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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?

WorkHarder

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.

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Brent
Guest
Great post as always! I really don’t like how broken the interview system seems to be. Even with a developer shortage which should put interviewees in a stronger position you still need to play these games just to hope to figure out what a company is really like. As you mention it’d be better to know before you even started interviewing and not waste time for everyone involved. Shameless plug alert: That’s why I started a side project to try and aggregate inside information related to software development http://codehappy.info . The idea being that it is like glassdoor for things… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

Plug away 🙂

My hope is that we can start sort of a grass roots movement, based on market demand, to alter expectations. If enough talented developers pass on companies playing goofy interview games and imposing silly working conditions, I think we might start to see a gradual shift in both the market’s power dynamic and practices at these organizations.

James Hansen
Guest

I love this site. Simple and straight forward. I’m going to promote the hell out of it. If you’re not already I suggest hosting it somewhere with strong ” right to speak” policies or it will end end up gimped by lawyers, like Glassdoor.

Matt
Guest
Spot on, Eric. Make your position on work/life balance often, and especially before you take a new role. Having been interviewing this past year, I would often just ask straight out, “So how’s the work/life balance?” It wasn’t awkward/off-putting at all. It’s only uncomfortable if you don’t ask with confidence. If I saw a smile & a comment like “Great! Our people are our most important asset!” that was a good sign. Several interviewers though would frown/have a blank face and not directly answer, stating “well we’re a global org, important work, 24/7 operation… but you’ll learn a lot! etc… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

I really do think the confidence angle is quite important. A lot of interviewers will probably respond subconsciously to that confidence by feeling like they’re doing something wrong if they’re not offering good work-life balance. A lot of people who have only ever been on the interviewee side of the table probably don’t realize that those doing the interviewing have concerns about judgement as well.

Andrei Dragotoniu
Guest
I am a firm believer in lay all your cards on your table. I do not believe in trying to impress a potential employer. Yes, talk about your strong point and what you can do but also be yourself. If they don’t like who you normally are then you do not want to work there, period. I have a few questions I ask bluntly. 1. How many hours are their developers working 2. how do they deal with overtime : paid / unpaid / time off in lieu. 3. why specifically do they need me. This checks if they bothered… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
I love that you’re doing this and it’s working! I think this is what we, collectively, need to do across the board and in force. Developers are in such high demand that there’s no reason to be jumping through hoops. It’s encouraging to hear tales of people showing up, being themselves, being honest about what they want, and having things work out. (By the way, I’m often surprised, per your last paragraph, by how many people leave what they’re doing with a speculative offer of some sort. This was something I figured out pretty much immediately upon entering the workforce)
Andrei Dragotoniu
Guest

Yes and I don’t get it. The contract is the single most important thing. I had things in previous contracts where I wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else or all the code I wrote belonged to the employer even if it was done on my own time, on my own computer. Such things have no place in a contract. As a permanent developer, we only have a certain number of hours per week to work for the employer. Whatever we do on our own time, they should never try to control or limit.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Ugh… those “we own everything you do on our time or your own time” clauses are repugnant. I actively encourage all developers to ask about that right up front and, if it exists, to tell the prospective employer that such a thing is a deal-breaker on principle. I’m not even sure if such a thing is enforceable, but I am sure that it’s a gross overreach and a strong arm tactic.

Anon
Guest
I, respectfully, disagree with some of the points made here. First, however, let me say that I appreciate immensely this blog. I look forward to new posts, and I think it’s great that you write about these sorts of cultural issues in our industry and are an advocate for improvements. That being said, I did not like the “team player grandstanding” advice. Having conducted a lot of interviews, I would be worried about a person who comes to me with a negative story about peers. I don’t think that sort of approach says “team player” as much as it says… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
I’m glad you like the blog, and no need to qualify any disagreements you have 🙂 I think that typical interview advice winds up being something of a crapshoot. I definitely think there’s merit to the “don’t trash your old employer/coworkers” advice. When I’m interviewing people, it’s frankly off-putting and boring to listen to someone gripe about past situations. But, if someone mentioned matter-of-factly covering for a malingering coworker, I wouldn’t think too much about it. And, that’s the trouble with the (very subjective) interview process. The same advice that would work well with me as an interviewer wouldn’t work… Read more »
Jacob Share
Guest

Simple tip: before even applying to a company, use LinkedIn to find people who left there in the past 1-2 years and ask them why, such as the overworking and lack of social life. At worst, they won’t reply. You might get some information that will help you decide if you even want to work there, and at best, they might be able to refer you along to an ex-colleague still on the inside.

https://jobmob.co.il/blog/why-target-companies-early/

Camilo Reyes
Guest

Brilliant! I only read reviews from ex-employees on glassdoor for this reason.

Rick Smith
Guest

‘What’s your greatest weakness?’ is a horrific leftover from the 20th Century. If it’s asked of me in a job interview, I quickly and politely wind up the interview. It suggests to me that the company doesn’t innovate and that I would just stagnate there.

Rick
Guest

Right up there with my least favorite: Where do you see yourself in five years? I have to admit I suppress smart-ass answers like “Selling of the remaining pieces of this company.”

