Personal Finance

How to get the information that really matters to you out of a job interview

Expert advice to help you get a read on work-life balance and company culture.

Expert advice to help you get a read on work-life balance and company culture

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Many of us spend the bulk of our waking hours working. So it makes sense to be choosy when it comes to your employer. 

Still, the idea of cherry-picking your place of work feels new, and is of course a matter of privilege, too. I know my mom didn't feel she had that luxury when she was working in the labour and delivery department at a hospital while I was growing up; she describes it as the worst and most stressful job she's ever had. I also didn't have the option to be choosy when I was fresh out of university and grappling with a journalism industry that was fiercely competitive and barely hiring.

But the pandemic gave many Canadians a reason to consider their careers with a fresh perspective and decide on new requirements. According to Ottawa-based human resources consultant and career coach Nicole Picton, today's job seekers place a greater emphasis on work-life balance, flexible work hours and company culture.

"There was, I think, a lot of burnout, and [there] still continues to be, so people are recovering from that," she said. "And as they're choosing their next employer, they're being a lot more intentional about … trying to understand what that culture is."

But there's only so much insight a job posting or company website can give into what it would actually be like to step into the role. An interview is an opportunity to not only woo your potential employer but also find out whether a workplace is right for you — which includes picking up on any red flags that suggest the company isn't offering what you're looking for.

Picton tells her clients not to shy away from asking thoughtful questions in a job interview, even if they're related to personal priorities.

"I think it's good to be on the same page [as an employer]," she said. "You want to move to a company that is aligned with where you want to be, so you don't have to, in three months, realize, 'Oh, this isn't a good fit for me.'"

Dig into the demands of the job

Like Picton, Vancouver-based career coach Andrea Barr encourages her clients to ask "tactful" questions in job interviews — for instance, you could ask what a busy season looks like for the company, and when those busy periods tend to happen.

"You can kind of catch people off guard, and they might say, 'Oh, it's always busy,'" she said, which could indicate that the job might be a "grind."

And then, Barr said, dig deeper: ask how the company handles those busy times. "That can be really interesting just to hear how busy seasons get managed, and how the people are supported in those seasons as well."

Picton also recommends asking about after-work commitments (Are there events you would be required to attend? How frequently do those types of commitments come up?), as well as about recent programs, initiatives or changes to the company that were inspired or spearheaded by an employee.

"That will give insights [into] if they survey the staff, if they're connecting with them," she said.

Suss out what work-life balance looks like

Picton has noticed that work-life balance and flexible work hours have become key priorities for job seekers. "Some people are raising families or doing graduate degrees or just want to sign off after five o'clock," she noted. "[Or they want] a split day to go to a medical appointment or pick up their kids from the bus."

What people crave from a job is usually personal and situational, said Barr, who specializes in getting people back onto the career track after a parental leave.

For those clients, Barr said the interview is a good time to ask about policies related to in-office work versus working from home, as well as what she calls the "non-monetary elements" of the job.

"So things like, what do parental leaves look like? What's [considered] health insurance? Do they value things like helping people to bring families into the world through support for those who are adopting or those who are going through fertility treatments?" she said.

"Those can be really small but really interesting indications that they really do value family in the organization."

Watch for red flags

Applicants often do research to prepare for an interview in order to impress a potential employer, but it's a good way to spot red flags, too. Picton advises searching the company on LinkedIn and assessing things like turnover (Are employees staying with the company for months or years?) and if long-standing employees have been able to move up to more senior roles. That can give clues into whether there's opportunity to grow within the company.

Barr said applicants' intuitions should take a front seat, and they should pay close attention to how the interviewers are showing up for the interview. Do they light up when they talk about the organization, or are they late, disorganized or seem frazzled?

"We've all been in those situations where you meet somebody and you're like, 'Gosh, you seem miserable,'" she said.

"I always say that interviews are kind of like an art and a science. The science part of it is who you are, how you show up, your confidence, your skills, your past and all that. The art is more around really navigating your emotional intelligence and the process, and really listening and feeling the vibe of the people that you're interviewing with."


Zakiya Kassam is a writer with bylines in both Canada- and U.S.-based publications. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @zakiyakassam.

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