handshake woman interviewI’ve had a complicated relationship with work.

I graduated from college in 2009. It was right after the recession hit, and there were too many candidates applying for too few jobs.

That year, I took a job as a street canvasser for a charity. Yes, I was literally standing on the sidewalks of New York City asking people to hand over their credit card to give a monthly donation.  

It was meant to be a stop-gap for a few months while I found a better job. I applied for over 100 jobs that year. It took me 12 months of actively applying to jobs to land my next job.

Because of how difficult it was to find this job, I felt like I needed to be the absolutely perfect candidate to meet the company’s needs. I would be low maintenance, do everything they ask, and if it was a bad culture, at least it was better than no job (or street canvassing), right?

As an HR professional, I’ve always treated the hiring process for candidates as a two-way street, where they were interviewing us as much as we were interviewing them. However, as a candidate, I didn’t treat the interview process this way until recently.

This past year when I began to pursue FI and was forced to leave my previous job because of debilitating anxiety my relationship with work began to shift.

I now have more confidence financially that I can weather the storms that might come thanks to my F-You fund. In the short-term, I don’t need any job. In the long-term, I would need a job eventually (since I’m not yet financially independent), but if things went south, I could quit at any time and be just fine.  

I also now know that there’s so much more to life than work. My life goals are now so much more holistic. I am much more focused on happiness and fulfillment now along the journey.

Because of these shifts in my perspective, I now see the employee-employer relationship as a much more equal two-sided relationship.

I will do work for them, but they also need to provide me with fair wages, a good work environment, and the flexibility and work-life balance that I want out of the job. If these things don’t happen, I can leave.  

For people who have a certain level of basic financial security and confidence in their skills, I absolutely believe that the hiring process is about finding the right match between the employee and employer. The relationship should be much more equal, and if you have the confidence to walk away if it isn’t for you, there’s tremendous power in that.  

I believe the most important aspect of finding a great potential employer is cultivating this perspective in yourself. This will lead you to view the interview process in a different way and to really be sure that the employer is the right fit for you. Here are concrete ways you can put this perspective into action during a hiring process to ensure you find a job that’s right for you.

Before Application

There are many things that you can do before even applying to see if the employer is right for you.

Make a List of Must-Haves

Before you start your job search, it’s important to make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. Your list should be unique and tailored directly to you and your experience.

Because I was coming off burn-out from my previous employer, I knew exactly what I was looking for.

My must-haves were:

  • A part-time job in a flexible environment with a boss that was open to prioritization
  • A diverse environment with a high percentage of women and people of color, where the organization prioritized inclusion and equity AND that I wouldn’t be in charge of it.
  • Where leadership was curious about organizational challenges and committed to working toward solutions (where I wouldn’t feel on my own)
  • Where I was paid well and fairly for my level and role
  • I could take public transit to work
  • Mission-driven environment

My nice-to-haves were:

  • Flexibility to change up my days when I needed to
  • Room for growth or possibility of increasing hours if I decided I wanted that

I realize that I had a lot of must-haves, but I was able to find an organization with all of those things.  

Your must-have list will likely look very different than mine. You might be prioritizing a higher salary, more growth opportunities, or a big company much more than I did. That’s okay. I’d also encourage you to think about what type of work environment you are looking for as well if you don’t have anything related to that one your must-have list.

Review their Website and Other Online Resources

Companies often have a lot of publicly available information online about what it is like to work for them. Some of it is communicated directly by the company (their website or their company’s LinkedIn page) and some of it is communicated anonymously by employees or former employees (Glassdoor).

I’d recommend starting with their website. What do they say it’s like to work at their company? What benefits do they offer? Do they have any employee testimonials? This will start to tell you a lot about what the company values.

Do they have a list of staff on their website? Do they have bios? What can you tell about the company based on their staff? If they don’t have a staff list, you can look up the company on LinkedIn and search for current employees.

This will help you get a sense of the average age, gender diversity, racial diversity, and how long typical employees stay with the company.  This will help you start to get a feel for if you’ll feel comfortable there.

Next, look up the company on Glassdoor. Glassdoor is a website that allows current and former employees to write reviews of their company. This will give you a sense of how people feel about the company and if the culture is one where you’d thrive.

Since people self-select into writing glassdoor reviews, you’ll likely see both the happiest and unhappiest people writing reviews.  Look for trends across reviews and don’t write it off if there are just a couple of bad reviews if it doesn’t seem pervasive.

Informational Interviews

Informational interviews can be powerful tools to help you determine if it’s worth applying for the job. Since it’s a low stakes conversation and the person is not likely part of the hiring process, they are much more likely to honestly share about the company and its challenges.  

LinkedIn can be a helpful tool at this stage of an interview process. If you look up a company, it will tell you if you have any 1st or 2nd-degree connections with any of their employees.

You can also search to see if any of the employees went to the same university or worked at the same former employers. This will enable you to either ask for introductions to 2nd-degree connections or reach out to people directly who are part of your professional network.  

I did informational interviews for every job I applied for because I wanted to ensure it would be a positive work environment.

