There are lots of questions to ask before accepting a job, and some of these should include the company culture. If the company culture is not what you are expecting, you will not enjoy your work. You will feel out-of-place, like an organ transplant that didn’t take. You may not develop the relationships and support you need to do your best work.
1 – Define what you mean by culture
So, yes, you should research the company culture, but first you need to get specific about what you’re looking for. Is it how management treats its employees? Is it how colleagues treat each other or whether employees tend to work in teams or alone? Or are you looking at the company’s relationship to its community, vendors and customers?
Is it how the company makes decisions on career path? For example, does the company promote from within? Does the company allow its employees to move to different subsidiaries, regional offices, or among departments?
How others define culture may not match your definition and so their insights not matter to you. You need to be specific about what you’re trying to find out about the culture so you get precisely the information you need.
2 – Confirm the metrics you will use to measure what matters
How will you evaluate what you find out? How will you measure whether management treats its employees well? Does this mean pay transparency, unexpected shows of appreciation, or consistent adoption of employee suggestions?
Are you looking at Best Places to Work rankings? Are you looking at other rankings – sustainability scores or percentage of women in leadership roles? If career path is a priority, how will you measure mobility or opportunity? If you don’t know how you’re going to measure what you’re looking for in the culture, you won’t know when you see it or where to look.
3 – Start with published sources
Review the website for general information on the company mission, recent press releases and media highlights. How does the company’s own marketing describe the leadership? What is the tone — serious, conversational, irreverent? What results, activities, or employees are highlighted?
In addition to what the company puts out on its behalf, review what is written about the company. Does it get media attention, and if so, for what? What is the company admired for? What criticism has the company faced?
4 – Get more nuanced information from former employees
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for specifically, and you can see what has been published, you can go deeper by asking people who have worked at the company. Former employees are a good start because they will likely be more candid. They don’t have to worry about their words coming back to haunt them. They also may be more objective now that there is some distance between them and the company.
Tap social media to see who you might be connected to. LinkedIn is great for finding past positions. You may not realize that someone you’re your community gym used to work at your target company. In addition to former employees of the company, ask contacts who know the industry because they might have dealt directly with the company as a customer, vendor, or consultant.
Remember to take everything you hear as one of many pieces of information, so you do not rely too heavily on any one opinion or insight. When you hear something, take into account what that person’s role was within the company. Also get some context on why they left so you can gauge how objective you think they can be.
5 – Ask current employees
One disadvantage of former employees is that company culture changes over time, so even recent employees may not have the full picture. Management changes, new business initiatives, and market conditions can also change company culture. In addition to former employees, you need to canvas current employees. You certainly want to see if current employees speak freely about company environment!
Ideally, find people at similar levels, in similar roles, and within the same department or line of business you will be joining. If you can find people know your future colleagues, you may get a sense of personalities and working styles. Remember that people may only share the good stuff. If you are trying to dig a little deeper, you can share what you have researched to date as a starting point for the conversation. Then the other person can add to or react to what you already said.
6 – Check for sub-cultures across lines of business, regional offices or other groupings
A company’s overall culture may be different from sub-cultures that develop in certain departments, regional offices, or subsidiaries. Throughout your research, see if you can prioritize people and sources closest to where you will be working. You also want to include whatever departments or offices you’ll also be collaborating with on the job.
Bonus tip – Start researching culture even before the offer stage
While it is helpful to do research into company culture once you’re vetting an offer, you can do some of this research even at the interview stage. Many interviews, especially for complex, senior roles, include candid discussion about the challenges the company is facing and sometimes even challenges with specific departments or people.
When you’re interviewing with your immediate manager and day-to-day colleagues, pay close attention to how they describe their work and their working style. Listen for where they are frustrated and excited. Identifying pain points will tell you what you should focus on in interviews (i.e., solve these problems!). But you can also gauge how much you will enjoy this work environment.
I once recruited for a manager who told potential candidates that she didn’t coach her team but hired for people who could integrate quickly with minimal support. That’s great for someone who doesn’t want or need much coaching from their manager, but not if a mentor-boss is high on your priority list. This brings us back to the very first point about culture – you need to identify what your priorities are, so you’ll know a good fit when you find one!