Choosing a company culture is a bit like choosing a pair of shoes. If it’s a fit, you might not even notice it, but you’ll walk through life feeling confident, comfortable, ready to give your full self each day.
If it’s not a fit? Ouch. You’ll feel it all the time, slowing you down, grinding away until you just can’t seem to move forward anymore.
The difference is, it’s a lot easier to replace a pair of shoes than it is to leave a job and find a better one. The stakes just aren’t the same.
So how do you know if a company culture is a fit before you join? In this post, we’ll break down:
- What is “company culture” anyway?
- The aspects of culture that will impact your happiness at work and success as an employee
- How to use qualitative and quantitative methods to assess cultural fit
What is Company Culture?
To put it simply, culture is a set of shared values and behaviors within an organization. But of course, culture is never that simple.
It defines everything from the employee experience to customer service to product development. It enables employees to work in sync, following an informal playbook rather than a rigid rule book. It can make a working environment feel productive and enjoyable to one person and completely toxic to another.
So how do you get a pulse on a company’s culture? It can be broken down according to three different attributes:
Within companies there are explicitly stated values and there are implied values, both of which impact people’s behavioral patterns. Although it may be easy to grasp the traits described in a “corporate values” document or printed in bold letters on a wall, these don’t always play out in real life. For that reason, implied values are well worth the effort to suss out.
Even seemingly trivial values can have an outsized impact on your experience at work. Here’s an example. Two different companies may have different implied values with respect to being on time for meetings. One company might place a high value on respecting people’s time, so the expectation would be to always be on time or even a few minutes early for meetings. Another company might value flexibility, so people may be five minutes late for meetings, and accept that other people might be a bit late—or even very late, if it’s for a good reason.
This illustrates the importance of understanding your own values. Think about what habits resonate more with you, and what behaviors you expect from others.
If you’re always late, are you really willing to change, or would you be better off at a company that shares your desire to go with the flow? If you’re punctual, will it drive you crazy if people are always late?
As a company grows, a strong culture will attract certain people and repel others. Over time, one group may dominate, impacting the entire company culture. Here too, there’s no “right or wrong”, just a question of fit. Identify the primary parameters of a company, and reflect if those feel right for you.
Here are a few examples of dominant groups that you might encounter, each of which will influence culture differently.
- Academics - Lots of PhDs and ex-academics, coming from a structured, research-based environment
- “Xooglers” - A high number of Google alumni who have all been trained to be “Googley”
- International - A broad spectrum of people from different countries, bringing diverse viewpoints
- Young - A low average company age, all else being equal tending to reward passion, energy and an “anything is possible” attitude over experience
- Experienced - A higher average company age, all else being equal, tending to reward seniority, experience, and a history of good results
What does this all mean for you? Well, it depends on your background and personal style. If you don’t have a degree, joining a company that feels like a spinoff of MIT might make you feel out of place. Then again, if you contemplated going into industry versus academia yourself, you might just have found the perfect compromise.
Organizational Structure and Style
Ever companies has a unique organizational structure. Some are hierarchical others flat, some are collaborative and others competitive, some have fixed team structures and others constantly reform as they work on different projects.
How you respond to different types of organizational style will likely have a significant impact on how you advance within the company, so choose wisely.
Again, it’s important to be aware of where you fall on the spectrum. Do you thrive when given the freedom to stretch, or do you work best when you know exactly what you need to do to move up the ladder?
Does the thought of working in a cut-throat competitive environment motivate you or fill you with dread? If you’re a highly competitive person, could you adapt, or might your competitive nature be stunted or even penalized in a collaborative culture?
Several books have been written on this subject. I highly recommend these ones if you’re interested in digging deeper:
- The Culture Blueprint: A Guide to Building the High-Performance Workplace
- Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
- Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
Assessing Cultural Fit in Practice
If you’re an engineer searching for a new job in tech, you probably have several opportunities to choose from. How do you tell one company culture from another when every startup seems to tout things like “radical innovation,” beer on Fridays and ping pong in the office?
My first suggestion is to look past these superficial indicators to find the true markers of culture.
You can start by doing this intuitively, taking a “right brain” approach.
In every interview and each time you walk around the office, notice how the company culture feels. This is where you get to play Sherlock Holmes, noticing small details, looking for nonverbal cues and extrapolating possible hypotheses.
Ask yourself how you feel about the place, how it feels different from other places, and how the employees seem to feel about their workplace. Just be careful not to jump to conclusions just yet. You don’t want to write anything off before completing your due diligence.
The second part of your assessment should be more systematic, using a “left brain” approach.
Think back to the aspects of culture that we’ve discussed—values, group parameters and organizational structure—and make a list of what you care most about. Based on that, write down a set of questions to explore.
As you interview with each company, run through these questions with your proposed future teams and bosses. How well you frame your questions will impact the quality of your responses.
For example, asking “What are your values?” might get you an official list of core values. Some companies really do try to live up to their aspirational values, but these may not actually have much impact on your life. Instead, ask something like “How does working here feel different than previous places you worked at?” or “What surprised you most about this place relative to your expectations, or relative to past work experience at other companies?”.
Having said that, don’t be afraid to be direct at times and simply ask people to describe what the company culture is like. Notice what they bring up and what they don’t. As you compare companies, the things that get left unsaid can be just as important as the big, shiny highlights.
When it comes time to choose a company, your left brain and right brain will need to work in tandem. You might score each company quantitatively on how well they align with your desired values, group parameters and structures, then factor in how you feel about them overall. Or you might make a list of pros and cons to compare between each company.
However you do this, don’t underestimate the value of your intuition. With all the information you’ve tactically uncovered, what is your instinct telling you?
This article draws on the following research:
- Medina, Elizabeth, 2012. Job Satisfaction and Employee Turnover Intention: What does Organizational Culture Have To Do With It?.
- David F. Larcker, Brian Tayan, 2016. How Important Is Culture? A Second Look at Keller Williams Realty
- Sameer B. Srivastava, Amir Goldberg, V. Govind Manian, ChristopherPotts. 2018. Enculturation Trajectories: Language, Cultural Adaptation, and Individual Outcomes in Organizations
- Jennifer A. Chatman, David F. Caldwell, Charles A. O’Reilly, Bernadette Doerr. 2014. Parsing organizational culture: How the norm for adaptability influences the relationship between culture consensus and financial performance in high tech firms
- Amir Goldberg, Sameer B. Srivastava, V. Govind Manian, WilliamMonroe, Christopher Potts. 2016. Fitting In or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness
- Francis J. Flynn, C.A. Anderson. 2008. Personality and organizational culture as determinants of influence
- Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Charles A. O’Reilly. 2007. Fitting in: The effects of relational demography and person-culture fit on group process and performance
- Glenn R. Carroll, J. Richard Harrison. 1998. Organizational demography and culture: Insights from a formal model and simulation
- Joanne Martin. 1995. Organizational Culture, Rituals and Taboos
- Joanne Martin. 1995. The Style and Structure of Cultures in Organizations: Three Perspectives
- Joanne Martin, C. Siehl. 1990. Organizational Culture: A Key to Financial Performance?
- Joanne Martin, C. Siehl. 1998. Measuring Organizational Culture: Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Methods