Education

How to assess a company's culture before you take the job

Have you ever been mislead about a company's culture during an interview? Here are some tips for figuring out the real deal before you accept that job.

Have you ever been mislead about a company's culture during an interview? Here are some tips for figuring out the real deal before you accept that job.

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I once accepted a job at a company that seemed completely normal during the interview. It turned out this staffer hated that staffer and that department hated this department. Everyone was united in one thing -- they all hated the boss intensely.

My supervisor was dating someone in the company who made it a point to walk past my desk a couple of times a day to glare at me. Oh, and my supervisor? Before coming to work for this company, he served time for a violent crime. That might have made it slightly uncomfortable to deal with him, but the guy never said two words to me and never gave me anything to do. So I sat there for six months with my hands wrapped around a hot cup of tea, trying to stave off frostbite from the cold air whistling in through the cracks of the poorly constructed building.

The thing is, everyone seemed normal and friendly enough during the interview process, and I spoke to several people there. Realistically, no existing staffer is going to take the chance of saying something really negative about their company for fear that it will get back to the boss. But it seems like some kind soul would could have whispered "save yourself" or slipped me a note with a skull and crossbones on it.

OK, so this is (I hope) an extreme case of caveat emptor. But how can a job candidate find out the truth about a company's culture before they accept the job, and it's too late?

Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a leading career management firm specializing in career transition, has these suggestions for how to assess a company culture in 40 minutes or less. Wish I'd had these all those years ago.

Before the interview

Ask your network: Use LinkedIn, Jigsaw, and other networking tools to query your network and determine if anyone has worked at the company or knows someone who does who you can audit about the culture.
  • Invite current employees of the company to join your network and ask for their first-hand experience with the company.
  • Check out the Web site and see if they have any employee testimonials. If so, do they seem authentic or scripted?

During the interview

Observe everything: Evaluate all that you see and hear and everyone you meet during the interview process beginning when you walk in the door. Consider things like:
  • First impression: What is the office space like, and can you see yourself working in it?
  • Dresscode: Are current employees dressed professionally or business casual, or do they look like they just rolled out of bed?
  • Energy level: Is the office buzzing, quiet, or chaotic?
  • Personal Effects: Do people have pictures, toys, and other forms of self expression in their work area?
  • Desktops: Do staffers have the latest laptops, 80s desktops, or something in between?
Question everything: Don't be afraid to ask questions about the culture, and the things you are seeing and hearing. Consider things like:
  • Company behavior: Do they promote from within, sponsor team lunches, encourage professional development? If the interviewer answers yes to any of these questions, ask for specific examples.
  • Ask each person you meet to describe the company culture and notice if you get consistent responses.
  • Ask each person you meet with how long they have been with the company.
  • If you feel you haven't met enough people, ask if there are other members of the organization you can speak to about their experience.

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

44 comments
Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

During an interview I once had the change to watch the manager and a couple of employees be blind-sided by a production problem. They handled it very professionally without the all too common finger pointing and blame storming. The funny thing was that the interviewing manager was convinced that I was going to run away screaming and not accept an offer. That was the only thing that he got wrong that day. I'd work for him again if the opportunity presented itself.

rbogar
rbogar

Try to have lunch or at least a cup of coffee in the company cafeteria or lunchroom, and sit close enough to a group to eavesdrop. Are they discussing projects they are working on, or is it who quit and who's backstabbing who. What's on their minds now will be on yours too if you work there.

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

This a good article. This comment made me laugh: "But it seems like some kind soul would could have whispered ?save yourself? or slipped me a note with a skull and crossbones on it." I think we all could use a warning like that. Sometimes though, you need a job and you hope it'll last only for so long before you move onto the next. Good tips to evaluate a comp-any before hire. I'm gonna hold on to this one. Although to tell ya the truth? I've never had a job where most people were happy. It's always a select few that's become a club of "good ol'boys"( no gals mind you ). This shit gets old. I should make my own money and open up a strip club. At least I'd be the only good ol'boy, right? Right! LOL!

jkameleon
jkameleon

Will they actually be able to pay the salary they've promissed?

