How You Can Assess a Company’s Culture

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Photo: Ryan Moreno

Fit is one of the most important factors affecting workplace happiness, but what do we mean by fit, exactly? It’s easy enough to know when a pair of jeans fits well, but how can you tell if a company is the right fit? Here’s how: by assessing the culture and comparing it to how you want to work.

My favorite definition of culture is also the simplest: “the way we do things around here.” No matter what a company communicates about values or operating principles, the actual culture is expressed by what happens – how people talk to each other or don’t, how decisions get made, how meetings are run, the sense of humor (or lack of!), and what the energy is like. 

You’re not necessarily going to be able to determine all of those behaviors before accepting a job offer, but there are specific details to notice when you visit the office, such as…

- What’s the noise level? Are people chatting or do they have their heads down?

- What are the facial expressions – smiling, scowling, focused in concentration, or disengaged? What you really want to observe is: Do people seem excited to be there or like they can’t wait for the day to be over?

- What’s on the walls?

This last question may seem like a shallow one, but it’s not; what a company chooses to put on the walls says a lot about the culture. Several years ago a friend was telling me about two job offers she got after law school. One offer was from one of the oldest and most established firms in her city; its office walls had oil paintings with scenes of hunting dogs and horses. The space was full of Persian rugs; deep leather chairs; and heavy, dark, wooden desks. My friend realized there was no way she wanted to work in an environment that mimicked an old-fashioned men’s club, because she sensed that the culture would most likely reflect the conservative furnishings. So she accepted her offer from the firm that had light-filled offices decorated with contemporary art.

But even before you visit an office, you can understand certain cultural aspects by observing how people at an organization interact with you:

- How quickly do they respond to your emails?

- How clearly have they communicated the interview process?

- Did your interviews begin and end on time, or were you kept waiting?

- Have you been able to talk to near-peers about what it’s like to work there, or have you only been allowed to talk to people in HR?

There are not necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions, only information. Being kept waiting might be a sign that a company is growing and still finding its way, and you may want to work there, because a place where everything runs predictably would seem boring to you. Or, perhaps chaos and lack of clarity irritate you, and you want things – or at least the schedule – to be more predictable. Your responses to this data all depend on what you want.

A company's culture is expressed in details. So when it's time for you to determine what it’s really like to work somewhere, be observant. While you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, you should pay attention to it. Your observations will help you confidently find and accept a job that's a great fit for you.  

Published on 4/18/2019