Determine the Culture of a Company – Part 2

by Steve Chirpich and Paul Sears

Earlier this week a blog post looked at why it’s important to assess company culture before you accept a job offer. Beyond reviewing company information online or asking questions during a job interview, how can you determine the culture of a company?


Detective Work 101    

Visit your target company. Be observant! Do people smile? Do they give you a warm greeting? How do co-workers relate to each other?  Do employees appear on task and serious about what the company hired them to do? What emotions do you sense — do people look stressed or at ease? Do you hear any laughter? How is the place decorated? What equipment is there? Are cars still in the lot at 6:00pm because employees want to, or have to, be there?


It’s All About People    

Good research and detective work include but go beyond the Internet and printed information. People are your best information source — people who work for or who are in a position to know the company. Most people are helpful if asked for advice. So ask for information from customers, competitors, vendors and suppliers to your target company, trade or professional associations, and past employees you locate through associations or your network. Current employees may be candid, but only to the point they feel safe.


Intimate, personal information at the core of company culture is more easily gotten when you’ve established relationships and a basis for sharing. Getting below the surface to discern people’s attitudes, how they interact, and company politics requires trust. This requires sincerity, in other words, effective networking.


Key Questions     

After you have established solid relationships you can pursue information about the company on which to base your employment decisions. Generally open-ended, focused questions work best. Ask questions like:

  • What is a typical work week like?
  • What tools, budget, and workspace do people have to do the job? Do they feel their resources are adequate?
  • How does this company treat its employees?
  • What is the management style? (Top-down or collaborative?)
  • What would the most satisfied employees say about working here? What about the least satisfied employees?
  • Why did the incumbent person in this position leave?
  • How do people get hired?
  • Are there advancement opportunities? Who tends to receive them?
  • How do company staffing and hiring practices match up with your values? Are employees hired, retained, promoted and compensated fairly?
  • What training opportunities exist?
  • How is creativity encouraged here?
  • What do people do here for fun and gratification?
  • In what direction is this company going?


Don’t Miss Your Target!

Company culture can vary even between different units of the same company. Across the aisle or set of cubicles you might enter a radically different work culture. Similarly, new management can bring stark changes in the way a group operates. Be sure to focus your inquiry on not only the larger company, but on the work units inside.


While no workplace is 100% ideal, you likely have some characteristics that describe a desirable workplace. To determine what’s important to you, try this exercise:

  1. Describe a company where you’ve worked before. Identify characteristics about it that you liked, and those characteristics you didn’t like.
  2. List criteria that are important to you for the next place where you’ll work. Some examples might be professional, caring, flexible, clean, encouraging, organized and supporting.


This article first appeared in Career Connection, a newsletter of the WorkForce Center System.


Steve Chirpich and Paul Sears are employment specialists at the Minneapolis WorkForce Center.


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