If you've conducted more than a handful of job interviews, you know it's often a waste of time when you say to potential candidates, "What questions do you have for me?"

Why? Many job candidates don't actually care about how you answer their questions. They just hope the questions they ask make them look good.

(My favorite was when a candidate asked, "Will it be a problem if I work longer hours than most people? I get so into in my work I lose all track of time." Mm-hm.)

Occasionally, though, a candidate genuinely cares about your answers. The best candidates have options, so for them the interview cuts both ways: While you're deciding whether they are a good fit for the role, while they're deciding whether your company is the right fit for them.  

  • "What do you expect me to accomplish in the first 90 days?" (Great candidates want to hit the ground running.)
  • "What are the top three traits your top performers have in common?" (Great candidates want to be top performers.)
  • "What are the company's highest priority goals this year, and how does this role contribute?" (Great candidates want their jobs to matter.)
  • "How many of your employees were brought in by other employees?" (Great candidates want to work at a places where employees recommend the company to others.)

And now, courtesy of Adam Grant, there's another question to add to the list.

The Question Every Job Candidate Should Ask...

If you've been living under a rock, Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, Wharton professor, best-selling author, WorkLife podcast host, co-founder of Givitas, and a guy nice enough to provide a blurb for my book.

What question does Adam tell his students to ask when they go out to, as he puts it, interview employers?

Tell me a story about something that has happened here that would not occur elsewhere.

Why? As Adam says:

... and then you ask a bunch of people at the company the same question. What you're interested in is (whether) the stories illustrate the same values.

And mostly the stories are the same. There's some classic research showing that basically companies tell the same stories over and over again, even if they think they're different.

That's because those stories are a more accurate reflection of a company's culture than any mission statement, values statement, or form of corporate branding.

Company cultures are defined by the moments that highlight business not as usual: The CEO who worked all night alongside the shipping crew to get an order out on time. The customer service team that banded together to take up the slack for an employee with a sick family member. The founders who took a temporary pay cut rather than lay off employees.

Just like a person's true character is revealed in the face of adversity, a company's true culture is revealed by those same moments. The moments when no one seems to be looking... but everyone knows what happened.

The moments that wouldn't happen elsewhere.

... Is the Question Every Company Must Be Prepared to Answer

Which doesn't mean simply being prepared to come up with a story that answers the question.

Smart companies are intentional, through their actions, about creating answers to the question.

Part of a leader's job in building culture is to say we want to zoom in on the kinds of stories that reflect our core values, which are distinctive and central and enduring... that define who we are as different from others.

But we also want to create those stories, so let's figure out whatever our values are and the actions we have to take this year that will send a signal out into the world that, 'This is what we stand for.'

That's hard, but the data suggests it's really important... if you don't have a clear blueprint, your survival rates are lower and you're also less likely to go public.

That's because culture is never what you say. Culture is what you do -- and, just as importantly, the way you do it. 

Which means not only being able to say what makes you different... but intentionally being different.

Then it will be easier to find the best job candidates to hire... because they will be better able to find you.