A job is more than just a place you go and a thing you do for 8+ hours a day — you also have to deal with coworkers, bosses, office politics and a top-down corporate culture that we too-often forget about until it rubs us the wrong way. If you don’t thrive in that culture, the job can get toxic pretty quickly. Here’s how you can tell what a company’s internal culture is like before you apply, or before you take the job and it’s too late.
We’ve talked about how cultural fit can even trump skills from an interviewer’s perspective, and how important it is to make sure you take culture into account before accepting a job offer. We’ve also shown you how to hone your interview skills, so you can give your interviewer the impression you’ll fit in nicely and walk away with a job offer. However, it’s equally important for you to figure out whether the culture of the company you’re interested in is one you think you’ll thrive in. Here’s how.
Why Does Culture Matter?
Most of us spend close to 50 hours a week at work. It’s not asking too much to want to enjoy your time at the office. Some companies have a very hands-off approach to corporate culture and do little to encourage their employees’ professional relationships. Others are really aggressive and offer all the perks you’ve come to know and love from startups and Silicon Valley tech companies: free snacks, social events, mixers, weekend retreats, family barbecues, things like that.
Some people love those things, some people hate them. The worst thing that can happen is for you to be someone who hates them, stuck in a company that essentially requires them to get ahead. I used to work at a company where the only way to get promoted (unofficially, of course) was to make sure you went away on the weekend rocks-and-ropes retreats as often as possible. If you didn’t, you would be overlooked, because you weren’t interested in “leadership training”. Many of us looked at it a different way: we were more interested in working to live, not living to work. With luck and a little research, you won’t have to get stuck in that position in the first place. Here’s how you can learn from my mistake.
Do Your Homework Before You Even Apply
Your first line of defence comes before you even apply for a job at a new company. You probably know by now that you should target specific companies and jobs rather than applying to every opening that fits your search terms. The effort you’ll put into finding job openings that really sound like a good fit for your skills and career goals, and the time you’ll put into tailoring your resume specifically for those jobs, will be rewarded with better results and more callbacks. The same rules apply when it comes to corporate culture. When you find a job that sounds like a great professional fit at a company you think is healthy and in a good position, take your research to the next level. Here are a few tips:
- Poke around the company’s website to see if it talks at all about its culture. Many companies have pages dedicated to what it’s like to be a part of its team, or what its “values” are. See if its job listings page is accompanied by a description of what life would be like to work there, or what benefits it offers to employees. Many companies have these pages, but they’re often buried near the current job openings or “About Us” pages.
- Check the company out on Glassdoor or Salary.com. Take the reviews you see there with a grain of salt, but if you see common threads between reviews, you’ll know what to watch out for. If everyone leaving a company complains about how free lunch and snacks don’t make up for the long hours and strenuous work, you know what you might be in for. Snacks are tasty, but dinner with your family is tastier.
- Check out the site’s social network profiles, specifically its pages on LinkedIn and Facebook. Its Twitter account may be useful reading too, but it would be more interesting to see what it shares on Facebook to its customers and the public, and visiting the company’s LinkedIn presence will reveal a number of people who work there, what their skills and backgrounds are. It will often give you insight into what the company is doing right now and what projects it is working on. You may not learn a lot about what it’s like on the inside, but a company’s “Insights” page can show you who’s been promoted, former employees you may know and more.
If you can get in contact with someone who works or has worked at the company before you send in your application, it’s a great opportunity to ask about what life on the inside is really like. You may be able to get someone to put in a good word for you or submit a referral. Don’t just cold-message someone on LinkedIn and ask to send in your resume. Be strategic: If you must, send a message and let the person know that you’re interested in the company, ask the person what the work environment and corporate culture is like. It’s daring, but most people probably have something interesting to say about their jobs, and they’re usually willing to tell anyone who will listen.
Dig Into Cultural Questions In Your Interview
If you’ve done your homework and the company still looks like a great place to work, your next opportunity to figure out whether life on the inside is heaven or hell will be in your interview. The one question that eventually comes up (and that you should look forward to) in every interview is “/”Do you have any questions for us?” We’ve talked about how to nail it, but it’s a big opportunity to learn a lot about the company. Here are some things you’ll want to find out:
- Find out as much as possible about the hiring manager, department or interviewer before your actual interview. You can be absolutely sure the company has done its homework and turned over your Facebook profile, Twitter account and any other Google search results with your name to learn about you before inviting you in. The least you can do is return the favour and see what your hiring manager’s interests are. If you get the names of other people at the company you may be working with, look them up too. If you get the feeling you’re walking into a company full of serious sports fans and you couldn’t care less about them, tread carefully and keep an eye out for that when you go in for the interview. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a little research can tell you whether you’re about to walk into a room full of people who loudly and violently disagree with you on things important enough to make you angry every day or make you the butt of their jokes. No one wants to work in that environment, and yet many of us do.
