How to Tell If a Prospective Employer Shares Your Values

How to Tell If a Prospective Employer Shares Your Values
Audrey Shtecinjo/Stocksy

We talk a lot about finding a culture fit when job seeking, but much less about finding the right fit for our values. Culture determines how work gets done, but values show how companies prioritize, make decisions, and reconcile conflict. A culture may celebrate innovation, but values determine what gets sacrificed in the pursuit of it.

It’s nearly impossible to bring your best to an organization that conflicts with your values. Ensuring that a company shares your values from the outset is a threefold process: First, you need to identify your own core values; next, ask the right questions during the interview process; and finally, conduct your own assessment to see if your values match those of the organization.

When my leadership coaching clients come to me feeling deeply unsettled with a situation at work, more often than not, there is a serious mismatch between what the company is asking and who the employee believes themselves to be. A divergence in values can be minor: I value punctuality, but meetings start late here. Or, they may be temporary: I need to keep my reservations to myself until I learn more about where this new policy is going. Issues like these might be irritating, but you can usually rationalize and move on easily enough.

Then there are the times when a work situation can leave you feeling mired in discomfort or even at a moral impasse. This is an indication that your core values are being threatened or infringed on. In troubling instances like these, our internal dialogue gets stuck in ongoing conflict. How can I roll out this product plan knowing it will fail, and that I’m putting our sales team’s targets and incomes in jeopardy? How can I represent this client when I know their production creates significant environmental damage? How do I feel about an employer willing to tolerate harsh management practices for the sake of results?

No one wants to be in this place, which is why it’s so important to determine a values fit before joining a company. Here is how to interview a company for values just as aggressively as we interview to land a job:

Your Values-Focused Interview Plan

Behavioral interviewing is a calibrated questioning technique that’s become popular at companies like Google and Amazon. It focuses on probing a person’s past actions as proof of their skills and traits. For example, candidates can easily say during an interview that they are motivated, but it’s difficult to create an interview situation that demonstrates drive. Behavioral interviewing looks at past behavior as a key predictor of future behavior.

If you’re in the candidate’s seat, you can flip this script and use these same behavioral interviewing techniques to learn about the company’s values. Hiring managers are often in sales mode, intent on presenting a favorable picture of the company, so even probing questions might not yield the information you’re looking for. You’ll get far more information if you go in with a values-focused interview plan, such as:

1. Identify three to five values most important to you before your interview. These are the tenets that are central to who you want to be in the world. If they are infringed upon, you will feel it acutely. Examples are honesty, integrity, positivity, quality, service, or trust. If you need help getting started, you can search online for numerous values sorting resources such as this one by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s The Good Project.

2. Compile a list of questions that will reveal what values the company honors. These are typically open-ended questions that ask the interviewer to provide specific examples. The goal is to elicit information that you can compare to your own values — not to ask for confirmation. You don’t want to lead the witness: I value integrity, can you give an example of integrity here? The richness lies in what is volunteered. Here are some examples of behavioral questions that help uncover the values of an organization. You don’t need to ask all of them, but try to pick two or three that suit your interview situation.

  • Who has done well in a similar role as this one? What makes them a high performer? Who hasn’t performed as well and how so?
  • What are promotable qualities here? Who is someone at my level that’s been recently promoted? What qualities did they exemplify?
  • What behaviors are not tolerated here? What’s a situation when these were violated? What happened?
  • Describe the culture. How has your perception evolved over time? Can you share an instance when the culture has surprised you?
  • What’s an example of conflict at the company around strategy or direction? What led to the conflict? How was it resolved?
  • When you were in my seat, what were you told that was helpful to doing well here? What could you tell me that you wish you’d have known?

If possible, ask follow-up questions. As you can see, there are layers to the questions above, and the point is to keep fine-tuning the examples. Stay curious and ask for specifics. You want to get the interviewer to move off well-rehearsed talking points so they are giving you honest, genuine — and therefore uniquely valuable — information.

This can feel awkward at first, as we are generally focused on transmitting our capabilities in interviews. But communication is a highly valuable skill, and being able to hold an honest conversation around sensitive topics is a coveted leadership attribute. If the interviewer is unwilling or uncomfortable discussing values-based questions, that’s a telling piece of data in itself.

3. Rate your interviews immediately after they conclude. For each of your core values, rank how they showed up in that interview on a scale of one to five, using some approximation of the following:

  1. Value was never mentioned
  2. Value was mentioned but not demonstrated
  3. Value was occasionally demonstrated
  4. Value was clearly and frequently demonstrated
  5. This company models the value

If you have the opportunity, try posing similar questions to multiple people so you can compare responses and look for patterns. Your ratings don’t have to be perfectly calibrated to be illustrative. For a good values fit, you ideally want to see your core values show up consistently in the higher ratings across interviews in any one company.

Using behavioral questions to uncover values can provide a much fuller picture of what it will feel like to work in a company day in, day out. Knowing how a company respected your personal values in the past gives you a window into the future.

This doesn’t mean you can predict every situation. After all, companies and bosses can change — and with them, values. Even when circumstances change, however, if you’ve vetted for values you will have added leverage for a remedy: The consistency principle of persuasion finds that people are more likely to honor something if they (or their organization in this case) have previously committed to it.

Nearly all of us experience periods of dissatisfaction at work at some point or other. But when our values are misaligned with our place of work, it can be paralyzing. By using this process, you’ll know the values that matter to you, be able to readily see when or if they’re violated, and be prepared to address the situation head on.

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