zbatia
zbatia

About a year ago my wife got a job as a bookkeeper. She was so happy first two months that I have never seen her so happy with the job. Nice environment, nice and friendly people, 1.5 miles away from home. What else would you wish? After the training with an employee who left the company, she began to work alone. Day after day her face turned to great disappointment and the smile was not on her face since then. The company has no respect for bookkeeper, the checks and other paperwork are thrown on her desk with no explanation. She has to run around to find out what to do with it and who left it. She cannot concentrate on the job because people interrupt her with their own requests (often not related), and she cannot complain to the manager because the manager is asking her: "Are you not happy here?". Such a stupidity... So, no matter how well you do your DD, you never know what to expect.

kumvinod
kumvinod

When I go to interview. It usually takes some time before the interviewer is available or it might be some other candidates turn. I make an excuse such as bathroom / Shower room which allows me to have a peak inside the company atmosphere, people, employee, work culture, size etc.. While this may not give me a perfect picture , but based on this I can start assessing the company which can later be used to figure out during the interview

m.balla
m.balla

I am living this nightmare as we speak. I have always assumed I was being told the truth when interviewing for a position - but this time, it bit me square in the butt. So for the sake of unloading on strangers (and secretly hoping my boss sees this), here's my list! 1. Your vacation time is already scheduled for you during a specific week in July when the whole company closes for an off-site sales meeting. Those not going to the sales meeting (which includes the IT department - minus the manager of course)must take their vacation during this week. I didn't find out about this until I submitted my request to take my family vacation in August. I was told I had to take the week in July and flat out refused the week in August. To make things worse, since this was a family vacation, all my child care options will be out of town - thus leaving me with no one to watch my daughter. When I told my boss that I might not be able to come in whether or not I actually took said vacation, I was flat out told I would lose my job. This would have been good to know ahead of time. 2. I didn't ask and was never told how the department operated. Being a technical analyst for 16 years, I have never worked in a department where the manager schedules every minute of your day. I come in every morning to a calendar booked from 8AM-5PM without any scheduled room for bathroom breaks, paperwork, etc. Every day is a nightmare as you can hardly predict how long every job will take. Once you run over schedule on an appointment - it's all downhill for the rest of the day. I will ALWAYS ask this question in the future. 3. After I got chummy with my coworkers, I found that this job had literally driven them to seek professional treatment for stress and anxiety - if I could, I would ask future coworkers if they were being treated for such afflictions! (I know I can't - just wishful thinking). 4. My interview was conducted in a nice glass enclosed office in the front of the building. I ended up in the very back of a modified warehouse in a windowless, stuffy and dismal storage area. The general attitude around here is nothing but stress, hopelessness and resign....oh, to know then what I know now. Sigh. 5. I know during an interview, you don't want to ask about "perks" - but how do you confirm that they at least provide coffee? Yes, I'm not kidding - no coffee. No drinking water. The toilet water is an odd shade of greyish-brown. No picnics, no holiday parties, no birthday cakes - you know - the little things that boost morale and make work a little more pleasant...there's none of that here. 5. Now, I DID ask this question: What style of manager are you? The answer was: "Oh, I'm very hands off - as long as you get the job done, you won't hear from me." Meanwhile back at the farm, I've never been more micromanaged in my entire life. Not only do you not have the freedom to set and work your own schedule, but you must complete a paper trail longer than the Appalachian Trail and must check in after each completed task. After you check in and confirm the job's completion, the manager contacts the end user and asks if the job has been completed. It's exhausting and extremely irritating. I'm sure I can come up with more, but I'll get off my soap box and thank you for tolerating this comment. I had to vent somewhere!

