No Ninjas or Rockstars

Finding a healthy work culture

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers.

When interviewing for a job (as the applicant), how do you select for a healthy culture? What unpleasant traits (e.g. narcissism, sexism) do you avoid, and how do you identify them?

We’ve all had terrible jobs and co-workers. Do you have any practical advice for avoiding the poisonous job (and poisonous co-workers) at the interview stage?

Let’s emphasize problems geek women are more likely to encounter: difficulty getting credit for your work, geek-unfriendly management culture, colliding with narcissists/psychopaths/”assholes”, glass ceiling for geeks, women, and/or geek women, sexism in general, etc. If you’re telling your story, don’t forget to include what you think the first warning sign was!

32 thoughts on “Finding a healthy work culture

  1. Tim Chevalier

    Is the question meant to be from the perspective of a candidate interviewing for jobs (“how can I find a job where I won’t be treated badly?”), or from the perspective of a manager interviewing somebody for jobs (“how can I hire people who aren’t misogynist jerks?”)?

    1. Valerie Aurora Post author

      I’m trying to keep the question focused enough to have a good discussion, so let’s restrict it to the point of view of a job applicant – the person applying for a job, not the person trying to fill the job. While avoiding bad hires during the interview process is an interesting topic, many fewer geek feminism readers have experience as a hiring manager.

      1. Katherine

        As a quick comment, I’d imagine it would be easier to deal with accidentally hiring a jerk than accidentally being hired by a whole bunch of them.

  2. Courtney Stanton

    I interviewed for a position one time at a company where I’d be the only woman employee. I asked the interviewer how he felt the corporate culture would adapt to having a mixed-gender workplace. His reply of, “well, we do kind of like keeping the frat house vibe around the office,” was my signal to decline the eventual job offer.

    1. Aria Stewart (@aredridel)

      That was my experience with a recent interview, too. Oddly enough, I now work with a bunch of gay men on an all-male-focused project, and it’s MUCH better than that.

  3. Valerie Aurora Post author

    In retrospect, even though I thought I wanted a work environment where hierarchy was based on who knew the most about operating systems… I was wrong.

    In terms of something reusable for other people, I’d say, “Can the interviewers be wrong – or at least do they contemplate the possibility that they are wrong?” People who always have to be right are incredibly exhausting to work with.

  4. Moz

    I’ve narrowed it down to a few questions to scatter through the interview, mostly aimed at seeing how flexible their culture is. I ask how often their geeks work from home, because that relies on a range of important things (trusting people to work, no micromanagement, flexible work hours etc). I also ask to see the work area, because that tells a lot about where geeks sit in the hierarchy (little cubicles in a busy spot = run away). Then I follow up the “tell us a story about something amazing you did” with ‘tell me a story about something amazing one of your junior geeks did”. When the guy who will be managing me doesn’t have one, or doesn’t know the details beyond “he worked 80 hour weeks and got it delivered on time”, that’s a fail.

    The sexism I tend to get from their website. I look for who is on the site and where they are in the structure. I also look around the various online communities I’m in and see whether the company encourages their staff to participate (no=fail), then what sort of reputation those people have. Surprisingly often bad companies are upfront about their sexism, or their geek employees are (sometimes not directly… having your boobs told that you’d be a great employee is enough).

  5. Tim Chevalier

    Don’t: accept a job where you’re asked in the interview whether you’d be willing to “put lead on target”, unless you really do agree with the ideologies behind the US military-industrial complex.

    Do: Disagree with the interviewer (if it’s sincere, anyway) and see how they take it. I interviewed for a job once where the interviewer asked me what I thought about design patterns. I said I thought if there were patterns in your code, it meant you were using a language that didn’t have strong enough abstraction mechanisms. She said, “hmm, I never thought about it that way!” I got the job. At the time, I was presenting as female, and writing about it, I wonder how different that interaction would have been if it *hadn’t* been between two people who were perceived as women. Especially if the interviewer is male, I think challenging them and seeing whether you get a mansplainy answer, or one that engages your point, or just “hmm, I’ll think about that” could be a useful source of data. (This is sort of along the same lines as Valerie’s “can the interviewers be wrong?” point.)

  6. Cthandhs

    If you get the chance, look around at the other people working there. Is there a mix of gender? Are people wearing suits or t-shirts? Are there visible tattoos/weird hair colors? Are desks/cubes personalized? Do the employees look happy, or at least not angry?

