Stories about Software


How to Detect Sucker Culture while Interviewing

I had a reader question come in that was a bit sensitive and specific, so I won’t post it here.  It pertained to receiving a job offer that had some peculiarities around the “paid time off” (PTO) situation.  Given the time-sensitive nature of such a thing, rather than add it to my Trello backlog of post topics, I shot him an email offering a few quick thoughts.  This led to a brief discussion of hiring and PTO in general, and a more general question.

The problem is, I don’t know a way to figure out [whether they have a heavy overtime culture] before you join a company.  How do you ask ‘How many hours will I be working?’

This is a classic conundrum.  Job interviewing advice 101 says, “don’t talk about pay or vacation — impress them, secure the offer, and then negotiate once they like you.”  If you ask about hours or vacation during the interview, you might create the impression that you’re a loafer, causing the employer to pass on you.

In my popular post about “sucker culture” I suggested that you shouldn’t feel guilty for not pouring in extra hours for free.  I then offered a follow up post with ideas for escaping that culture when you’re in it.  But it occurs to me that I haven’t talked about avoiding it altogether.  And that’s really what’s being asked here: how do you avoid sucker culture in the first place, without torpedoing your chances during an interview?


The advice I’m going to offer here is, for the most part, advice that errs on the side of caution and not hurting your chances during the interview process.  So, as you examine the following strategies, bear in mind that they may result in false negatives for exposing a sucker culture.

Time Your Interviews

For a lot of positions, you’ll need to do two rounds of interview onsite.  That gives you two opportunities to see what things look like at the day’s endpoints.  Try to schedule your interviews for 8 AM or 5 PM, ideally.

Most organizations will understand that you’re currently working and need to sneak away, so there’s nothing particularly odd about asking for times as early or as late as possible.   It will make total sense to them, and it will give you the opportunity to see how many people are there at such times.

If you find that the office is packed with workers at both 8 AM and 5 PM, that, in and of itself is a smell.  But, beyond that, you need to look at their demeanor and activity.  A room full of people talking and laughing at 5 PM may indicate a great place to work — the team is so tight that they stay after hours to socialize.  On the other hand, a room full of frazzled looking people at both 8 and 5, palms against foreheads and sighing with frustration, is a good indicator that this company might demand more than what the offer letter lays out.

Tell a Story about a Malingering Coworker

Now that you’ve used the timing of your interviews for recon, it’s time to move the intelligence gathering into the interview itself.  You’re likely to have interviews with a relatively predictable cast of characters.  This cast will likely include some combination of “senior person who does what you’re going to do,” “prospective boss,” “dotted line boss,” “different specialty coworker” and “people-person like HR.”  You’ll have to use your discretion about which one(s) of these characters makes the best target for each of the next few techniques.  Getting a schedule of who you’ll be talking to from your recruiter or contact person will help you plan.

This technique could apply to pretty much anyone here, except, perhaps. for HR.  During the portion of the interview where they ask you discussion questions, find a way to work in a tale about a lazy coworker.  This should be a teammate of yours that would come in late, leave early, fail to get things done, and for whom you would frequently cover.  (Don’t worry, it doesn’t actually need to be true).

This might come from the iconic, “what’s your greatest weakness” question and you can talk about how you have a tendency to let people take advantage of you or something.  As long as you throw the narrative out there of covering for this person.

This will allow you to do a little “team player” grandstanding, but your actual purpose is to see how your interviewer reacts to this.  In an intense sucker culture, a boss or senior figure will likely say something like, “well, you won’t have to worry about that here — that type of person doesn’t work out” or “we keep pretty strict track of when people come and go.”  Now you have your information without tipping your hand.

Why Do They Leave?

This next one is fair game for pretty much anyone with whom you’re talking.  Save it for the “do you have any questions for me” portion of the discussion.  Your goal is to get the other party to talk about why people leave the company, but just blurting that out would be a little awkward.  I’d try this on for size.

I’m a firm believer in mutual fit, so I want to understand what differentiates successful hires from non-successful ones.  Can you describe to me, on the one hand, what have made your best hires so successful and, on the other hand, why people leave or don’t work out?

Your mileage may vary on the exact phrasing, but you want to get them to talk about who doesn’t work out and why.  At this point, look for the same red flags.  “Wouldn’t go the extra mile,” “can’t take the pressure,” “didn’t like our customer-first policy,” are examples of the sorts of smells you’re looking for.  Remember, this isn’t an exact science — you’re looking for warning signs.

Any Hobbies?

This is a more subtle one, and it’ll only make sense to ask it of a boss.  During your questions, ask the boss what hobbies her team has.  Superficially, this makes you look friendly and sociable, which is never a bad thing.  “Just to get a sense for the camaraderie and what my prospective teammates are like, what kind of stuff do they do outside of work?”

If she rattles off several hobbies, that’s a good sign that (1) the company allows for some work-life balance and (2) that she takes an interest in her reports as humans.  If she looks at you blankly or says something like, “who has time for hobbies?!” it’s a bad sign.

State Your Requirements

This one and especially the next one will be higher risk plays, comparatively.  These may result in demerits during the grand interview scoring process, so caveat emptor.

This is something you should only do when being interviewed by your prospective boss (or someone above him in the org pyramid).  Simply state what you require in terms of PTO and work-life balance.  This is subtly different from asking them what they give, and it’s a subtly stronger bargaining position.

Instead of, “so, uh, like do people have to work extra hours?” you’re going to be more confident and matter of fact.  Say, “in my current role, I get 4 weeks of PTO and late night or weekend work is rare.  My life is oriented around that balance, so it’s pretty important to me to preserve it.”  This can still make a bad impression, but it’s not an implied “how much can I get away with?”  Rather, it’s a “company X values me enough to give me these benefits, so you’re going to need to do at least that for me.”

The key distinction is in the fact that another company thinks you’re trustworthy or reliable enough to be afforded these freedoms.  Job offers are heavily anchored by what was happening at your previous company — this applies to pay, benefits, and PTO, so work-life balance won’t really be an exception.

Lay Your Cards On The Table Up Front

This one is a pretty quick ticket to being disqualified in a lot of places, but that may be for the best.  Instead of doing any recon or dancing around the subject by citing old employers, just state up front that you don’t want work to be your life.  “Look, I’ve got a couple of kids, and I’m really into sailing during the summer, and so I’m looking for a job and culture where people give it their all for 40 hours per week and then come back refreshed on Monday.”

We’re so conditioned to present our perfect selves for the sake of securing an offer that we fail to see a case of “be careful what you wish for.”  If having a balanced life and not pouring countless free hours into a company are important to you, why even try to secure an offer from a sucker culture company?  It’s not going to be an arrangement that makes both parties happy, but if you get that offer, there’s the very human temptation to take it and hope that you can change the company for the better and get your way.  You can’t, and you won’t.

So isn’t there a chance it’s actually better never to have that offer?  Fail fast and early, as it were?

It can be hard to do this, and, frankly, passing on unsuitable offers before they came was not something I ever did until pretty recently.  But I’ve also felt the pain of accepting offers for what I wanted them to be instead of what they were.  Be patient and stick to your guns, and you’ll be able to find an offer that makes sense to you.  And, if enough of us do it, maybe sucker culture will become less pervasive.