good fit interview with 1 or 2 of my more senior team members. I told the senior team members to be very honest with what the job entailed and told the person to feel free to ask anything they wanted. I am in the fashion industry so it is quite a bit different than non-profit obviously. If a candidate asked for a tour I would have politely declined as it would have been very disruptive to the entire office. We had a very open floor plan and there some things that are just meant for company eyes only.

    1. Joey

      Too disruptive to walk someone around the office/workspace and make some quick introductions? Isn’t a potential great employee worth the little time it takes?

      What could there possibly be in an open workspace that prospective employees shouldn’t see?

      1. Jessa

        Design elements for a new collection that someone who might not get a job could then remember and give to a competitor for money. Etc. Fashion as an industry is extremely cutthroat and my only experience in it was at a company that made SOCKS.

      2. some1

        I think Michele is speaking about proprietary information. If it’s fashion, employees probably have sketches or samples all over the place.

  8. Kerr

    I don’t have advice about the OP’s specific questions, but I’d caution her/him to be careful about accepting a position with lower pay and a lower title, just because their current position feels stagnant. It’s way too easy to get bored and eagerly jump on the first thing that comes along. I once made a similar move out of my first job, and it was a mistake. In retrospect, I felt antsy to move on and get a job that was very vaguely related to my intended field, and jumped the gun at the first opportunity. Looking back, I wish I had passed on it, lo0ked at other openings, asked more questions, been less hasty, and made different choices!

    Were they able to tell you anything about the management style or culture other than that it was “fun”? That would be a red flag to me.

  9. Windchime

    We usually pro-actively offer to take strong candidates on a tour of the office. If a candidate is definitely not in the running, we don’t offer. If they asked, though, we wouldn’t think it was strange and we would sure show them around.

    We recently hired a guy who will be starting in a couple of weeks. He was a strong candidate to begin with, but he strengthened his position even more when he showed an interest in seeing our “scrum board”, where we have our tasks for the current release planned out. He was the only candidate who knew what it was, let alone was strongly interested in seeing it.

    So yeah, for us….it’s not weird at all. We don’t usually offer a chance to sit and observe, because we are a health-care IT shop and anyone who has access to data has to take HIPAA training as well as sign a confidentiality agreement.

    1. Anonymous

      Isn’t that borderline proprietary information though? I’d never think to ask to see someone’s scrum board because there could be unannounced upcoming features in there

  10. AlisonK

    I live & work outside the US, so sometimes our “usual practice” will be different.

    But in this case, my observation is that more often than not there is some kind of view of the work place/introductions to some (at least) of the people you could be working with.

    Once only, I asked if I could attend a team meeting in the 1 month notice period from my previous job. (I’m not sure why I did then – possibly because I was so keen to leave, I wanted to do everything to help me feel like I was moving on?) Anyway, it was ok, but it was definitely also seen as an odd (as in unusual, though not disturbing) request.

    Though as I reflect on it, it probably didn’t make any difference, either.

  11. Dicey

    The other piece about asking to observe is the well known phenomenon that the act of observing something changes it. In this case, having someone else sit in on a meeting would definitely change things for our team. In fact, we would probably come off as more serious and boring than we are because we wouldn’t feel comfortable joking around in front of a stranger.

  12. smallbutmighty

    Although it’s not standard practice at my workplace to offer a tour, my manager (who was an external hire and has been with the company for about 8 months now) has begun proactively offering a tour to strong candidates. Our team is small (5 members), and these candidates have a chance to meet all of us and spend a few minutes sitting with us in our office environment chatting and asking questions. I think it’s a really good idea. On the basis of these informal tours, we’ve gotten a better idea of which candidates have the best potential to fit into our admittedly quirky little group. (And we’ve had one candidate admit that he didn’t think he’d work well in our office environment, and withdraw his application.)

    I wish more workplaces would do this. I think it’s a great idea for the candidate to get a feel for the working environment and for the team to meet strong candidates.

