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Understanding Company Culture Before You Get Hired

Posted on by Mac Prichard

Understanding Company Culture Before You Get Hired

Companies are obsessed with culture. Leaders talk about it, HR screens for it, but it can be difficult to pin down and define the culture of any given organization. And that’s a big risk for job seekers.

Of course, the actual tasks and responsibilities are important in determining whether you will be satisfied in a certain position. But understanding a company’s culture is essential to determine whether you will be happy working for a particular employer. Let’s dig into what culture means and how you can get a grasp on it during an application and interview process.

What Is Culture and Why It Matters

Workplace culture can be defined as the shared values, practices, and beliefs of the company’s employees. It permeates everything the company does, from mailroom to boardroom. Let’s look at how this shows up in some well-known examples of corporate culture. Take Google, Facebook, and any number of tech companies–they’ve become synonymous with perks such as free meals, on-site laundry, employee trips and parties, gyms, stock options, and many other benefits. On the flip side, they are also known as competitive, demanding places to work.

Southwest Airlines has another iconic culture, which has kept it thriving in the ultra-competitive airline industry. Management encourages and empowers employees to go the extra mile to make customers happy, and they’ve grown a large and loyal fan base as a result. Employees feel they are part of a common goal and larger purpose, so they work together as a unified team.

You could have the very same position in two different organizations with dramatically different cultures, and you would have two very different work experiences. If you want to thrive, not just survive, culture matters.

Do Your Homework

Ideally, you will show up to a job interview already armed with some research on the employer’s culture. So how do you find this out? Begin by scouring the company website for signs of life. Corporate websites are often sanitized and soulless, but occasionally some personality will pop out, particularly in more creative enterprises. Does it purport to value growth and innovation? Productivity and efficiency? History and tradition? If the organization is large enough, a Google search might yield some interesting results. Is it positive or unflattering?

Use social media to your advantage. What do the company’s posts on Facebook and Twitter tell you about how it portrays itself? Look for first or second degree LinkedIn connections you may have at the company, and ask them what they can tell you about working there. Check the reviews on Glassdoor or Salary.com. Yes, you might find a few rants from bitter ex-employees, but a pattern of discontent could be signs of a toxic culture.

Gather Office Clues

When you show up for an interview, you have an opportunity to check out your surroundings while you wait. So arrive a few minutes early to make the most of this chance. What is the environment like? What is on the walls? What reading material is left on the table? Is it noisy or quiet? Is there a visible open working area, or are the offices laid out in a more traditional structure? Are there any pets at the office? What do you notice about the dress code? How do employees interact with the receptionist and each other? You can learn a lot about a company in five minutes.

Ask the Right Questions

The interview is your best opportunity to learn about the organizational culture up close and personal. However, like any first date, employers will be on their best behavior trying to make a good impression, so you might have to do a bit of sleuthing to get beneath the surface.

If you just ask a general question like, “Can you tell me about the office culture?” or “What is it like to work here?” you will probably get general statements in return. And they will likely frame the company in the most positive light, such as “We value collaboration and teamwork,” or “All employees’ opinions are respected around here.” While maybe true, these statements don’t show you the unique personality of the employer.

If you really want to find out how a company operates, be prepared to dig a little deeper. Ask for examples and stories, and see what they choose to share. If there is really substance behind their claims, they will be able to point to specific instances. Consider the following questions about company values:

  • Can you give me an example of teamwork or when employees came together to accomplish something?
  • Tell me about a few people who have succeeded at the company.
  • Can you give me an example of a tough decision the company had to make and what role employees played in the decision?
  • Can you share an illustration of what types of work/milestones the organization likes to reward and celebrate?

You might also choose to ask specific questions about company policies and practices:

  • Is there anyone on the team I’d be working with who currently works from home regularly?
  • Has anyone from this role transferred successfully to different role or team within the organization?
  • Can you give me an example of someone who has been promoted from this position?

Workplace culture is a bit like water: you might not notice it until it’s bad. But job seekers would be well-advised to pay close attention to a potential employer’s culture and take time to assess whether it would be a good fit. Your job satisfaction could depend on it!

My Find Your Dream Job podcast explores this topic in detail. Check it out and subscribe to sharpen your job search skills and build the career you want. 

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Mac Prichard
Mac Prichard publishes Mac's List and owns and operates Prichard Communications, a public relations agency that serves non-profits, public agencies, and foundations across the United States. He also blogs regularly about job-hunting.
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