KSoniat
KSoniat

I had someone save me - I was in a second interview when a contractor gave me the low down. He said if someone had given a "peer" interview and he was hired he would later slash their tires. The face presented and the realities were very different. I found out later from others just how bad it was. That contractor did me a HUGE favor!!

m.i.k.e
m.i.k.e

I think this sentence is missing a word: My supervisor was dating someone in the company who [made?] it a point to walk past my desk a couple of times a day to glare at me.

rchesley
rchesley

I wish I would have done this at my first job out of college. 1) The enviornment was toxic. 2) The job was nothing like what the interviewer described. 3) There was almost no promotion potential. I would have seen 1 & 2 wihtin an hour or two. Now as a manager, I offer this option to candidates I really want to hire. It works out great - for both parties. Many times the candidates will ask questions of the ohter personnel they don't want to ask me, we get better insight into what makes a candidate tick, and we get to demonstrate our great culture. We've never missed on a candidate who accepted our offer after going through this process.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

I turned down a role not so long ago based on this exact reason. The money was better but the culture / enviromnent not. Companies forget that as much as they are interviewing you for a position, you are interviewing them to see if the role and company fit. Some forget this and are shocked when you turn down the offer based on it.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

If they do, then you probably are just wasting your time. Government shops are notorious for this behavior. It's good for them, but bad for any sucker who accepts an interview thinking he has a legitimate shot for the job when in reality he's just a pawn to fulfill a legal requirement. Yes, I'm speaking from experience 3 TIMES.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

It is not only candidates that will make outright, bald-faced lies during interviews; but, I've caught several companies in the act. There are tons of spots on the Internet to get feedback on companies. Although most of it is disgruntled employees, if you see thread after thread of "This Place Sucks" with different authors; well, you were warned. If you are an evil person - and have no doubt, I am- you can actually have fun during interviews by asking the interviewer why they think their organization has such a bad reputation. This one usually has them stammering. Like Miss Tiggie said, "Old Testament - All the Time." And Toni, I have a hard time seeing you with a mobbed-up organization. Gives me an entirely new perspective on my favorite person to make blush at TR. I better be careful, ya might send Big Al and the Louisville Sluggers down to see me! :)

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Ok, so you come in when the guy walks in pretending there is a production problem. We then all handle it very professionally and thus show we are the place to be! Perfect - now get back you your cage underling?!

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

you will find little work if that attitude shows through in an interview!

FLphotodude
FLphotodude

But if I ask to see their shower room within the first 10 minutes of being there I wouldn't expect an offer or a productive interview...

KSoniat
KSoniat

Sounds like you have your hands full. Hope you can find an alternative soon.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

if they hire you what becomes of him? Self preservation perhaps?

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

I say that the man served time in prison for a violent crime and you notice a typo in the previous sentence? Just kidding--I made the change. Thanks.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

How could you if they accepted the offer?

a.barry
a.barry

interviews take up everyones time. Placing an ad on the paper or company website used to meet advertising requirements. Of course, the interview might be a morale booster to counter charges of nepotism. One hint - as you are being lead to the interview room, look for empty cubes / offices (or cubes without a computer, but full of junk). Layoffs? or are people leaving? Perhaps ask "I see a lot of empty offices / cubes. Is the company planning to expand?"

