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12 Questions You Need to Ask During Job Interviews So You Don’t Get a Crappy Job

Values alignment is like a freshly-baked ube cookie from @HoodBakeShop. It’s awesome.

Early in my career, I worked for a higher education and retention nonprofit organization. I was confident. I had over six years of working with young people in the same capacity. I got this! I was excited to get started with an organization that talked about a horizontal leadership structure, welcoming all types of people, and education as a human right. All of that sounded like my jam, jelly, and peanut butter. Sadly, my time at this organization follows the stages described in one of Vu’s recent blog posts: “Why we need to end the culture of “Cultural Fit.”

Stage One: When I started, I was excited about three things: 1) getting on the “I-am-employed-and-I-can-pay-my-bills” boat 2) working with students of color and 3) the organization’s stated values, this intriguing idea of a horizontal structure in a nonprofit, and their commitment to equity. I was hopeful and ready to commit to an organization that aligned with my skills and ideas of education equity. I spent the first few months training, getting to know my students, my site, and the organization. I felt good about the first few meetings getting oriented to the organization.

Stage Two: I started to voice some ideas at staff meetings. I challenged the team to think more about equity:

  • How does meritocracy limit the type of students who access our services?
  • How do we position our organization to do advocate for systemic change?
  • How do we create a more inclusive environment for trans people/workers within our organization and outside our organization?

People nodded their heads and responded encouragingly. However, there is gentle push back, valid excuses, and little traction. I was still hopeful and continued to voice ideas where I thought I could.

Disclaimer: You should know this organization is structured poorly to build meaningful relationships and a team culture due to the nature of the work. I spent 91.989% of my job not seeing or building a relationship with my co-workers. Also, most of the senior staff had over 120 students on their caseload, so their time was limited and possibly overwhelming.

Stage Three: At my 6-month evaluation, nine months into my employment, I was given a bowl of stale pushback-cookies. I was disillusioned and disappointed by the cookies. A majority of the evaluation focused on my communication style, but the feedback was not effective or constructive. (See “How to Give Feedback.”) I was told to “be patient” and to “adjust my tone and word choice” with little to no context and little to no clarity about the direction they wanted me to change. I was told, “You are responsible for yourself, and you need to figure it out on your own.”

Stage Four: Status quo became my friend. I focused as much time as possible on my students and my work. I reached out to my network outside the organization to help me process and maintain my sanity. Things got awkward, anxiety-inducing, and stormy (aka sharks flying) between the staff, especially the leadership, and myself.

Stage Five: I was ultimately fired from the organization because of “cultural fit”  and left thinking, “Did I just survive a sharknado?”  What a terrifying and confusing experience.

But, there is a silver lining: I’ve learned so much about myself, my needs as an employee, and good practices of an employer.

My lesson learned is: Ask questions during your interview process! The organization designed an entire hoop-jumping process to see if you’re a fit/asset. And once you’ve jumped through the phone interview, you jump across a ravine, then you get an in-person interview, and you juggle while you unicycle until you finally get your references checked. It can be an intense process, BUT I want to emphasize that you also have the power to determine whether the organization meets your professional development needs and career. However, I understand if you need to meet your basic human needs. Do what you can for yourself. No judgment. But if you can make the choice, pick an organization that aligns with your values.

I crafted these sets of questions for job seekers out there hoop-jumping to help find an organization that fits them:

Organization’s Values

  1. Could you tell me about a time when you were particularly proud of the organization’s work?
  2. Can you provide examples of how the organization demonstrates its values?
    Cite the values you are most interested in when you ask this question.
  3. What role do the organization’s values play in decision-making for programs and performance reviews?
  4. How often does your organization revisit its values?

Professional Development Opportunities

  1. How does your organization support professional development and career growth?
  2. Are there opportunities to grow and advance in your organization?
  3. When and how do people give and receive feedback to each other?

Make sure you ask for specific examples!
Specific examples give you clarity, and you get to hear how they really think and what actually happens in their organization. It’s hard to make up examples on the spot, so you’re more likely to get the truth.

Organization Culture

  1. How does your organization address and resolve conflict?
  2. What’s the leadership and communication styles of the office or people I’ll be working with?
  3. How and when does your staff bond with one another?
  4. What is the work-life balance here?
  5. How does your organization respond to and overcome failures?

These questions do not guarantee your interviewers will answer with complete honesty or transparency. And based on your preliminary research, you may already know the answers to these questions! You will still need to test the waters when you get hired, but asking questions is an investment and a great first step to any job hunting process. It helped me narrow down which jobs I wanted.

Have you survived a sharknado? Are you at a job or have you had a job experience that is the equivalent of a warm ube cookie or other delicious pastry (if that’s your thing)? Do you have any suggestions for additional questions? I’d love to hear from you!