How do I assess a company’s food safety culture during the interview process?

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One of the most common questions we get from Food Safety professionals is “How do I assess a company’s Food Safety culture during the interview process?”

You can imagine we hear quite a few stories and anecdotes that clearly show a gap between what a company publicly states as their Food Safety Culture and how that culture manifests on the production line, supply chain or behind the doors in the executive suite.

When we ask Food Safety professionals why they left a company, the most common reason is that what the company portrayed its Food Safety Culture to be in the interview was different than the reality.

So how do you assess a company’s Food Safety culture – how do you flesh out what’s real and what’s not in your job search? 

How do you determine what company will have your back as a Food Safety or Quality professional, and which ones will leave you on an island when you call out issues?

When we’re asked, here’s how we recommend you assess a company’s food safety culture during the interview process.

What Food Safety standards does the company hold itself to?

A “self-auditing” culture is one who goes above and beyond government regulations. 

It’s the classic “over-achiever” mentality that you get a sense of when you interview. 

How do other departments and executives view Quality and Food Safety? 

Does the company skew towards satisfying “minimum standards” or to a higher level.

What do the people you’re interviewing with consider “success” or “acceptable outcomes” currently?

What are the objectives relative to Food Safety and Quality initiatives in the next 12 months?

Who’s leading it?

What are the current challenges?

What roadblocks have come up?

How are they being managed?

How are the people you’re interviewing with dealing with these roadblocks?

As you assess their culture, lean towards weighting their recent and current ACTIONS heavier than their WORDS relative to the future.

 

How deep is the company’s Food Safety expertise?

 

Does the company have food safety subject matter experts on staff? 

If Sanitation or Operations identifies an issue that’s over the skill set of the existing team, how do they manage?

Operations Quality, Quality systems, Ingredient Quality? 

Get a feel for the organizational structure, current state and future growth.

Do you get the sense budgets and the org chart is being stretched to accommodate your role, or is your role complementary to a well-thought out funded Operations, Quality R&D and Regulatory team?

It’s nice to have your ego stroked that a company feels you can transform their culture on your own, but it’s not rooted in reality.

 

What is the company’s reporting structure relative to Food Safety & Quality?

Who does Sanitation report into? 

Who does Food Safety / Quality report into? 

Who is the subject matter expert internally with pathogens? 

What reporting systems are in place and who manages these systems? 

Who on-boards suppliers? 

What criteria are in place to take on new suppliers?

If the answer keeps going back to one or two people, the company is “under-structured”. 

That doesn’t necessarily make it a deal breaker – it just means your next questions should be around what the company’s plans are in the next 12-24 months to bolster the FSQA team.

As you proceed with this conversation, you’ll start to get insights on company performance and you’ll start to get a feel for how conditional leadership support for Food Safety and Quality during a downturn, flat growth or significant growth stretches.

Downturns and high growth periods expose a leadership philosophy for good and bad – staffing numbers and reporting structures during these periods(who leads what) can be very eye-opening and give you insight as to what’s REALLY a priority.

How strong is the Food Safety and Quality leadership?

Do you get the sense the top FSQA officer in the company has an equal voice to their executive peers? 

If not, be wary.

Executive leadership shows “respect” for Food Safety and Quality leadership with budgets, discretionary power and latitude to make decisions that have broad implications.

That includes investments in quality and traceability platforms, enterprise-wide training, investments in and support of recruiting top Food Safety & Quality talent.

And in the same light, the Food Safety and Quality leader has an obligation to leverage those investments.

Ask questions that get to how the company “respects” their food safety leadership in terms of quantifiable investments.  Weigh that on your scale more so than lip service.

Why is this Food Safety job open?

Does the company have a proverbial gun to its head?

Does a current customer mandate getting up to date with FSMA?

Is there an issue with manufacturing right now that’s impacting quality or safety?  

Is there an industry-wide issue with the food or ingredient categories the company works in?

Sense of urgency to solve an acute crisis is necessary, but it’s one a job seeker has to be careful with.

Scrambling to get FSMA compliant is similar to going on a diet before beach season. 

Binge dieting is not a “lifestyle”, nor is constantly being under the gun with FSMA requirements a “culture” – it’s a short-term strategy to satisfy a short-term goal…and not necessarily an optimal one.

If leadership has a track record of hovering around minimum regulatory requirements, yet expressing a high sense of urgency to bring you aboard to solve a problem, it’s a good idea to tactfully ask questions that get to their commitment to solving root-cause or culture-related issues.

Otherwise, once the crisis is put to bed, it’s back to mediocrity.

Summary

The biggest takeaway from this post about assessing a company’s food safety culture BEFORE you go to work for them is this:

  • Ask pointed questions.
  • Weigh recent and current actions over future vision and aspirations – if current behavior is not aligned with future aspirations, ask more questions.
  • Work to get objective, quantifiable responses to your questions rather than perceptions or vague answers.
  • Investigate the motivation for why the position is open – identify what the sense of urgency is and consider how the role will evolve once the acute problem is addressed.

Signature for Bob Pudlock Food Safety Insider

I’m a top Food Safety recruiter and President of Gulf Stream Search.

Gulf Stream Search is an executive search firm that specializes in helping food and beverage companies elevate their food safety culture by recruiting, assessing and placing top talent.

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