  13. Kat

    We have to be cautious about letting people around the working areas of our office due to the confidential information people have on their computer screens, paper on the desks, etc. while they are working as well as posted materials meant for internal eyes only.

    However, the rest room isn’t by the meeting rooms, so savvy interviewees who ask to use it do get a peek at those areas as they’re being shown where it is, as well as seeing interactions among any people they pass. Sometimes even those couple of minutes can give a sense of the general mood and camaraderie, whether the interviewer makes eye contact or says hi to people they pass, etc..

  14. ChristineSW

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been on an interview but from what I can remember, I was lucky if I got even a tour. Many companies deal with sensitive information, whether it’s proprietary documents at a design company or confidential client records at a social service agency, so I can understand why many employers may not want interviewees in work areas (aside from the interviewer’s office). I wish I could come up with possible work-arounds for this because I firmly believe that getting a bit of an inside look at a prospective employer and meeting some team members can go a long way in ensuring a good fit.

    Absent this, the best alternative in assessing culture is to just try to observe what’s happening around you, especially while you’re waiting to be seen. Observe people’s facial expressions as they’re passing through the reception area–I think Alison might’ve touched on this in the past; do they seem stressed or happy? Do you notice any friendly (but professional!) interactions?

    Here’s another thought: I’ve been conducting site visits for a volunteer committee I’m on, and I’ve taken up the practice of observing (well, listening to, lol) the receptionist if possible. Is she/he friendly to callers and visitors? Does she/he seem harried in juggling those calls and visitors? How does she/he deal with difficult callers/visitors? I’m assessing for service quality, but I think this strategy can help prospective job candidates since receptionists are often a person’s first impression of a company/organization.

  15. WishfulThinkin'

    Don’t you wish you could test drive a job like you can a car? I have made ‘entry level’ changes from one company to another and it was like leaving a slow lane that you are in to a lane that is going faster only to have the lane you changed to become the slow one. sigh! Now my previous employer that had no opportunities, unless someone passed away, has plenty of opportunities available. However, they never to very rarely hire back anyone that even has voluntarily left for other opportunities. double sigh!

    1. Jamie

      Back in the day that’s exactly what temping was like for me. I temped for 2 years before I accepted an offer and you got to see up close and personal what the culture is like…and if it’s hideous you just finish your contract, call your agent before you’re even out of the parking lot to tell her that if they ever ask for you again you’re so unavailable that you can’t even be contacted.

      I used to call it job shopping, but test driving works better.

  16. Melissa

    The other thing is that even if you are invited to sit in on a meeting or a day at work to see how it functions, it’s inevitably going to be different because you’re there. So you won’t get a good read on a normal day – at best it’ll be a semi-normal day.

  17. OP

    Hi! This the OP!

    So here’s how things worked out:

    As it happened, I didn’t get past the second round of salary negotiation. They told me, pretty much straight up, “Oh, we can’t continue with this. We didn’t know you were going to negotiate this much. We’re going to have to extend this offer to someone else.” This hardly ever happens, and having worked in non-profit before, I didn’t negotiate particularly high, but it showed how they handled these things and I decided to stop the process there and keep the job I had. And then, unfortunately, a week later, I got laid off from said job.

    So I’m back to square one. :)

    1. Melanie

      I’m so sorry to hear about your job loss. I have been engaged in my job search for about a year. I am so tired of hearing people say “it’s tough out there” and “you have to start somewhere” I could scream, so I won’t say that to you. I will say that I wish you all the best. Keep your eyes open for every opportunity you can think of, and take a look at opportunities that don’t cross your mind right away. Everything is worth an inquiry. Let everyone, friends, neighbors, random people you meet, know that you are looking for a job. Networking helps keep your spirits up and presents opportunities to look into. Offer to volunteer 4 hours a week at a company that interests you. It may turn into paid work, it may not. But, getting out of the house during the day helps, and of course, you will hear about opportunities this way. God Bless You!

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