Kam Guerra
Kam Guerra

My first job after leaving the military was working for a defense contractor as a software engineer for several years. During my tenure I learned quite a bit about business (and HR) tactics. Pay Companies bill the government as at certain billing rate and the employee generally a portion. Nothing out of the ordinary. Different work specialties bill at different rates and those billing rates are available through GSAadvantage.gov. A multiplier is exposed when you line up the employee salary against the billing rate and in general a multiplier of 1.7 to 2.5 is the norm. Translated a billing rate of $100 hr ( x 2080 hours per years) would translate to an annual billing cycle of $208,000 with the employee salary being a range of $ $40/hr ($83,200/yr) to 58.82/hr ($122,352/yr). The exception is the IT field where the multiplier is steeper and in the range of 4 to 6. So if you see a company on GSAadvantage.gov with a billing rate of $150/hr (senior software engineers) the salary is $25/hr ($52,000/yr) to $37.50/hr (78,000$/yr). If you see companies advertising inflated salaries, run like hell - it's a bait and switch. Just pull the GSA schedule . If it's out of line with the multiplier of 4 to 6 it the scam and their resume farming. The number of employers fluffing salaries is out of control. Health Benefits I always thought that if you're part of an HMO or PPO you could choose from a list of providers. The reality is that sometimes a company has contracted with certain provided that the employees will be seen only at a (single) site - like the one closest to work. Been there, done that. Ask to see the HR policy regarding restrictions. No policy, no interview. 401k Again, this is one of those HR policy things that save money. Most software engineers move from one project to another one. However, not all projects support the same benefits structure, and one of the "company savers" is to removing the 401k option for some projects. It's entirely possible to go from one project that supported a 401k, to one that doesn?t, back to a project that supports it again. Again, ask HR for the policy. No policy, no interview. Equipment Another cost cutting technique is IT equipment. Some companies understand the tech-refresh concept, most however do not. In 2003 I was doing kernel development on a Pentium 75. For those of you keeping track, that processor was released in 1994. Those were long days. Ask to see the HR or IT policy regarding tech refresh. You should also ask if there's time sharing of equipment - 2 people, 1 computer. I've had to timeshare a PC before - someone gets the AM shift, and someone gets the PM shift. Ask for the policy regarding this. No policy, no interview. Some companies never specify who supplies the equipment (or software) to perform the work, so it?s always best to ask before you "join the winning team". HR or IT should have a policy regarding this. No policy, no interview. Expense reimbursement I had a PM who decided that in order to save money, some of the travel expenses would not be reimbursed. Keep in mind this was customer directed travel and everything should have been covered. After we got back he decided that there was no reimbursement for lodging, meals, or conference fees. It just wasn't part of his budget performance metrics. Work area Realistically developers don't need much beyond a desk and about 3ft of width to do work. However some companies take this to an extreme and that's all you get. During the interview ask to see it. If all you've got is a monitor's width of space, and a few inches on either side - run. Another location I worked the room was so small (how small was it) along one wall was a 6ft table with 4 PCs on it, a building support pillar, and a 5 drawer safe. Along the other wall there was a couch from the 1970s, a floor light, and the door to the room. So it was about 8ft x 12ft. For 4 people. And no air conditioning vent in the room. Another location I worked was still in the process of being furnished and a lot of people were changing cubes/offices frequently and just kept everything in boxes. There was a PM who had his allowed office space downsized and used employee cubicles as his personal storage space. Ask HR for the policy. Work location I've been blatantly lied to about this. I signed on for a job that I was told was in Crystal City (Arlington VA). On the first day I found out that the PM "misstated" the location ? it was actually around the Tysons Corner area - 10 miles, and another hour of traffic, in the direction that I didn't want to travel. Ask HR for the policy.

b4real
b4real

I usually find someone I know or someone that someone I know knows (3rd person) that works at an organization and ask if this is somewhere you'd recommend a friend. A good way to find out if the company is worth your time.

ebiron
ebiron

Although i have personal experience with taking a job that was not what it seemed, in this economic climate, "beggars can't be choosers" and sometimes it's best to take the job and try to change your outlook and the people around you until something better comes along. Sometimes you can be the spark that lights up the organization for the better. I can't see how anyone out of work for any length of time would find a "poor work culture" as a detriment to putting food on the table. Just my 2 cents.

jck
jck

First job I took in Florida: "We give regular raises, like to give flex time to employees, and promote from within." That was a lie. I got one raise in 2 years (not a raise every year for at least a cost of living increase since it was skyrocketing in FL), I got flex time once cause I went to my boss and asked her directly for it to go see my family, and I only saw 2 people out of a staff of over 120 promoted into positions above them when they opened (they hired in about 20-30 people in my time there from the outside). The one thing I learned in it all: Ask the employer what you will be asked to sign as a part of your employment with them. If an employer expects you to sign anything other than your IRS forms, offer letter, etc., draw up your own terms and make sure to get them to sign-off. Then you know someone is serious if they will incorporate your terms into their own.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

It wasn't staged. Unfortunately it was a "satellite" location. Eventually upper management realized that the local managers were treating people like people and release everyone starting with the local managers. After all, once the caged underlings got a little taste of freedom they need to be put down. Or, they'd infect all of the underings with radical ideas.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've only been out of work for three months since 1981, and I never go in without that attitude. I get really annoyed when I get brought in under false pretences. I make the range I'm prepared to accept based on what I know about the role, if you didn't want to pay it, why are you wasting my time and yours for that matter.

