But there are clues throughout the hiring process that can tell you whether this is somewhere you'll be happy working or not. Here are five ways to help figure it out.
1. Think about what things you care about most. Everyone has different priorities and different deal-breakers. You might value a flexible working environment, or having your own office, or working with a boss who welcomes input. You might hate a culture that expects you to show up for weekly happy hours or requires you to carry a work cell and be available at all hours. Getting clear in your head about what you care most about will help you screen for it – by asking direct questions about it and by simply being alert to cues about these items. For instance, if you know that a friendly, collaborative culture is one of your key must-haves, you'll be less likely to overlook it if everyone you pass when walking to your interviewer's office is silent and miserable-looking.
2. Ask why the position is open, why the previous person left and how long she was there. If the person left after less than a year – and especially if her predecessor did too – you want to know why. Is the workload unmanageable? Are the expectations unrealistic? Is the boss impossible to get along with? Hearing about the experience of people in the job previously won't always be definitive, but it can give you some insight into what you might encounter in the role.
3. Ask the right questions. Simply asking about work-life balance policies isn't likely to get you useful information; your interviewer may give lip service to the virtues of a 40-hour work week when in fact no one leaves work until well past 8 p.m. Instead, try asking questions like:
Be suspicious of interviewers who tell you that everything is sunshine and roses. No workplace is perfect; even the best have some things they could do better, and good employers know what those things are and are willing to be transparent about them.
4. Believe what the employer shows you about how they operate. Too often in a hiring process, candidates ignore important cues about how an employer functions and then are surprised when they see those same traits play out once they're working there. For instance, if the employer handles the hiring process in a disorganized and chaotic way (no clear job description, interviewers who are unprepared to talk with you and not getting back to you until weeks after they said they would), assume that the work culture is disorganized and chaotic too. Or if the entire hiring process is scripted rigidly, the interviewer tells you that no one is allowed to follow up with candidates except human resources and it takes weeks to get a written offer after the verbal one, assume that the environment is a bureaucratic one where decisions are slow and process is sometimes valued above action.
5. Do your homework. Check sites like Glassdoor.com to see what employees are saying about the company's culture, check LinkedIn to see if you have connections to anyone likely to know the real scoop at the company and ask to talk to others who work there. Gather as many opinions as you can and watch for patterns.
6. Listen to your gut. If you feel uneasy about the job or the people you'd be working with, don't ignore that feeling. Unless your gut has a history of overreacting, it's worth paying attention when a voice inside you is screaming, "Don't take this job!"
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.