- Ask specifically about corporate culture. Just put it out there: ask them to describe it and what working at the company is like. Of course, most interviewers will try to paint the company in the most positive possible light — after all, they’re trying to sell you the job as much as you’re trying to sell your skills. If you’re being interviewed by a panel, take every opportunity to ask every person for their stories. What’s their favourite part about working there? What’s their least favourite thing about their jobs? How many hours a week do they spend at work? Do they hang out together after work? Questions like that will help you find out what you’re getting into.
- Ask what it means to “be a team player” and what it takes to get promoted. The answers you get to this simple question are extremely telling. Turn your BS detector up to its most sensitive setting and listen closely for buzzwords that will clue you in that it takes more than just being good at what you do and being interested in career advancement to succeed in the job. If you hear that promotions are contingent on “something opening up”, you have an idea that people only move up when someone else moves up or moves out. If you hear about “pulling extra weight when needed” or “special training”, be ready for leadership seminars, special training classes and after-hours work. None of those things are bad, but it’s always good to know what the expectations are. Remember, it’s never too early to plan for your next career move, even if it’s in the interview for this one.
- Find out if the company offers performance or responsibility rewards. Bonuses are hard to come by these days, but perks aren’t necessarily unheard of. One of my old coworkers actually netted a holiday for him and his wife because the company had flown him out to different offices around the country so many times in such a short period that we were worried he would quit just to save his marriage. Find out if the company rewards its best employees or does anything to encourage high performance. Find out how your hiring manager praises or rewards his or her employees, and whether they have their team’s back when confronted by their manager. Ask when the last time someone who worked for them did something really good that they can recount to you. Any boss can admonish you when you fall short, but you know you’ve done well when you find a boss that will praise and reward you for good work.
- Ask, but don’t dwell, on things like benefits, remote work and perks. There’s nothing wrong with asking or even trying to negotiate for them in the interview. If you get the idea that it’s a taboo topic, or you get shut down, back off. Some companies don’t like to talk about telework in an interview, or it’s a benefit that has to be earned with trust over time. Some companies can’t talk benefits until the job offer is extended. Still, there’s no harm in asking, if for no other reason than to gauge the response.
- Find out how close-knit the team is. With luck, you won’t even have to ask this question. More and more companies will come out and ask you those “soft questions”, like what your hobbies are, what you do in your spare time, and what other skills you have or things you can share about yourself that aren’t on your resume. When they do, turn it around on them and ask them to share some anecdotes too. Again, their reaction will be illuminating — perhaps more than whatever they actually say. If it’s a panel interview, you may even get some insight into whether this is the first time people on the same team are hearing about each other’s hobbies. That alone can give you an idea whether this is a group that’s close or not. You can even dig in and ask if the team does anything after hours — whether they see movies together, hit the bar together or hang out.
Remember, the answers to all of these questions shouldn’t really be qualified in terms of “good” or “bad”. Even though we’re often told that the best companies are the ones where everyone goes out for drinks after work every day, if that’s not who you are and you have no desire to work somewhere with that environment, finding out that the team doesn’t really hang out together is great news. If you’re a social butterfly and want to work with friends, finding out that the team regularly takes staff meetings at the bar around the corner is good to hear. It all depends on you and where you’d like to work.
You also want to find out whether the corporate culture fits with your life — if you need to take public transport to work, for example, you might run into problems working in an office full of drivers who don’t understand why you have to leave at a specific time every day to catch a train, or why you can’t “just stay late” or “come in on a weekend” when trains or buses aren’t running as often. It’s more than just emotion and empathy — you don’t want to work somewhere people don’t understand you.
Don’t Accept a Job Offer Without More Research
If you’ve done your homework and you’ve made it through the interview successfully, you probably have a good idea by now whether the job is a good fit for you. Still, don’t accept that job offer until you’ve done some more homework. Call your hiring manager or HR rep and ask a few follow-up questions if you don’t have clear answers. If you’re still unsure, see if you can meet up with the hiring manager for a follow-up interview. If you have an offer in-hand, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and sometimes they will ask you first.
One thing worth mentioning: people will sometimes lie or obfuscate the truth in order to get you to join the team or to avoid painting the company in a bad light. Don’t hesitate to ask the same questions more than once or to get promises on paper.
When you have all of the information you need, try to put together a mental picture of what your day-to-day experience would be like, not just with regards to the work you’ll do, but where you’ll sit, what the office environment is like, when and where you’ll take lunch or your breaks, and how long you’ll spend getting to and from the office. The more complete that picture is and the happier you are with it, the better you’ll be able to decide if this job is the right one for you or not.