Assessing an employer's culture is vital

A company may have a thriving, efficient workplace that just doesn't agree with you

Caught up in the excitement of a fresh start (and often higher pay), many IT job candidates overlook the factor that often plays the largest role in determining their satisfaction in a new position: how well they’ll fit into the company’s workplace culture.

Every organisation has a corporate culture, a blend of values that reflects the company’s policies and actions and that often sets the tone for the day-to-day office environment and how co-workers interact.

Think of corporate culture as a pair of shoes you’ll wear every day. Even the best-looking shoes — the ones that impress your friends and draw compliments on the street — will quickly have you aching to remove them if they don’t fit your feet.

So, how can you tell whether you’ll be comfortable with a company’s culture before you start working there?

First of all, it’s important to know what you want. Many job candidates overestimate their ability to adapt to an unfamiliar work culture, so they don’t take the time to clarify, even to themselves, what type of office environment fits them best. Are you more comfortable in a competitive or supportive environment? Innovative or traditional?

Make a list of your work values so you can see how well they align with a potential employer’s culture. If you value independence, for example, you’ll quickly clash with a management that insists on being involved in minor decisions.

Performing a background check on a prospective employer is another helpful step. It’s fairly easy to develop at least a fuzzy picture of a company’s culture based on what you’ve heard from friends or read in the media.

Start with the corporate website. Just as important as what the company says about itself is how it says it. An organisation may profess to have a cutting-edge image, but if its website looks like a throwback to 1997, you might question that claim.

Also search technology news and business sites. If your prospective employer is a public company, check out its annual report for more hints about life at the firm.

Past or present employees of the company can provide invaluable insight — even if you don’t know anyone who has worked at the company, you’re probably within a few degrees of separation of someone who has, so be sure to take advantage of your network.

Online networking sites such as LinkedIn can help you expand your connections and obtain more information. The more sources you consult, the better — if you hear a negative report from a disgruntled former employee, for example, try to balance it with the impressions of someone who works for the company now.

The job interview is the best time to learn about a corporate culture. For example, take note of the workplace atmosphere. Do employees seem engaged with their work and one another, or under stress and isolated?

When meeting with the hiring manager, ask questions geared toward the corporate culture, such as, “What do you like best about working here?” You might also ask about the characteristics the company values most in employees or about how performance is measured and rewarded.

Again, the way the interviewer responds can be just as revealing as the response itself. Does he hesitate before responding? Do you get a sense of genuine excitement, or are you just being fed the company line?

Don’t put too much stock in any single impression, whether it’s from an interviewer, your research or a friend’s experience. The more points of view you get, the better able you’ll be to tell an aberration from a distinct pattern. A former employee’s complaint about a cut-throat environment, for example, might say more about that person than about the corporate culture.

But at the same time, don’t hold your tongue about any misgivings. A follow-up interview gives you a chance to address any cultural concerns you’ve developed.

For example, if you have impressions from several sources that management doesn’t encourage creativity, ask about it directly.

Keep in mind that you’re not necessarily judging how well an organisation works overall — you’re simply building the clearest possible picture of how well it might work for you. A company may have a thriving, efficient workplace that just doesn’t agree with you. Remember, when it comes to corporate culture, there’s no such thing as “one size fits all”.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology

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