One key piece of information that I'd like to have before joining a company is what the culture is in terms of expected work hours. I am worried though that asking this question may make them perceive me negatively? Is there a way to ask about it without making people think that you aren't prepared to work hard?
If they're not prepared to tell you the working hours and whether you're expected to work overtime then perhaps this isn't the firm for you.
Just as there are many ways to ask that sound negative, there are many ways to ask positively. However, while it is much more difficult, it is important that you ask. The last thing a company wants is to go through all the expense of hiring someone only for them to leave 3 months later because they didn't like the hours.
One way to bring it up would be to discuss flexibility in the working hours. This could be varying start and finish times by a few minutes because of your commute for example. If you have a regular commitment (church, volunteering, study, etc.) you could bring that up as you might need to leave by a certain time one day.
You can be straightforward without being negative:
I'd like to be clear about the working hours.
Don't forget with an interview it's as much about you checking the company as them checking you.
I don't think there is any need to dither with this question in any way. Knowing the working hours is elemental information of any job, and personally I think any kind of wrapping the question simply reflects your insecurity. There is no way an employer could justifiably be offended by you asking "what are the working hours in this?".
Personally, I've never had a bad reaction to something along the lines of
Obviously this isn't always a 9-to-5 job and there are times when you have to push to get things released, but I also don't want to work somewhere that regularly burns people out, so I'm wondering. a) How often does the average person end up working overtime? And b) What processes do you have here to make sure that problems don't repeat themselves too often?
But Péter makes the key point. Think about what you really feel and find a way to express it in question form. If you think it should be a 9-5 job, ask bluntly if there's an overtime culture. If there is then you need to know, and they need to know, that you won't be happy there.
Alternatively, if you're happy to work 10-12 hours a day but you feel that companies should reward that sacrifice (common enough in some industries), say that you're looking for a high-pressure job with big rewards. Again, if they're not that company, you don't want to work there and they don't want you working there.
In short, and this applies to most interview situations, don't worry about putting them off you by being yourself. Worry about pretending to be something you're not and accidentally getting hired into a job you don't want or, worse, missing out on one where you'd be a perfect fit.
I agree with Chris. You may want to add to your question an explanation like this: "I know my limits and want to ensure that - in line with your own long term interests - I can be maximally productive during my working hours, and produce high quality results steadily and sustainably over the long term. Which is impossible if I am tired due to regular overtime. I would like to build a fruitful long term relationship with my employer which benefits both of us."
Feel free to rephrase the above to something you agree with. However (this may be sort of obvious to you, but I thought it is worth stating nevertheless): only use it if it really expresses your inner feelings and attitude. In general, don't make unfounded statements or claims during an interview - it will almost surely backfire to you in the long run.
All of the answers above are good. I'm a software developer, and have heard the "We liked your skills, but you're not a cultural fit" line many times after making it to the final stage of an interview process.
That's fine. I can usually tell pretty accurately myself during an on-site interview if I mesh well with the team. I almost always specifically ask about working conditions, hours, turnover %, etc. One job I knew I wouldn't get (and didn't want after meeting the folks) had software devs working into the wee hours of the night, but dragging in around noon most days. As an early riser who's usually wiped by late afternoon, I knew that sort of culture wouldn't work for me.
Don't worry too much about how you come off to others during an interview. Several years ago, during a bout of unemployment, I pretended to be interested in a job that I didn't want because I was feeling desperate. I got hired, but it turned out to be a mistake (I was stuck maintaining ancient Ada code for years as a result, and it took a lot of concerted effort to get a job doing proper software development again).
I phrase it simply as this:
So what are the core hours?
And if they less or equal to 6 then I follow up with:
Do people mostly make up the rest by coming early or leaving late?
If you can get to the second part it's a good way of seeing what they expect. It also leads into the discussions about flexibility and other perks/expectation.
If they say core hours are 9-5 or 8-6 or whatever then it tells you they have limited flexibility and the expectations can be inferred.
Either way it leads to discussions where you can then ask about overtime and how much people work.
Some jobs inheritely carry some overtime. The thing to watch out for is if overtime is the norm. For instance, if you're a software developer, it's completely normal (if not expected) to have to work a little bit of overtime when a product release deadline hits.
The thing to watch out for though are cultures where everyone working overtime is more "effecient" or "cheaper" than hiring a few more people and their workers being happy.
I think asking a question like this is completely OK in an interview (maybe not the first phone screening though). However, make sure to convey that you don't mind working a little bit of overtime, as long as it's not an every-week kind of thing.
Whenever you're worried about creating some perception about yourself by asking a question, get someone else to ask it for you. Or make an anonymous phone call. Or just ask someone in the parking lot. "Hi, you work for Company X, right? What are the work hours like?" ("Why yes. In fact, I'm the CEO.")
How did you find out about that company? Do you know anyone on the inside? Or do you know someone who knows someone on the inside? You can use your network to gather "intelligence" about that company.
Check the website http://www.glassdoor.com to get insider reviews of the company.
It also has tips about each company's interview and hiring process.
There is a lot of fallacy surrounding the 'normal' work hours. This describes an ideal situation where a minimal level of productivity is required/desired by the person who is responsible for the person filling the position. Of course, in a software development environment, the release schedule cycle will dictate how often you find yourself in a release panic/rush mode (fixing bugs and completing features) versus well-planned and adequately resourced mode. There will certainly be times when you find yourself without much work, and will therefore do some professional development and self-learning.
Sadly, your productivity is sometimes gauged by management to be relative to the amount of time you spend in the office, so the real answer to the question is that whatever your expectation, and whatever is told to you at the interview will not necessarily match when you actually start work. The only thing you can hope for is a company that is well-managed and well-resourced that they are as close to the ideal situation for as much of the time as possible.
If you're really concerned about coming off the wrong way, you can always drive by the building at off-times (early in the morning, late in the evening, weekends), and see how many lights are on and cars are in the parking lot.
This information will likely be crude compared to an honest answer to a direct question, but would also give a rough idea.