Job Hunt 101: Find the Right Company Culture for You

What does company culture mean to you? Corporate culture, by one definition, is the “the philosophy, values, behavior, dress codes, etc., that together constitute the unique style and policies of a company.” It should be one of the most important considerations in your job search after job requirements and pay. Corporate culture is reflected in the way employees treat each other, the way they get things done and the physical working environment. It can have a profound impact on your level of job satisfaction.

As you search for and apply to jobs it’s important to keep an eye out for cultural clues—signs that indicate what it might be like to work at a given company. While more and more companies are making the effort to promote their culture online through employee videos, in-depth career blogs and detailed careers sections, the on-site interview is where you will gather the most important information about company culture. Here’s how to make the most of your online and real-world research.

The people

Reflect on your past roles and consider what you liked and didn’t like about the culture. Were people generally nice? Were they driven to meet goals? Did they act differently when a member of the management team walked by, or did they welcome him or her? How did they promote people? How did they celebrate success? Depending on your stage in life, you may want a culture that’s different from one that you liked in the past.

When you visit an office look around at the people you pass by on the way to your interview. Notice how they are dressed and what their demeanor is like. Do they look relaxed or stressed out? When it’s your turn to ask questions in the interview, here are some you can use:

  • What do you like about working here?
  • What do you wish was different about working here?
  • How often do people get promoted? Why do they get promoted?
  • What do you do when you have a problem with something?
  • How do you get things done as a team?

As your interviewer answers, look out for emotional responses such as excitement or discomfort.

The questions you are asked can also be a clue to a company’s culture. One friend of mine said that a large portion of his interview for an analyst position at a state-run organization focused on his skills in conflict resolution rather than his skills as an analyst. He said, “It felt like it was all about people with titles sitting on their little fiefdoms,” and sensed that he would be end up being the go-between as they fought over budgets. Because of his preference for a flat organizational structure, that hierarchical culture would not have been a fit for him.

Every culture has pluses and minuses, and not every company—even the popular ones—will appeal to everyone. Be secure in your own values. For example, someone interviewing for that government analyst job may like the security of knowing their place within a hierarchy and letting people above them make decisions.

The working environment

Reflect on your past working environments. Did one particular office layout work well for you over another? I worked at one company that had a comfortable, fun office with white desks, big windows and skylights near Union Square in San Francisco. Then the company moved offices to an area of the city that was less vibrant. While the new office had state-of-the-art technology, the layout was sterile, and the desks and cubicles were gray and far apart. My job was the same, but I didn’t like going to work anymore. The company started losing clients, and hundreds of people were laid off—including me. The culture the company had built up simply could not survive the new environment.

As you look around the office, notice the break areas. Are they clean? Does the company offer coffee, tea, drinks and free food? Does it look like the common areas are used? Free food is a perk. Government organizations are unlikely to offer it.

Ask your interviewers what they do when they need to take a break. I once worked in a building near Electronic Arts and would go out for a walk in the afternoon and see its employees playing volleyball or soccer on the lawn. At another company where I worked the engineers would meet for Ping-Pong matches in the afternoon. The best companies know that creativity is inspired by physical activity, and they encourage responsible break time. That pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, with free beer, pool tables and little focus on customer needs. If you’re the sort of person who takes pride in doing a good job and satisfying customers, some corporate cultures may be too laid back for you.

If a company offers videos or photos of its work environment on its careers page, note the things that appeal to you. When you go in for an interview look and ask for evidence of those things. Don’t be afraid to mention the videos—HR put them up for you to see. For example, if you like games, you could say, “I saw on the video that there is a foosball table. How often do people use it?” You might find out that it’s only used during monthly Happy Hours or that it’s used every day. The answer will clue you in to the company culture.

As you consider different corporate cultures, remember that every job is a fit for someone; it may or may not be you. By having a better sense of what appeals to you and doing as much research as you can before the job interview. you’ll be able to ask smart questions and make astute observations. And when you accept an offer, you’ll have fewer surprises when you show up on the job.