Camilo Reyes
Guest

I know! Ask me in five years

Brent
Guest

This one never bothered me that much. If someone has ambitions and wants some certain promotion in 5 years it’s better both sides know that up front. For example if someone said they wanted to be a Software Architect in 5 years and the company doesn’t have an architect position it would be good that everyone knew that right away. Granted that’s probably not what most interviewers are thinking about when they ask the question.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I always thought it’d be funny to answer “what’s your greatest weakness” as if you were a really honest criminal/degenerate. “Hmm… greatest weakness. Well, I wouldn’t take it for granted that I’ll show up on time. Or sober, for that matter. And, I’m not going to lie, I AM something of a thief.”

Alex K
Guest

I think the first place to look for smells is the job advertisement. If it contains words and phrases like
“must be able to handle stress! “pressure”, “fast moving environment”, “fast pace” I normally click away

If it contains phrases like “work life balance” and similar reassuring stuff it is worth looking further while remembering that the comapny may be deceiving itself and lower level managers ( and teams) may have a long hours culture.

Noam
Guest

I agree. I always look at those ‘fast pace’ wording and wonder why do they even write those words? is it to attract young developers that don’t want to work with old and slow folks?

Alex K
Guest

If so they forget the fable of the hare and the tortoise. Older people may not work so fast but generally they work more thoroughly and have a more predictable pace, even when encountering and learning something new

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Certainly a good early candidate to get a read on the company, though I’d say there are some that offer “work-life balance” because the person writing the job ad is out of touch or engaging in wishful thinking.

Alex K
Guest

Sure, butr if there is a smell in the ad you need to proceed carefully, if there is no smell then it may still be a sucker culture so you need to proceed with cautious questions if called for interview

willichan
Guest
I remember my father teaching me one principle that has been a great help to me in interviews. Outline for them your life priorities. Most employers appreciate an employee that knows how to prioritize, even if the priorities are not identical to their own. Far too many people now days seem to change their priorities on whatever they are currently feeling. I find that I tend to outline the same priorities my father did. 1. My God 2. My wife 3. My family 4. Everything else You will notice that job/work is not in that list. Well, not explicitly, but… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

This makes total sense to me, and I think fits in nicely with the conception of “lay out your requirements with confidence.” I also think that it probably makes a subtly good impression that you’ve thought through and organized your life enough to be able to articulate governing priorities.

Kurt Guntheroth
Guest

The problem is, virtually every company I interview with is a “sucker culture” company. The fraction of companies offering reasonable work-life balance has been shrinking steadily over the course of my career.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I think they are out there, though I can imagine this varying widely by region and domain, among other things. I doubt you’ll see too much balance in, say the high frequency trading sector or in Silicon Valley, but I’ve definitely seen regions/domains where it is pretty common.

swampwiz0
Guest

Well, if I’m making $500K/yr in high frequency trading, I’ll grin & bear it for a while (i.e., until I have enough coin to say “early retirement”!)

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Certainly a reasonable strategy. I think it’s easier to endure a gig like that if there’s a favorable exit that you can always keep in your sights.

David S
Guest
I’m one more vote in favor of just laying the cards on the table. I learned this from one interview I went to a few years ago. It looked like a likeable company in a lot of ways. However, at one point, the HR lady interjected something along the lines of, “Now, even though our parent is an established corporation, we have something of a startup atmosphere around here, which means people are putting in a lot of hours. Is that something you would be alright with?”. At which point, the engineering manager said, “Definitely. I mean, if you can… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
It’s definitely nice when companies are up front about what they want as well. I’ve encountered this sort of thing before as well, and it’s lead to situations where both parties realized it wouldn’t be a fit. This wasn’t just about work-life balance, but also things like expectations of status or the way pecking orders laid out or something. And I definitely think that communicating “I have my priorities, but I’ll work hard for you within those parameters” is critically important, as compared to, “I don’t want to work too much” is important. Every now and then, someone may balk… Read more »
Alex K
Guest

I suspect that saying in the interview that long hours are a sign of poor management would not go down too well but while saving you from a lousy job MIGHT stimulate change in the company. I also note some companies feel that if you cannot fit your work into 40 hours a week you are not good enough for the job.

James Hansen
Guest

It took me 20 year in IT to figure this out. I figured out the overtime for free thing pretty quick. I would like to point out that many companies I worked for have a sort-of quid pro quo trading flexible hours for OCCASIONAL overtime that I think is reasonable. I’m always telling my younger co-workers that if they work 10 hours overtime a week it’s like taking a 25% pay cut.

swampwiz0
Guest
I spent my early years working as an engineer in the defense business, where it was normal for OT to be paid (although only at the regular wage), and then moved on to software work where I was a contractor paid by the hour. I never felt like I was being abused so long as I was being compensated for the time I put in. If I had been in a regular job with uncompensated OT, I would have kept track of my OT and gradually grabbed it back with late beginnings & early departures, and if that got brought… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

An entirely rational approach, I’d say. It’s nice to hear that this hasn’t been an issue for you, per se, too. I’ve gotten a mixed bag of opinions in general, with some saying every employer wants excessive unpaid overtime and with others saying they’ve never encountered it. Personally, I can only recall being subject to it in spurts (pushes toward a release or something), rather than as an ongoing matter of course. Though, like you, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around real long in that case.