You want to get into startups but you've heard some horror stories of endless all-nighters and creepy, cult-like company cultures. You're willing to work hard, but you're not willing to sacrifice your life and your health -- and you expect a little flexibility in exchange for all that effort.

So how do you find out if a prospective employer is demanding but fair, or just incredibly demanding?

You could ask, but according to a host of HR experts, coming right out and saying, 'How is work-life balance at this company?' in an interview can get you labelled as less than committed. Thankfully, a new post on lifehacker from weeSpring founder Allyson Downey offers more stealthy suggestions.

Some seem a little impractical to me -- I doubt, for instance, that most of the time you're going to be able to schedule an interview for 7pm so you can scope out who's still at work. (And if you could, would you really want to interview with a cranky, exhausted hiring manager?) But others are pure genius. Here are a few of the best.

1. Ask a former employee.

Downey calls this a "reverse reference check" and suggests that you can use LinkedIn to try and find someone who has left the company who might be willing to have a candid chat. Once you get someone on the phone, she suggests you ask questions like:

  • How would you describe the culture?
  • Is facetime important?
  • Are vacations encouraged or frowned upon?
  • Is there flexibility to work remotely?
  • What are the typical hours?
  • If you could have waved a magic wand and changed one thing about the culture, what would be be?

2. Do your research.

There are now plenty of sites and tools that aim to help job seekers get a better sense of what they're signing on for. Use them.

"Maybrooks is building a comprehensive database of various companies' family leave policies, crowd-sourced from the input of women who work in those companies. Glassdoor compiles employees' scores of many companies on various categories (like work-balance) as well as reviews of their experiences working in particular positions. Fairygodboss shares company reviews written for women, by women," writes Downey, though she notes that online reviews can be biased, so weigh this evidence against the information you gather elsewhere.

3. Ask indirectly.

Coming straight out with questions about work-life balance might give your interviewer the impression you care more about not missing a Zumba class than contributing to the company, but no sensible hiring manager should object to these more oblique lines of inquiry, suggested by Downey:

  • What do you love about working for this company that has nothing to do with your job?
  • If there's one aspect of culture the company could improve upon, what would it be?
  • Can you tell me about the type of person who succeeds here?
  • How would you describe the company culture in just a few words?

"You're not just listening for what they're saying--you also want to hone in on what someone isn't saying. If you ask these questions in a few different ways and never hear words like supportive, flexible, inclusive, or empowering, that could be a red flag," she adds.

Do you have any other tricks for telling if you're going to fit in with a company's culture?

Published on: May 18, 2016