I’m a former recruiter that has hired for entry-level through executive positions across many different industries, including the non-profit and private sectors. I also juggle full-time work with a working spouse and children. I fully embrace that a job seeker who wants a specific work/life balance MUST confirm the culture, expectations and typical lifestyle of prospective employers BEFORE you accept a job. But as a recruiter who has hired on behalf of companies and for my own teams, I also know that asking about work/life balance outright is a big mistake. There is no way to phrase your questions, time your inquiry, or otherwise position the discussion so that you don’t come across as caring more about your life than your work.
Asking about work/life balance waves a neon sign that you care more about your own interests than the company’s. You risk sounding less committed, even lazy. In a tight job market, you don’t want any negative neon signs. Yet, you need this information. Whatever you do, don’t ask. Just get what you need in other ways:
Ask about other things that infer work/life balance
· Don’t ask about travel — ask about existing and upcoming projects. Then verify how teams are put together and how clients are served, and you will know whether this means 20%, 40% or 100% travel, much more specifically than if you ask.
· Don’t ask about hours — ask everyone you meet, especially your peers, about their typical schedule. Tell them to go hour-by-hour for a representative day. Ask about when meetings are typically scheduled. Ask about how emergencies, tight deadlines or other curveballs are handled. Ask about how time off is covered by others. If your prospective peer is surprised at the notion of even taking time off, then you know you’re dealing with a hard-driving culture.
· Don’t ask about general expectations — ask specifically what needs to get done in the first week, month, quarter and year. Verify what resources will be available to you (budget, team, decision authority, autonomy). Based on what you know you can do, what support the company is offering, and what the actual goals are, you will have a much clearer picture of how reasonable the expectations are.
Ask people other than your interviewers.
· Find people who left the company. Just remember that the information they will relay is opinion, not fact, and the people you ask will invariably have different criteria for work/life balance. Ideally, find people who held your role or something comparable, or at least worked in or with your department. Also keep in mind that just because they’re no longer there doesn’t mean they don’t stay in touch with people still there, including your interview team.
· Find people who are still at the company but not part of the hiring process. Ideally, find people who will be friendly or supportive to you so you can ask the candid questions — for example, an alum from your school days, a fellow working parent (or whatever life stage you’re in). Again, it’s most helpful the closer they are to your role and/or department. Social media is great for ferreting out these types of ancillary but still solid connections. Find people who are in and around your area of expertise, if not the company itself. Recruiters are a good example of people who will still know a lot about specific companies even if they are not there firsthand. Consultants, accountants and journalists are other examples of people who might have insider-type knowledge, including culture and lifestyle knowledge, even if they are not obviously connected to that company. If you know people in the professional services industry who serve your area, ask them what they know about your prospective employer.
Knowing the right questions and the right people to find information on culture and lifestyle pre-supposes that you have a clear idea of what your own wish list is. What do you mean by work/life balance? Is it autonomy? Is it specific hours or a flexible schedule? Is it a flexible location or limited travel? Is it ability to take long periods of vacation or short unexpected blocks of time off? The term work/life balance is a catch-all phrase for too many things, and the only metric that matters is yours. Take the time to specify what is meaningful to you, so you can craft the relevant questions and identify the people that can give you the relevant information.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology and pharma/biotech.