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Make Sure You Ask the Next Company You Interview With How They Treated Their Employees During the Pandemic

But don’t necessarily take their response at face value

Despite the cutesy in-house HR language of many corporate behemoths, there’s really no such thing as “family” in a corporate context. That’s become very clear from the recent swath of coronavirus-related layoffs and firings. According to a recent report in Forbes, every industry, from airlines and transportation, to manufacturing and logistics, to hotels and restaurants, has laid off staff in this time of crisis. Fifty percent. That’s how many U.S. companies are considering layoffs, according to a survey released by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the country’s oldest outplacement firm,” per the financial publication. “And the Federal Reserve of St. Louis estimated that 47 million jobs could be lost due to the coronavirus crisis.”

There are even more egregious displays of corporate malfeasance during this time of crisis, too. Amazon is currently under investigation by New York City for violating human rights laws, after firing an employee who stood up to protect himself and his colleagues against dangerous working conditions. Because even “retail heroes” — the choice language of Amazon executives for their employees — aren’t immune from getting kicked to the curb.

Sadly, much of this is just typical corporate family life. But it doesn’t have to be this way — your future “work family” can be different. And the best way to find out what sort of family you might be joining next is to ask them about how they handled the current pandemic. 

According to Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, there are myriad ways to broach the subject of the pandemic during your next job interview — the part where they ask if you have any questions for them — and how the company you’re interviewing with treated its employees in a time of crisis. Their answers will tell you all you need to know about the type of “community” you’re joining. 

Augustine tells me that during your next job interview (hopefully in a post-corona world), start off your questions with something like this: “I don’t think any business was truly prepared for what happened during the coronavirus pandemic. How did your company handle the crisis with its employees?” Simple and to the point. Then, depending on the interviewer’s response, she suggests asking a couple of these follow-up questions to go deeper into the topic: 

  • “Was your team equipped to operate remotely after government officials ordered all non-essential businesses to close?” 
  • “What changes did your team have to make in response to the crisis? (e.g., operating hours, staffing levels, budget reductions, etc.)?”
  • “What allowances were made for those employees who were parents at the time?”
  • “How did your team stay connected while working from home?”
  • “Was the company forced to reduce its staff or take other cost-cutting measures?”

How your interviewer responds to this line of questioning will not only help you gain greater insight into the company’s culture, it will also help you gauge the stability of their business. Augustine tells me that ideally, you’re looking for an answer that demonstrates the company’s commitment to its employees’ health and well-being.

Here’s a sample response that Augustine says is unlikely to be quite as detailed as what you’ll get in real life, but should give you an idea of what you’re ideally wanting to hear: “Many of our employees already worked from home on a part-time or full-time basis, so we were well-equipped to switch to a fully remote team. We already had the right platforms in place to collaborate and communicate with one another via Slack, video conferencing and so forth. We even set up a COVID Slack channel so employees could share news and anecdotes to stay informed. And, our CEO sent out a weekly email to the staff to keep them feeling reassured.” 

Other things she says your interviewer should touch on with regard to the company’s handling of the pandemic have to do with how flexible they were with workers’ stay-at-home situations. Basically, you want to make sure that the company took necessary precautions for the staff, were sensitive to the needs of its employees and tried to make everyone feel more connected and well-informed throughout the crisis.

Alternatively, responses that should raise a red flag are if the potential employer tells you that they “made everyone commute to the office until it was absolutely mandatory for non-essential employees to stay at home, or that allowances weren’t made for those who were without childcare during regular business hours.”

Still, Augustine cautions that you should never take your interviewer’s response at face value. “If an employer is trying to woo you to join their organization, they’re going to tailor their answer to focus on the positives and downplay or omit the negatives,” she says. As such, she recommends checking out sites like Glassdoor and Vault to read company reviews from current and former employees to get a better sense of the corporate values. “Run a ‘Google News’ search for the company’s name during that time period to see if anything pops up in the headlines, such as a notable layoff or furlough, or a ramping up of hiring to meet pandemic demands,” says Augustine. “Better yet, delve into your network to find someone who was working at the company during the COVID-19 pandemic to get a firsthand account of how things went down, what was communicated and how employees were treated during this uncertain time.”

With that in mind, however, Augustine doesn’t recommend telling the person interviewing you that you think their concern for their employees during the pandemic was inadequate. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend giving them a lecture on their practices, but you could tell them that it’s really important to you that the next company you join has X, Y and Z qualities (or that it truly values its employees and their well-being) and based on some of the conversations you had with your interviewers, you didn’t get that impression,” she says. “If they probed, you could get into specifics. But bringing this up out of the blue won’t necessarily change the company’s tune, or change the outcome for you.”

On the upside though, if, in the future, everyone demands that their employers step up during a time of crisis, rather than step on the throats of their employees, that brave new world may give new meaning to the concept of “family” in a corporate context.