Professionally speaking a job can be a perfect fit for you, and you'll still be miserable if the company culture isn't a match. Insane hours, cut-throat competition (or on the other hand, cult-like Kumbaya craziness), and ugly office politics can all transform a dream job into a work nightmare. So how do you spot these problems in a job interview and spare yourself a ton of pain?

Over the years I've heard quite a few clever suggestions from experts, including watching out for red flags like short employee tenure and late night (or instantaneously answered) emails. But according to a thoughtful recent post on blog The Financial Diet (hat tip to lifehacker for the pointer), spotting a company with a problematic culture might actually be much simpler than all that. In fact, it might only take one question.

How do employees spend their lunch break?

The tricky thing about sussing out a company's culture is that it's hard to ask directly. Questions like, 'Do people often work late?' can be taken as showing a lack of commitment, while direct questions like 'Tell me about your culture' can elicit favorable propaganda rather than realistic descriptions.

One way around this, according to The Financial Diet's Laura Riley, is to ask your interviewers to describe how they and their teams spend their lunch break.

"This is a casual way to uncover office culture without explicitly asking," explains Riley. "If it's typical for a few employees to eat lunch together, that indicates a very different environment than a place where everyone eats alone at their desks."

As lifehacker points out, "there will always be people who prefer to work through their lunch or eat at their desk because they prefer to use their break to recharge rather than socialize," (though science says this is actually a terrible way to refresh your brain), but as long as you broaden the question out to get a larger sense of how most people are spending their break, you should be able to get a decent sense of whether the company is social or heads-down, face-time oriented or more focused on results than time, etc.

Published on: Dec 29, 2016
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