  7. Annalee

    I have a couple of standard interview questions I ask when it gets to the “do you have any questions for us?” part of the interview, including “What’s the best thing that’s happened in the office in the past month?”

    The answers to that one have turned out to be pretty telling–some of them were team-oriented, like “we got great press coverage on a major project.” Others were a little lower-key, like someone bringing in muffins. My favorites were the answers that indicated that people in that office really celebrated each other’s successes (Like “so-and-so got a well-deserved promotion,” or “so-and-so sent in pictures of her new baby”). The ones that gave me pause were the interviewers that couldn’t name a single good thing (also the ones whose good things told me bad things about the work environment–like the office all goes out drinking every night).

    Another was “What was [previous person]’s greatest accomplishment in this position?” which could easily be tailored to circumstance to find out if the interviewer recognizes and values the contributions of women in the office.

  8. F

    As a female programmer who is now hiring other programmers for a startup, I have a rule of thumb that is, more or less, “pleasant is better than impressive”. In other words, I’d rather go with the programmer who seems more junior but has a friendly, laid-back vibe than the one who goes on and on about their skills. I’m young and female and very used to condescension. I’d much rather work with someone who is going to need help and/or more time to complete tasks than work with someone who is going to make my blood pressure rise — it ends up being more time-effective. I’m especially happy to hire other women, who are also usually more junior.

  9. Pomke

    I think the best approach is to do some research on the company before the interview, and I don’t just mean visit their website. If applying for a tech job try to find another tech employee (try searching linkedin for the company name, or asking around your local tech group for people who work/have worked there) and ask them about the work place. Even if they pass the news on that you’re poking around back to the person doing the hiring it will just seem like you are an attentive applicant. (And if they do get annoyed, you probably didn’t want to work there anyway).

    In the FOSS world if you know of some of the people working there, check out the types of comments they leave on forums/github and look at their general tone/watch for the obvious keywords. Search google groups for @companyname.com posts.

    This might feel a bit like prying but we’re talking about public correspondence and you can gain invaluable insight into the company and their culture. As someone who has recently left an abusive situation with an employer my guard is up and these are the things that I’m doing while looking at job opportunities because in the end I need to know I will be safe and happy wherever I end up working.

  10. MrsDragon

    I’ve always gone by intuition. Am I comfortable with them? Are they easy to talk to? Do they listen to what I have to say? Ask follow up questions? If they don’t listen to me during an interview, then when will they?

    That said, I’ve had more sexist things said to me as the interviewer than as the interviewee. (I think people are more aware of the lawsuit potential when they are doing the hiring) And the day to day stuff trumps all, simply because there are more opprotunities.

  11. Cecilia Vargas

    Looking back, 2 red-flag raisers for me should have been:
    (1) The occupation of my (heterosexual male) boss’s wife/partner. If she is a traditional female, and/or in a traditionally female occupation like housewife, day-care worker, school teacher, or office admin, then no wonder her husband had trouble with me being competent in a professional, technical job (software development), and showing un-feminine traits like assertiveness.
    (2) Many (and I mean many) of the mostly male bosses dating women employees in positions lower in the company hierarchy.

    If I were interviewing again for software jobs, I’d find out about these 2 before accepting a job offer.

    A further comment on #1 above: age alone is no longer an indicator for me on how much a male adheres to traditional gender roles. I know a 30-year-old computer geek who has very old-fashioned views of gender roles, of where a woman’s “place” is.

    1. pfctdayelise

      hm, your first criterion seems pretty untargeted. you’ve never met any men who have female partners in traditionally female occupations, that have the ability to treat women like real human beings? not to mention that a guy who respects women’s autonomy is also going to respect his partner’s decision to do whatever she pleases, even if it is traditional work or child-raising.

    2. the15th

      Yes, so much this (and props to you for being willing to say it in public) although I look at it more in terms of the hours that the boss’s partner works, whether she stayed at home for a long time and how seriously her career is treated in the family. No, it’s not really a guarantee either way, but a man who has actually had to deal with the time demands of not having a full- or part-time stay-at-home partner to handle the housework and childcare is probably going to look at things differently than one who hasn’t, and it’s going to affect the workplace culture. A man with a stay-at-home wife may be the nicest, most egalitarian guy in the world, but our experiences shape the way that we lead.

