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Company culture? Don't ask.

"Tell me about your culture," you ask the hiring manager.

You're considering a new job, so you really need to know. Because even the best job—in the worst culture—will kill your satisfaction, and your success.

But you've asked the wrong question. It's too abstract, too vague, and will prompt the other person to give you a bland answer.

Here's what you're likely (and unlikely) to hear:

1) We're innovative. (The truth is, we have no idea what we're doing.)

2) We embrace change. (We also have no idea where we're going.)

3) Picture one big family
. (Picture one big dysfunctional family.)

4) We work hard. (We avoid frivolous activities like "weekend," or "lunch," or "going to the bathroom.")

5) Read our core values statement. It says it all. (Read the 207 page report the U.S. Dept. of Justice just issued. It says everything, although our CEO is confident that he can still turn things around from jail.)

"I hate the word culture," says the CEO of GM, Mary Barra. "It's like this thing that sits out there" (TIME, 10/6/14).

What is culture, anyway?

"It's the stories we tell about the company," Barra says. "It's how we behave."

Agreed. So let's ask about stories and behaviors, with questions like these:

1) Stories: "Tell me about someone who's been really successful here" (not just based on technical skill, but on modeling key values). "And tell me about someone who hasn't."

2) Behavior
: "Suppose I worked here, and met all my performance goals for the year. What other behaviors would contribute to a high performance rating? What would get me a low performance rating, even if I met objectives?"

For example, here's what the creator of Time Warner, Steve Ross, said about risk-taking behavior: "I'll never fire you for making a mistake. I'll fire you for not making any" (NY Times, Corner Office, 11/16/13).

Tip: It's a mistake to ignore culture—or to accept bland generalizations. Push for specifics.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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