KSoniat
KSoniat

But it turned out he was right and did me a huge favor. Part of it was response time - he called something up and it took at least a minute to appear. (NOT on a PC - on an AS/400) And menus were locked down like I'd only seen one other place that I also turned down. He didn't mind being a consultant for them, but didn't want to be direct hire. Later I heard other horror stories from there.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Where I work (small state agency) we cannot just promote someone no matter how qualified. They must apply for the job. Typically at least three candidates must be interviewed. I can't speak for other places.

KSoniat
KSoniat

--earlier in my career I didn't have any contacts to ask. And was new to the area. Word of mouth is best now.

R1scFactor
R1scFactor

Again our author comes across with yet another rant. It seems time and time again your articles are more complaint based or that they stem from the negative past you seem to have had. I'm burned out on all the negative attitude I seem to always read from you. I sincerely hope you can salvage enough positive experiences to share with us in future articles. Your words show that you've got experience in the field, but the chip taints it every time. I think in all due fairness to the I.T. community, we need to separate the main types of job candidates: 1) People who have a stable job, but casually shop around. 2) People whose job instability encourages going elsewhere. 3) People who just plain need a job and can't afford to sit unemployed for very long. For the people in #3, you're unlikely to maximize your starting wage, compared to those who don't NEED the job. That's life, but there are ways you can improve your options (including wage, benefits, environment). For the people in #1, you're in the best situation ever. If you're happily employed and have no real need to leave, you can be firm when interviewing. You can be playful without the stress while interviewing. And most important, you have taken away some of the biggest factors that companies use to get away with lower pay, lesser benefits, crappier job duties, etc. You can shoot for the moon when it's not critical to actually get the job.

BubbaGlock
BubbaGlock

And they know it. So most do not care how they treat their employees during this recession.

jck
jck

Ever been somewhere that for years you got crapped upon, someone else would take credit for your work and you would get no recognition, you make $1Ms for your company in 1 year and never get a bonus of any kind while your PM gets a $10k bonus and goes off to a spa while you are stuck doing 70-80 hours a week in a windowless building? There's only so much of that anyone should take. I do agree with you about one thing: If it's a bad environment, have no reluctance in leaving for a better opportunity. Companies and their management any more, in the majority, have no commitment or allegiance to their staff.

MikeG3b
MikeG3b

I wonder if I'm working at the same company? I was similarly mislead about "regular merit raises" and "promotions from within" and "veritical and horizontal mobility" when I interviewed for my current job. Since then, the company has hired dozens of new people into senior positions and has only promoted 2 or, possibly, 3 people from within (this is in an IT department with over 400 employees). Without exception, EVERY open management position has been filled with a new-hire. And, there are NO raises this year, and only token raises last year. Yet, the company is significantly profitable in spite of the recession. Obviously, the company is able to prop up profitability at the expense of its employees. Clearly, companies will lie to candidates during the recruitment process. It's very difficult for an individual to determine the truth of the promises made during initial interviews. I strongly agree with Toni's suggestion to use all available resources to verify a company's culture before accepting a position. Most importantly, though, I suggest people trust the "vibes" they get during recruitment. I really should have paid attention to the 'stiffness' and faux formality I sensed during the initial interview process. They were simply filling an open position, not recruiting a member of a dynamic team.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

I think Right to Work laws are a huge scam to allow companies with no morals to abuse their employees. Absolutely EVERYONE should have a contract. The next time you hear of someone opposing it due to "business interests," ask them if we shouldn't also ban all business contracts, since they set up courts to decide what is best for the business based on what they agreed to do. We are almost back to the days of the robber barons. I would point out that the end of feudalism in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, etc. didn't turn out well for the aristocracy....