During the Interview Process

If you’ve gotten to this stage, congratulations! Remember that in any interview process, you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you.  

Pay Attention to the Interview Process

There are many things that you’ll be able to tell from an interview process.

Who is involved in the interview process and how many stages is it?

If the process has a number of stages, you can be fairly confident that the employer is committed to finding the right match and are more likely to be invested in retaining their employees.

If you are being interviewed by future peers and not just supervisors, it’s much more likely that the organization will be egalitarian. They are more likely to be interested in understanding employees’ perspectives. They also are more likely to have a positive culture because they aren’t worried about what your potential future colleagues will say about the company.  

What questions are they asking?

What questions a company asks in their interview process is a huge indicator of what they value.

  • If they ask about your ability to work as a member of a team, you’ll likely be doing a lot of team-based work.
  • If they ask you to tell them about some feedback you’ve received, they’re more likely to be a culture that’s committed to growth.
  • If they ask a time you managed a project from start to finish, there will likely be a project management component of the job.
  • If they ask you how you handle ambiguity, there will likely be a lack of clarity around goals and deliverables.
  • If they ask how you handle working in a fast-paced environment with shifting priorities, people in this environment are overworked and burned out.

The questions they ask will give you a good indication of what the work environment would be like. If you want to work with a team, great! If you don’t want a lack of clarity and ever-shifting priorities in a fast-paced environment, maybe pass this opportunity up.

How do the interactions feel?

Do you walk away from the interview feeling energized?  Did it feel like the interview process was collaborative? Conversational? Stunted? Awkward?

How someone makes you feel during an interview is a very good indication of how they will make you feel actually working with them.  

woman handshake smile

People are typically on their best behavior during interviews, because they’ve been told by HR that the candidate is interviewing them. If you feel like something is off in the interview, listen to yourself. Negative feelings are often more than just nerves. This might not be the right fit for you.  

I vividly remember the interview with my former boss at my last job. I remember feeling like the interview was odd because she didn’t really ask me questions. She told me what she thought about things and then asked me if I agreed or disagreed with her.

This should have been a very good indication for me of what our working relationship would be like. Somehow, I thought that she’d listen to my perspectives once I started.  

The interview process with the supervisor at my new job felt very different. There were moments where she proactively shared things that she was working on improving both personally and within the organization. We had a collaborative discussion about ways I might be able to help. That was certainly a great indication of what our working relationship would later become.  

Questions to Ask Potential Employer

During an interview process, you should be prepared to interview your employer with questions that you have. I would encourage you to go from general questions early in the interview process to more specific questions later in the interview process.  

For example, I was very interested in finding a positive, open organizational culture that promoted flexibility. I started out by asking general questions like:

  • Tell me about the culture of the organization.
  • What does the workload look like?  
  • What are some of the company’s biggest challenges?
  • What is your approach to professional development?

Later in the interview process, I got much more specific AND asked for examples.

  • What happens when someone has too much work on their plate? If they come to you to discuss priorities, what does that conversation look like? Can you give me an example?  
  • What is the level of openness to discuss organizational challenges? Are the leaders willing to hear challenges and ideas for improvement? Can you share an example?
  • What is your vision for advancement within this role? What are the potential options? Can you share with me an example of someone in a similar role who has advanced within the company?  

When you go from general to specific questions throughout the interview process, you are waiting until they are somewhat invested in your candidacy before asking the difficult questions.

If you feel like you didn’t have time to get all of your questions answered in the interview process, you can ask for follow-ups with people you interviewed with. In my most recent interview process, I asked for follow-up meetings with two of the people I interviewed with because I felt like I didn’t have enough time to ask them questions.  

Asking specific questions and for follow-up conversations not only shows a level of confidence (they should want to hire you), it also begins to set expectations early on that you are an equal partner in the relationship.

You are signaling that it’s also very important for you to ensure it’s the right match for you. If they aren’t open to this, it is important data to take into account when making your decision.   

After the Offer

If you’ve received an offer, congratulations! This is so exciting. At this point, you know they are invested in you, and they want you to join their team.  

If you feel like there are any lingering questions, this is when to ask them. Don’t wait until you start.

Also, be honest about your concerns. When I was hired into my most recent job, I was very honest about how I was concerned about being asked to more than a 60% workload. I got to then hear their response of how this is something that wouldn’t ask of me, and how we could communicate about this if it happened.  

Don’t forget to negotiate your compensation. They are already invested in you, so do your research and make sure that you are getting a fair offer. If you still aren’t sure, ask how they set starting compensation and how they determine compensation increases in the future.  

You are an Equal Partner in the Interview Process  

Throughout the whole process, I hope you can remember that you are an equal partner in the decision. Yes, they are assessing your skills for the position and your match with the team’s personality. You are also assessing whether this is the right role and environment for you.  

While I know this advice is easier to implement if you have a certain level of financial security and years of experience, I believe it can hold true at any level. If something isn’t amenable to you during the interview process (or even after you start the role), remember that you can always walk away.  

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