Julie Q. Brush, Solutus Legal Search .
Julie Q. Brush, Solutus Legal Search . ()

Q: How do I inquire about work-life balance in an interview without giving off a negative impression?

A: Work-life balance is the “it” phrase of the decade. It seems like everyone’s muttering it: in articles, podcasts, TED talks, panel discussions, women’s groups, men’s groups, social media and pretty much everywhere else.

One place where the topic is rarely discussed however is in job interviews. But you can bet your bottom dollar it’s on the minds of just about every candidate who walks in the door: How hard do people work? Will I have to work weekends and holidays? Is there a telecommuting option? What about flex time? Is the firm/company closed over the holidays? How much vacation time is there? Do I get free stuff?

While these questions are firmly entrenched in a candidate’s frontal lobe, raising them in an interview setting can be dicey and raise flags for employers, creating an impression that you won’t work hard, won’t be engaged or reliable, or, simply put, you are entitled. But these labels certainly don’t apply to every job seeker. And as a general matter, understanding an employer’s workplace policies is an important factor in assessing an opportunity. For those who have responsibilities or needs that dictate the desire for a flexible schedule, knowing this information is imperative.

So how does a professional inquire about an employer’s work-life balance in an interview without projecting a negative impression?

First, the do’s and don’ts.

Don’t:

Use the words “work-life” balance in an interview setting. It has a negative connotation when interviewing and there is way too much downside.

Do:

Instead, ask smart, broader-level questions that can give you an idea of what life is like with this employer such as the examples below. You will need to read between the lines, but the answers should be clear.

Don’t:

Be blunt. Whether expressing your own needs, inquiring about work hours, flexibility, benefits, the organization, etc. If you come off like a ton of bricks, your candidacy will be doomed.

Do:

Instead, use good judgment on how you use phrasing, language and tone to gather and communicate information.

Don’t:

Raise all work-balance questions/issues early on in an interview process. Your first priority is to learn as much as you can about the role, the people and the opportunity and to project the best impression possible. By coming in hot with your lifestyle conversation, you risk giving the impression that your priorities are askew.

Do:

Instead, at the start, focus on building rapport and relationship equity with the interviewer. Learn about the position with questions focused on the responsibilities and commentary about your qualifications.

Now that you have guidance on the most important do’s and don’ts, below are some effective questions that will produce the information you need.

The In-House Candidate/Interview

What is a typical day like in the legal department?

How would you describe the culture? Is it more relaxed or chaotic?

How do you describe yourself as a manager (if interviewing with the manager) OR how would you describe Chris Smith as a manager (if interviewing with others)?

What are people’s general work schedules? Do schedules change at different times of the month/quarter/year?

I understand this lawyer will be supporting the product/sales/finance etc. group. Can you give me a sense of that group and what they expect of their lawyers?

What do you like best about working here?

What type of person would thrive at Company Q?

Are the lawyers in the department siloed or broad-based? If someone is out of pocket will others jump in to help? Is it a team-oriented approach?

At the tail end of the interview process/after offer:

What is your approach to working from home periodically or flexible schedules? Do you support it or do you prefer people keep standard hours in the office?

Can you provide some information about your benefits and vacation policy?

The Law Firm Candidate/Interview

How would you describe the culture in the firm?

What do you think sets your firm culture apart from law firms?

Are there internal programs for associates to socialize and get to know one another?

Is there a minimum billable hour requirement?

Do associates typically meet that requirement? If they don’t, are they penalized in any way?

If interviewing with an associate: Can you give me a sense of your work schedule? Are other associates similar or is there a range?

If interviewing with a partner: What are the top expectations partners have in the firm when working with the associates?

What are the criteria for making partner?

You can also learn a lot about an employer without asking a single question:

The Process Itself: Has scheduling been crazy? Are interviewers blowing off calls/meetings? Are interview schedules correct? Are interviewers unaware they were interviewing you? A chaotic process may be a tip-off that the rest of the environment is the same.

The Office: Once you are in the door, look around the office. Do people look thrashed? Is the office a mess? Does the energy seem frenetic? Do people seem happy?

Friends and Colleagues: Tap those around you who may have information about the employer and ask about the environment. While the feedback shouldn’t be gospel, it will serve as relevant data-points.

Written Reviews & Commentary: There are resources that publish employee feedback on employers. Skim the commentary and make a mental note. Again, I would not place excessive weight on the information (a disgruntled employee, a competitor bash), but it can flag some items for a deeper dive.

When interviewing for a job, the topic of work-life balance is not one that is easy to raise. And if done poorly, it can sabotage a candidacy as well as a reputation. But knowing where an employer stands on such workplace policies is critical for many candidates. So take heed of the do’s and don’ts and follow my advice above. Not only will you find the answers you seek, your new approach will enable you to make the best impression getting there.