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.


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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By Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is the former 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.