On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
On-Rampers working at the office.
Candidate Corner: How to ask about company culture and DEI commitment

by Will Wong (he/him/his)


“Candidate Corner” is a Q&A series in which we answer questions submitted to On-Ramps by job seekers about the social sector. 

Question: What are some questions to ask in an interview to get a true feel for an organization’s culture? I always ask about culture in general, but it’s hard to gauge what it is really like day to day. 
It can be hard for job seekers to know what an organization’s culture is like day to day because, unsurprisingly, the hiring team really wants to sell the organization to them. When asking questions about company culture, try to be as specific as possible. Here are some questions that may help:

  1. “Can you share a specific example of that?” When someone tells you that the organization values “cross-collaboration” or that people are “multitaskers,” ask for specific examples of what that looks like and how someone has brought that element to life in a day-to-day scenario. 
  2. “What are some organizational tensions that you’re working through right now?” Understanding the evolution of a company’s culture includes understanding their challenges. Every organization has them. If you’re able to hear what’s still being worked through, that can help you decide whether that’s not what you’re not looking for in your next role, or whether you feel you could be a part of helping address those challenges. And if an organization is reticent to share anything, that’s a notable red flag. Because that means there is not enough commitment to thinking deeply about culture to understand not only where you’re succeeding, but also where you can improve.
  3. “As you look ahead, where do you want to go with your culture?” Just as you have aspirations and goals, organizations do too. It can be helpful to hear what they are hoping for and are working toward as they continue to grow.
  4. “How are your core values reinforced in your day-to-day culture?” Some organizations list their core values in broad, sweeping ways. So it’s helpful to know how employees believe they manifest in daily work. This is also a good question to ask because you may find out that an organization doesn’t have core values because they’re relatively young and still defining their culture.
  5. “When making decisions, how do you go about soliciting input to ensure you have diverse perspectives at the table?” This question can help you understand if the organization takes a top-down or bottom-up approach to work. If you’re hearing that leadership makes all decisions and doesn’t really care to know what the impact is on the folks who are actually driving the work forward, that can tell you something about whether or not your perspective may be considered and integrated into decision making. 

Question: What questions should I ask to get a real sense of a company’s outlook on/approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

The first thing I would recommend to a candidate is to ask about DEI at every step of the interview process—and document what you’re hearing. Ideally, an organization will put together an interview panel that represents a variety of lived experiences based on identity, tenure, or position level. You may hear different things from those different groups. So it’s worth asking “What’s your outlook/approach to DEI? What are specific, tangible steps you take to demonstrate that commitment?” to everyone you speak with. That way, you can then ask yourself things like “Am I hearing consistent answers?” or “Am I hearing responses that are actually quite different when I ask this question of different held identities, levels, tenures, etc.?”

I also recommend directly asking these questions:

  1. “When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, what are you still navigating as an organization?” The level of candor that you receive with this question can be very powerful. It could show you that the person answering the question is comfortable acknowledging what they’re working through, or it could reveal this person has more of a defensive stance. I’m not going to put a value judgment on that, but I think that you can learn a lot by how someone responds to this question.
  2. “Who is responsible for driving different DEI initiatives at your organization?” This can also be a telling question. Is DEI an organization-wide responsibility that everyone takes accountability for, or is it a siloed initiative within an organization? Is HR solely responsible, or do other senior leaders play an active role in making DEI initiatives happen? This can help you discern how an organization really thinks about DEI, and whether they’re putting their money where their mouth is. 
  3. “If there is a breach of culture with respect to DEI, how does your organization go about addressing and/or healing those wrongdoings?” How a company acts when a micro- or macro-aggression—or other breach of culture—has happened can also be very telling. Do leaders take accountability for their actions? Is there acknowledgement of when hurt may have been caused, even if not intentionally?

The Takeaway

Culture is going to inform your day-to-day experience. Yes, the functions of your job and your team are also very important. But understanding the broader organizational ethos is what will really determine whether you feel excited about work most of the time or not. Asking the above questions directly to hiring teams is a great first step to getting a better understanding. I’d also encourage doing some research on your own, whether it’s reading Glassdoor reviews (with a grain of salt) to help inform more specific questions about a company’s culture, asking folks in your immediate network, or asking folks on LinkedIn who are connected to the organization.