by Meridith Levinson

8 Ways Job Seekers Can Assess a Prospective Employer’s Corporate Culture

Jul 31, 20096 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Just as hiring managers try to determine whether a job seeker will fit with an organization's culture, job seekers should judge whether an employer's culture is right for them--no matter how desperate for a job they may be. Job seekers' curiosity about an employer's corporate culture will impress hiring managers and help them stand out.

With job opportunities so scarce these days, job seekers are under tremendous pressure to impress hiring managers during job interviews. In fact, they’re so caught up in making a good impression that it’s easy for job seekers to forget that the job interview remains their opportunity to assess a prospective employer’s corporate culture and to determine whether that work environment will suit them, says Vanessa Hall, author of The Truth About Trust in Business (Emerald Book Company, 2009.)

Worse, job seekers may be tempted to accept any job offer regardless of signs that indicate an employer is not right for them.

Failing to consider an employer’s corporate culture is a job search mistake, career and hiring experts say. Job seekers risk taking a job with an organization that doesn’t suit them, being miserable, and soon find themselves on the job market again—either because they couldn’t stand the company and quit, or because the employer recognized the mismatch and terminated their employment.

[ For more advice on selecting a good employer, see Job Interview: Ask the Right Questions to Avoid a Dud Job. ]

Either way, the situation is disadvantageous to the job seeker, says Edward Lawler, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and author of Talent: Making People Your Competitive Advantage (Jossey Bass, 2008.)

“It doesn’t help for the employee to have a record of being fired or turned over after a short period of time,” he says.

On the other hand, if a job seeker researches a prospective employer’s culture and finds an organization that matches her personality, work style and values, not only is she more likely to be offered the job, she’s also more likely to be successful inside the company, says Hall. And with success comes job security (at least in theory).

What’s more, job seekers who express interest in learning about a company’s culture during a job interview make a better impression on hiring managers than candidates who don’t ask questions or who only ask about career development opportunities, says Hall.

“As a manager interviewing people, when someone sits down and asks you questions, they stand out as someone who’s prepared and who’s really checking whether this opportunity is right for them,” she says.

Since the clues that reveal an organization’s culture can be subtle, assembled the following advice for sizing up a prospective employer.

1. Before the job interview, check out the company’s website, says Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management and executive coaching firm. Pictures of employees on the website, along with employee testimonials about what it’s like to work for the company, can indicate that the employer cares about its employees and wants to be a desirable place to work, she says. (Of course, images of smiling employees and shiny testimonials can also be lame PR efforts to cover up a dysfunctional work environment.)

2. Consider the employer’s hiring process. Pay attention to who calls you to schedule a job interview and to how that person treats you on the phone, says Varelas. The hiring manager calling you directly may indicate an openness and lack of hierarchy or bureaucracy inside the company. Or it could indicate a lack of process inside the company, adds Varelas, or that the hiring manager has too much time on his hands.

“Some organizations are famous for long and drawn out selection processes,” says Lawler. “Job candidates need to be able to discern whether the selection process is meaningful and reflects an organization that really cares [about who they hire] or an organization that doesn’t have its act together and doesn’t know how to run the hiring process.”

[For more ideas on identifying employee-friendly companies, see How to Identify Human Capital-Centric Companies During Your Job Search. ]

3. Varelas advises job seekers to note their surroundings during the job interview: How is the office space organized? Is it a cube farm? What’s the style of the furniture in the office? What does the reception area look like, and how does it compare with the rest of the office? Are employees sitting in old, mismatched chairs? Are they using up-to-date computers? What’s the mood in the office? Is it buzzing, quiet or chaotic?

[For job interview tips, see IT Job Seekers: Can You Answer an Interviewer’s 12 Gotcha Questions?, Job Seekers: Get Ready for the Character Interview and How to Ace an Executive Level Interview. ]

4. Similarly, Varelas recommends that candidates observe the employees: How are they dressed? What do their work spaces look like? Are they allowed to express themselves? How do employees respond to one another in the reception area or the hallways? Do they smile and say hello, or do they ignore each other? Do they acknowledge the receptionist? Look for a genuine interaction between employees, she says.

5. Varelas also suggests asking everyone you meet during your job interview how they would describe the organizational culture. Do their responses seem scripted? Are their responses consistent without seeming scripted? Additionally, she recommends asking everyone how long they’ve worked for the company to get a sense of the employee turnover. “If some employees have worked with the company for more than a few years, ask them if the culture has changed during that time,” she says.

6. Hall advises job seekers to ask about an employer’s values—specifically, how the employer demonstrates those values on a day to day basis and how people commit to them. She also urges job seekers to ask the hiring manager about his management style and processes for providing feedback.

7. Lawler recommends seeing if HR or the hiring manager will share data from employee surveys that indicates what it’s like to work there. “It might be a little sticky [to ask],” he notes, “But it’s often the most subjective picture you can get.”

8. Inquire about professional development, advises Varelas. If the company provides continuing education benefits, that suggests the company values investing in its employees, she says. You can also ask if the company tends to promote from within.

Varelas adds one word of caution when sizing up an organization’s culture: “Be careful to distinguish between a company culture and a culture that a manager created,” she says. “You could have a great manager in a bad company culture, which limits the manager. Or you can have a good company culture and a bad manager.”

The most effective way to distinguish between the two, says Varelas, is to talk to current and former employees about their experiences with the company and whether they think the corporate culture varies by division, department or business unit. Hall recommends corroborating whatever the hiring manager told you about his management style and approach to providing feedback with current and former employees.

Adds Hall, “If you want to land a good job and be happy, it’s really important to ask the right questions.”

How do you size up an organization’s culture? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Follow me on Twitter @meridith.