Career & Finance

15 Questions to Ask in an Interview to Avoid a Toxic Work Culture

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Picture this: You’ve just landed an interview for your dream job. You’re brushing up on your knowledge of the company, agonizing over the perfect interview outfit, and prepping your responses to possible questions about your skills and background. 

At the same time, you might also be feeling anxious about how a new job could impact your ability to juggle things as a mother. Will there be the flexibility to duck out early to attend school events or work from home if your child is sick? Is the company culture one of being available 24/7, or can you unplug at night and on the weekends to care for your family and yourself? Are mothers represented in the company’s top management, or do women who prioritize their families get shunted to the “mommy track” and hit a dead-end in their development?

The good news is the interview process isn’t just a chance to impress but also an opportunity to gain authentic insight into whether the company’s culture is one in which you’ll thrive or burn out. And while no interviewer is going to come right out and admit the company has a toxic culture, there are ways to read between the lines to get the information you need. 

Here are some strategic interview questions you can ask to get the real deal on what goes on behind the scenes. 

Questions to Ask to Avoid a Toxic Workplace

Work-Life Balance and Support Systems

We all deserve to have our mental well-being supported at work—especially moms who are often leaving the office to start a second shift at home. Asking questions in the interview that dig into a company’s approach to work-life balance is a good starting point when trying to assess the culture.

1. Can you describe a typical workday for someone in this role? Does it typically involve after-hours or weekend work?

Notice how they answer, but also how they say it—their tone of voice, facial expression, and whether they seem genuine in their response. Do they seem defensive about long hours, or is there a sense of respect for personal time and flexibility?

2. What resources does the company offer to support employee well-being?

Look for options beyond free snacks and discounted gym memberships. Does the company offer mental health benefits, flexible work arrangements, or family-friendly benefits? When they talk about employee well-being, does it feel surface level, or are they well-versed in specific examples and initiatives?

3. How does the company handle workload during busy periods?

A company with a supportive culture will have strategies to manage peak times without expecting constant overtime from its employees.

4. How would you describe the workplace culture?

Pay attention to where your interviewer focuses their answer. Do they immediately mention a “meritocracy” or a culture of excellence or high performance? That could signal a competitive, high-pressure environment.

Team Dynamics and Communication

A healthy team environment can make all the difference in your day-to-day experience. Here’s how to get a feel for the team you might be joining:

5. Can you tell me about the team structure for this role? Who would I be working with most closely?

This gives you an idea of who your daily collaborators will be. And if you haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet during the interview process, now is the time to ask to do so. If possible, try to informally uncover whether there are other parents on your team and whether they’ve been able to find a successful career path at the company.

6. How would you describe the communication style within the team and the company as a whole?

Are things open and transparent, or is there a strict communication hierarchy or a culture of information hoarding?

7. How are disagreements handled within the team?

Listen to see if there is a focus on finding solutions or assigning blame. A healthy team focuses on problem-solving, not finger-pointing.

Company Values

While most companies have a set of corporate values, it’s important to understand whether they are lived values or just buzzwords.

8. What are the organization’s values, and how do they show up in the day-to-day work and lives of employees?

Anyone can quote the words painted on the wall of the employee break room, so press your interviewer for specific examples. And if they’re fuzzy on the company’s values or unable to offer personal anecdotes about how they impact the culture, that’s a major red flag.

9. What do you like about working here?

This can be another roundabout way of asking about what the organization values. Is the first thing your interviewer mentions the beer cart that comes around on Friday afternoons, or is it that they feel the company really cares about them?

10. How does diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) factor into the work you do?

Every organization has their DE&I talking points, but you want to find out if the company walks the talk. This question pushes beyond platitudes and will give you a sense of how DE&I efforts actively show up in the workplace.

11. If you were in my position, would you take this job? Why or why not?

This is where the rubber meets the road. Pay attention to whether your interviewer gives an authentic, enthusiastic endorsement. If they hedge or skirt around this question, that tells you all you need to know.

Growth and Development

A stagnant job is a recipe for boredom, so make sure the company prioritizes your professional growth.

12. What opportunities does the company offer for professional development and learning?

Training programs, conferences, or mentorship programs are all good signs.

13. How does the company typically handle career advancement for employees in this role?

Is there a clear path for growth within the company, or is it a dead end? If traveling away from your family is a limitation for you, can you still have a successful career path, or will you be hindered?

14. Can you tell me about a time an employee here took a risk, and it paid off for the company?

This shows if the company encourages innovation and celebrates responsible risk-taking.

15. What type of leader thrives in this environment? Can you give me an example of someone who embodies that?

Leaders make or break workplace cultures, period. The response to this question will give you a clear sense of the organization’s leadership philosophy.

Source: ColorJoy Stock

Things to Note During Your Interview

Interviews are also about vibes. Here’s how to pick up on unspoken cues that could signal a toxic workplace.

  • Notice who your interviewers are. Do you see yourself in any of them? Or are they all young and childless or, conversely, older men who likely aren’t shouldering the primary responsibility for caring for children?
  • Ask follow-up questions. Don’t settle for generic answers. Dig deeper to understand the “why” behind their responses.
  • Pay attention to the interviewer’s body language. Are they fidgety, or do they seem stressed? Are they impatient when you press for specifics? This could hint at a high-pressure environment or a culture without open, transparent communication.
  • How do the interviewers interact with each other? Do they seem happy and collaborative, or is there tension in the room?

Bonus Tip: While the interview is happening, take note of the overall office environment. Does it feel energetic and positive, or is it tense and quiet?

Research Beyond the Interview

Here are some extra steps to take your investigation a further further:

  • Do your research. Look for online reviews from current and past employees on sites like Glassdoor or Blind. And to see how the company specifically stacks up in terms of supporting moms, check out Great Place to Work to see whether it’s made any “best workplace” lists. 
  • Connect with people in your informal network or on LinkedIn who currently work there. Reach out for informational interviews to get a firsthand perspective.

By asking good questions and doing your research, you’ll be well on your way to identifying a company culture that’s a good fit for you. Remember, you deserve a workplace that values your well-being, supports your growth, and allows you to balance caring for your family with having a meaningful career.