by Rich Hein

How to tell if a company’s culture is right for you

Apr 06, 20159 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Skills

You want to work where you are inspired to do your best and appreciated by your colleagues and manager. However, that kind of fit doesn’t happen by chance. Find out what it takes to target the right job, company and culture.

Book with culture written on its spine
Credit: Thinkstock

CIO has covered almost every aspect of the job-search process from acing the technical interview to getting past applicant tracking systems to networking your way into your next job, but how do you figure out if a company’s culture is the right fit before you accept a job offer? We asked recruiters, CIOs and career coaches to share advice to help you decide for yourself if an organization is one you’ll flourish in or one you should pass on.

The right fit

Company culture is a funny thing. It could be the engine that drives your passion or it could be the thing that crushes your spirit and keeps you up at night. Figuring out if it’s one of these extremes or somewhere in between before you take the job is a tough task, but one worth undertaking. Choosing an organization without considering how you fit into their culture is a formula for disaster.

“It is important for someone to learn about an organization’s culture prior to accepting a position. Culture is a large variable that influences overall employee engagement and the longevity that individuals stay with an organization. If it is not the right culture fit, someone is unlikely to be contributing their best and their tenure will likely be short,” says Kristin Darby, CIO at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

What corporate culture is and what it shouldn’t be

“Organizations define culture differently, and often, incorrectly. Culture should be comprised of a shared vision, defined understanding of the best fit traits of successful employees and core values that unite a company to think and work as a team with a well understood method of the best way to achieve their shared goal. Too often though companies define their culture more by their perks offered or by what I term ‘the frat’ mentality – meaning if you look, act and have the same interests as the team,” says Ed Nathanson, founder of Red Pill Talent, LLC.

Start your investigation early

Experts agree that job seekers should be thinking about culture fit before they even apply for a job. “Too many candidates allow the company to be the one driving the interview process. In reality, the candidate should be interviewing the company as well. After all, the whole point is that you are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Stephen Van Vreede, personal brand strategist and job search agent for IT, Technical and STEM careers with ITTechExec .

Know what’s important to you

This is an essential part of the process, because if you don’t know what’s important to you than it will be next to impossible to decide where you fit in. Knowing what best motivates and inspires you will go a long way to making a solid choice. Some people can focus right in on this, others have to think and work at it.

Use social media

Nathanson offers some these guidelines about using social media to vet potential employers. “The first step is to look at the content and messaging the company puts on social. Is it “real people” talk or is it all press releases and product information? If they have employment-specific social channels are they just posting jobs or are they actually showing you what it is like to work at the company? Is it all stock images or are they actually showing you real people in their actual environment?”

Are there actual employees of the organization participating on social media, talking about working at the company is like. What they say and do can be very telling about their culture. “If the employees aren’t saying or doing anything – that says a lot too,” says Nathanson.

Do your due diligence

There is certainly no shortage of data and these days as candidates have more places than ever to find it –LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Twitter or the organizations website for example. “It behooves you to explore and use this to your advantage. How does the company represent [itself] externally on the Web and social [media]? What do their current and former employees have to say on sites like and others? Do you relate to their employment brand and the messaging they are portraying of what it is like to work at the company?,”asks Nathanson.

That said, experts warn job seekers of potential pitfalls in this digital landscape. “One can get a lot of data from social media. But you’ve got to validate and verify that data to get useful information. For example, Glassdoor comments are mostly negative. However, a string of negative comments about a specific unit or group may not necessarily indicate a collectively bad company culture but a weak manager. Interactions with company personnel during the interview process are a great time to look for clues that will give oneself truthful insights about the culture,” says Victor V. Kumar, vice president and CIO with Preferred Employers Group.

Ask the right questions

Once you make it to the interview process, make sure you ask the questions that will give you the insight you need to figure out how you will fit into their culture. Of course, you want to ask them to describe their culture but our experts also offer these questions that will help you glean insight into the organization.

Besides experience or their resume, why are your best employees successful? “Probe a bit on why some people haven’t been successful, too — taking away the focus on resume and experience and shifting to softer skills to get to the best personality traits that work or do not work in that culture,” says Nathanson.

Asking for a tour of their offices is a great way to see how employees interact with each other. “Start with reviewing the physical space. Are there lots of private offices? Cubes? Open work areas? Is technology visible in all areas? Are screens on the walls of open areas, conference rooms, do people roam with their laptops?,“ says Elaine Varelas, managing partner Keystone Partners. How do the employees look? Are they happy, engaged, and productive — or clock-watchers, just waiting for the day to be over.

Ask your interviewer, ‘What would you change about the culture if you could?’ This type of question will help you get beyond the superficial and rehearsed answers and drive more meaningful and open conversations.

Ask them about he mission of the organization. “Most people won’t know it or will guess incorrectly, which will be a signal that there is some misalignment between what they say and what they do as a company,“ says Van Vreede.

“Ask questions around how operational or project deadlines are set. Then ask about what process ensures that they are adhered to and how delays are dealt with,” says Kumar.

Another good question, says Kumar, is how operational or project teams are organized and led in a company. “Remember, a successful company culture is not just about how well they work together but also more importantly about how well they can execute,” Kumar says.

Speak with current employees

Many employers agree that you should network your way into these conversations before you get into the interview process. “Through networking, candidates should contact current and former employees to find out more about the culture — both spoken and unspoken. A candidate needs to know the culture they work best in, because what one person hates may be exactly the culture where you might be successful,” Varelas says.

However, there is a time and place in the interview process where it makes sense to talk to potential coworkers and this is a great time to get a feel for what will potentially be your home away from home. Experts say that it be in the stage of the interview where there is mutual interest from both parties so the first phone interview isn’t the time to pose this request. It makes sense to wait until you are closer to the finish line. “After all — you want to know the team you would be working with On a side note – if the process has not included [conversations with] potential peers up to that point that can be telling, too. What is the reason and what might that mean? Is it a very hierarchical org? Maybe they don’t value the team’s opinion in the process? Are they not empowered to be part of the interview team?,“ Nathanson says.

Look for cues in your correspondence

Clues to how a company operates may appear in your phone conversations, meetings or emails. You’ve got to be strategically aware of this. “During the interactions, whether it is an email exchange with HR/hiring manager or the interview discussions, look for behavioral clues. For example, if everyone you meet is always rushed, it may indicate a sense of urgency or reactionary approach to things. Don’t look for perfection, but look to see if the culture is about evolving and getting better,” says Kumar.

Don’t be blinded by perks

In the world of technology you regularly here about the latest startup offering perks that on the surface seem incredible but often there is a price to pay for those perks like long hours or being on call for example. In other situations it can seem like there is no one at the helm at all and in those cases the culture just kind of creates itself, good or bad. Remember thjat culture isn’t necessarily about the perks provided but more about traits and the core values that an organizations embraces. All the perks in the world won’t make up for poor leadership, a bad work environment or lack of culture from the top down.

The bottom-line

Knowing who you are and what is important to you are the first steps on the road to career success. Combine that with the right research and a little luck and you should find yourself in a job that you want to be in. However, if don’t invest the time and resources necessary you will likely find yourself looking for a new job and no one wants to go through those efforts all over again.