A job interview is a two-way street. Yes, they’re evaluating you to see if you’d be a good fit for the role, but you’re also judging them: You have a decision to make, too, meaning you can, and should, ask questions that help you figure out if the job — and the office more broadly — would be a good fit.
Or something. It’s good advice, sure, but it can be awfully hard to remember when you’re focused on coming up with brilliant answers to tough questions, or trying to showcase your best self without overtly showing off. Impressing your interviewers is enough of a mental burden already; throw on the pressure to interview them right back, and you’ve got a pretty hefty challenge on your hands.
But as writer Leah Fessler recently explained in Quartz, there are ways to subtly pass judgment on your potential new employer that don’t require nearly as much energy: Just pay a little more attention to your surroundings, and those surroundings can yield subtle but important clues about company culture. For example, she wrote, “If employees greet or casually chat with the receptionist, that’s evidence of a warm environment where all workers are treated as deserving of equal respect,” she wrote; if your interviewer gets you water or coffee as you’re getting settled, rather than asking an underling to fetch it, “that’s evidence that the office is less hierarchical.”
Even the décor can provide you with some valuable info. Up-to-date photos and flyers on bulletin boards signal that employees are social with one another and engaged with the larger community; conference rooms with written-on whiteboards and those giant post-it notes imply that collaboration is taking place; desks adorned with plants and picture frames are evidence that workers feel comfortable being themselves at work. (Certain signs in the bathroom, on the other hand, can indicate that your maybe-colleagues have some unsavory hygiene habits: “A patronizing message about flushing the toilet says that, at some point, they needed to put up that sign — that it was not an isolated incident,” organizational psychologist Liane Davey told Fessler. It’s a minor thing, sure, but just think about how many times you’ll be using that bathroom.) That’s not to say that you should neglect to prepare any questions before the interview — all the conventional job-seeker wisdom says that it proves you’re interested, a critical thinker, etc. — but in a nerve-wracking situation, it can be soothing to know that there are plenty of other ways to get your answers.