    3. SDill

      Is it really like this for all men whose wives/partners have traditionally feminine roles? I’m currently a stay at home mom, because I love it. My husband, who’s in tech, also wanted to stay home, but he made more, I have a deep interest (and two degrees) in child development/psychology, and I wanted it more. That said, he’s way more feminist than the majority of men we know in dual-earner relationships. I’d hate to think people think he is some kind of bully because of my life choice. We both always thought that feminism is about allowing women to make whatever choices they want, including traditionally feminine ones, since there’s nothing wrong about those either. While I get that some men whose wives are in traditionally feminine jobs will also be misogynist, I think that is shaky ground on which to base an opinion of someone.

      1. Valerie Aurora Post author

        I think we’re veering into derailing here… We don’t actually have to have an argument on this blog about whether all men who have female partners in traditionally feminine occupations are automatically sexist. Let’s take that as assumed to be false.

        Let’s summarize the point as “Be wary of working at a company where the leadership consists mostly of men whose personal experiences of women is in home-based support roles for men, because they may not have any experience with women in active leadership roles outside the home.”

        When it comes to working hours, I look at the at-home support needed for company employees in general. I’ve started asking people about assistants and housecleaners, not only spouses.

  12. Amarantha

    My autistic arse is no good at reading people, so job interviews are challenging enough, even without trying to figure out if the work environment will be any good.

    However, I always wear a trouser suit to an interview. If someone would not-hire me for not wearing a skirt (or high heels, or makeup), then I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.

  13. Don Marti

    A general point is: be wary of companies where either (1) your interviewers have bad interviewing skills or (2) there are obvious key people who should interview you but don’t. If you weren’t interviewed well, then you’re likely to be working with people who were able to snow their way through a bad hiring process. For cultural issues, make sure that they ask you open-ended “how did you handle a situation where…” questions, and that they’re only satisfied with a descriptive, narrative, answer.

    A big warning sign for me was the phrase “poised for hypergrowth.” If it’s a priority to staff up, it had better be a priority to take the people who will be most affected by the new hires, and make sure they have the skills and time to be involved. It can take a long time to build up a corporate culture, but a badly handled hiring process can damage that culture quickly.

  14. Heather

    Just like I ask questions of potential employees to make sure they fit in with our culture, you should ask questions to make sure you fit in with their culture. You can ask “How many women work in the [Dept. applying to]?” if you aren’t meeting the entire department. “What qualities would most conflict with the atmosphere at [Company applying to]?” “What would the employees think if this department were evenly split male/female?” There’s a lot of questions you can ask to get to how you’d fit in, or not! Definitely ask them and don’t fight against your instincts– they’re probably right!

  15. Shinobi

    My goal is always to be as conversational as possible in an interview, and really try to get to know the interviewer as much as they try to get to know me. I ask them about how they like their work, the culture, things like that. I always ask them to tell me their favorite and least favorite things about their job. I find that tells me both a lot about the job, and the people doing it.

  16. Sheila

    One time I got a new job and found out after joining that they were hiring because someone was fired for “insubordination” and another person quit at the same time. Based on that experience, I think it is a good idea to try and figure out if the company is looking for candidates due to high turnover, or due to a legitimately healthy reason. for example, they have a new client, a new project, etc.

  17. Bruce Byfield

    When I was going to job interviews, two questions that I always found useful were:

    – “Can you show me around the office?” I couldn’t always tell what morale was like, but I could learn a lot about how employees were treated by the space given to people, access to windows, and the like. I could also notice things like gender ratios, and how employees interacted with each other and with supervisors.

    – “If you were trying to persuade me to take a job with the company, what would you say to me?” This question is especially effective when used together with the first one. It tells you what the company believes or would like to believe about itself, while the tour gives some idea of how things really are.

  18. Laurie

    I definitely agree with the one about avoiding anyone – especially a manager – who *has* to be right!

    I think another thing to watch out for is if you spot a possible problem at interview, and get told that the plan is to change it. It was clear to me in one interview that there was a difficult person at a peer level with the open role. The senior hiring manager reassured me that my hire was part of dealing with this person, and that things were not as bad as they seemed. In reality when I took the role I found things were worse than I had detected, and although the senior manager was keen to change things, he didn’t really have the capabilities he needed to do it, even with support from me and others. In retrospect I should have asked: you agree there’s a problem and the intent is to change things. Show me examples of progress you have made so far, so I can see what there is for me to build upon. Don’t accept talk of change – make sure they’re already changing, acting as well as talking. Even if they are waiting on a hire there’s always something that can be done in the interim.