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

That way you'll thin-out the companies that want to pay half-wages for the "privilege" of working for them.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

It's like a pendulum, going back and forth. Before Y2K it was towards the employees, now it's towards the employers. The thing to realize is that each side remembers wrongs done by the other side, both real and imagined. Just keep in mind not to go to bed angry. It's much better to stay up all night plotting your revenge. :)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

your employer is shafting you because they can, it's brutally snapping their dick off at the earliest opportunity, because you can. Doesn't matter how many would swap places with me, most of them aren't capable of doing so. By the way starting off with "With all due respect" essentially means you don't think any is due. Guaranteed to irritate anyone with a spine.

FLphotodude
FLphotodude

People measure happiness in two key ways - money and actual happiness. Most jobs seem like a see saw where you are forced to give one up in exchange for another. Want to be happy at work? Work at a coffee house but make crummy money. Want to make good money? Sit in a cube all day and be ordered around by some 1979 MBA pidgeon hole. It boils down to how we each measure happiness and success - and what is more important.

ebiron
ebiron

14 years at one company. Developed 4 patents, worked 80 hour weeks, flew around the world setting up my machines and debugging, training people on and repairing them, and all i got was $1 per patent, a dinner, and a silver cup. This made the company over $100 million in the first five years alone and the process is still running today even though i've been gone for 13 years now. And my moronic boss got HIS name on the patent while i was listed as et-al. Companies may have no allegiance to you, but your attitude is what gets you were you're going, not theirs. I moved on, and up and learned many valuable lessons along the way until i was the Director of R&D at a company and did it right. (IE: Promote from within, develop people, show concern, give quarterly reviews) IT is a third career path for me, and i got it from staying positive, doing my best, and keeping an eye out for every opportunity that comes along. But there are a lot of people right now out of work, that would swap places with you in a heart beat, so please try to keep that in mind. You can't change every circumstance, just how you deal with it, and that adjustment in attitude is almost always infectious and leaves a lasting impression. I'm not advocating taking a position that is truly not a good fit,but desperate times sometimes calls for desperate measures, and how you carry yourself in this kind of atmosphere is what will define you for a lifetime.

MikeG3b
MikeG3b

The Florida labor laws benefit employers at the expense of employees. It's a shame -- this state has so many 'service' jobs that even professionals (meaning, people with degrees, certifications, or other qualifications -- like experience!) are treated no better than the guy who barely finished high school and cleans pools for a living. The economy and off-shore out-sourcing (among other things, of course) has really taken the edge off of competition for IT people.

jck
jck

if you're somewhere in the same county as Cape Canaveral, you might well be. Of course, ole Phil isn't there anymore from what I understand like when I was there. So if you are there, I wonder if the new CEO has to cut jobs to build his wife a $3M gatehouse/pottery shed too. If so, I feel real sorry for you.

Scotty Bones
Scotty Bones

And on the flip-side. We can can see here in the USA what a wonderful job the Unions have done. We have very strong and vibrant auto industry; oops, no...wait a minute. The UAW ran it so far into the ground, the government had to steal billions of dollars from the the tax payers to prop them up. But we have the best education system in the world. Oh, wait a minute, wrong again. We rank almost dead last. We are even paying over 700 teachers (full salary and benefits to teachers accused of offenses ranging from insubordination to sexual misconduct) in New York to do nothing, because their union contract makes it extremely difficult to fire them. Costing the state over $65 million a year. BRILLIANT! I've been in both situations and I can tell you with absolute certainty, that I will never work for the mafia (union) again. I have received more (and higher) raises and promotions from right to work jobs than in union jobs. My brother-in-law is now on permanent disability, because his employer was unable to fire an employee that had previously injured two other employees with the same forklift he hit my brother-in-law with. Aren't unions wonderful.

jck
jck

Right to Work = oxymoron Considering it means someone else has the right to do your work and you get fired. I came on the job I have now and agreed to start at the bottom of the payscale, but after 6 months I was supposed to get a sizable increase if they kept me. I didn't get it yet, but that's cause a week prior to 6 months, I broke my neck and wasn't here. So, it's not huge. I'll get the money retro. Yay for bigger VISA card payments! lmao :^0