    Another thing to watch out for is assuming that because there’s one or more women already in the workplace, that it’s a great environment for women :) At one interview process I met a senior woman in a tech role and was encouraged by that; she’d also been promoted in the last year, and so this seemed a good environment (I hardly ever meet women in this field, let alone ones moving on up). In fact, I realised later that she was promoted because of her loyalty to a dominant senior manager; she wasn’t really skilled for her new role, and the rest of the team had little respect for her in the senior role. There were, I think, hints in one of my interviews about this which I didn’t pick up on at the time – possibly because I didn’t want to face the unpleasant truth! I should have asked about how promotion worked in the business. Also the business culture was heavy-drinking and had a lot of trash talk; the tech woman accepted this without question and sometimes even joined in, but in reality it was a harsh environment and wouldn’t’ve suited a lot of men or women. Question everything! Don’t be complacent.

  19. Lisa

    I keep an eye out for passive aggressive behaviors, like interviewers looking at my resume and then asking me questions as though my experience was in assisting whoever did the work. One time, I interviewed at a company for a position managing a two person development group. The C-level who was supposed to talk to me was on an emergency call, so they brought in the two employees I’d be managing. One, an older man with only one year of experience, immediately explained to me that if hired, I would be assisting him, then proceeded to ask me about my typing speed and copyediting abilities. I had somewhere between ten and fifteen years of technical experience at the time, and dudebro decides I must be his new secretary. That was all I needed to know about that company.

    The only other real dealkiller is open workspaces, even if I’m interviewing for a position that comes with a door. An open workspace is not conducive to technical work, and can really be a hostile environment for your average nerd. As such, I assume that hostility finds other ways to manifest as well, and I don’t want to be around to find out what they are.

  20. Mary

    You can also ask questions about corporate culture and norms. There are, of course Reasonsâ„¢ not to ask about women-friendliness, say, specifically but even general questions about “how would you describe your office culture?” “what do you like about working for $company?” etc may help you. For example, uncomfortableness or evasion, or explicit listing of dudebro social norms and after hours events.

    1. Meg

      I find that “what sets this place apart from other start ups/mid-size/large companies?” has been a useful question. It reveals both what they value and how insightful they are into issues of workplace culture.
      From my current position, I suspect I’d ask “how tight-knit is the team?” Since I’m unlikely to end up invited to weekend parties of the 20-something frat boys and the like, having a team of colleagues instead of best friends is preferable to me.

  21. Dorothea Salo

    This is hard in IT companies for all the reasons we already know about, but if you’re doing IT in another kind of organization, what’s the diversity level in senior management, or management generally?

    If it’s all WASP men, and you have good reason not to expect that, be kinda wary. I wish I had been.

  22. Katherine

    I try to find out the demographics of the people I’ll be working with, by asking something vague like “What’s the team of people I’ll be working with like?” All I look for is an indication that there are other women in the team/greater team/company, though if they have men of colour on the team that’s usually (but not always) an indication of sufficient diversity that women will be treated well enough in general.

    Informal-ish interview process means to me that the company is small enough to not have an HR department, which may or may not be a good thing. It does probably mean that the interviewer will hire someone that looks the same as them though, or at least thinks the same. I’ve never been hired by a place like this though.

  23. Meg

    For programming culture, insist on code reviews and outlaw individual code ownership. If you explain, up front, these expectations, and make it clear that even the most experienced developer is not only expected to listen to the reviews of interns but seek them out and appreciate them? It selects away from the egos that I believe are the number one reason for unwelcoming environments.

    As a job seeker, check out LinkedIn. When I noticed that one company had no women engineers and every woman they had hired in the past had left within 6 months of being hired I knew it wasn’t the place for me.

    As a hiring manager, make sure every person is interviewed by a diverse set of people. Verify that they are willing to listen to, respect and take feedback from the variety of people you have at your company. This is one of the reasons that early diversity is key: without it a culture of assimilation and nerd-boy-glorification can develop without anyone noticing.

  24. Sheila

    I’m still not quiet sure how to figure out if a work environment (or perhaps just people I’d work with) is sexist, so I fall back on trying to figure out if the the work environment is nice in general.

    Answers people have given about checking the demographics of the workplace are good — I think being able to meet with the people you’d work with (if it’s a big company, you might not have interviewed with them) is a good idea.

    Maybe check for blog posts? Maybe see if their employees give talks at conferences? Maybe see if their company hosts user group meetings? See what their footprint in the community is like.

    I enjoyed the glassdoor website when it first came out, but have mixed feelings about it now due to a bad experience with it and the awful job I mentioned in my earlier comment.

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