When Choosing An Employer, Culture Matters

When determining whether an employer is the right fit for you, it is important to find out about its culture. Companies are as different as the people who work there and run the business. For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set the initial culture of their organizations. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions.

We all, no doubt click with certain people when we meet them and don't click well when we meet others. Likewise there are companies that we will find ourselves comfortable working for and others where we will not. You don't want to join a company only to discover later that the organization belongs in the latter category.

Culture may not be a major factor when choosing an employer as what kind of work you'll be doing, the amount you'll be paid, and the benefits you'll be receiving. But your happiness and job satisfaction over the years will hinge on whether you’ve been comfortable in your employer’s culture. Comfort makes you more productive, and productivity always lies behind success, no matter the career. That’s why considering culture, a company’s living and breathing personality, is so critical when you’re looking for a job.

Defining Culture

Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.

Culture is a group phenomenon. It cannot exist solely within a single person, nor is it simply the average of individual characteristics. It resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is most commonly experienced through the norms and expectations of a group—that is, the unwritten rules.

Culture permeates multiple levels and applies very broadly in an organization; sometimes it is even conflated with the organization itself. It is manifest in collective behaviors, physical environments, group rituals, visible symbols, stories, and legends. Other aspects of culture are unseen, such as mindsets, motivations and unspoken assumptions.

Find The Right Fit For You

When you first begin your job-search and begin to interview, you might be tempted to accept the first offer from an organization that will hire you. But it would be a mistake to ignore the culture of the organization!

You might be a Type A workaholic; your new employer a laid back, quiet place that locks up its doors at exactly fifteen minutes past 5:00 p.m. If you are used to working late into the night, you can see where there would be a problem. Don't find yourself in that situation. Don't be so quick to accept a job offer. Getting an offer is a great thing, but for your long-term success, you need to at least consider culture fit.

If you’re an early-career job seeker, you may not quite know what sort of culture you’re looking for yet. But it will start to become clear as you go to interviews and listen to your gut feelings about whether you feel comfortable there.

In the meantime, you can ask your networking contacts about their views on the subject. Everyone has different priorities and preferences, of course. Some people will tell you they made their job decision based on the pace of the work or the company’s attitudes about work-life balance. Others may tell you about more unusual considerations. For my friend, a hedge-fund manager for a large investment company, the fresh juice bar in the employee lounge, and the culture of managers using that resource to build morale and have fun, helped make it a good fit. But regardless of the specifics, most, if not all, of the successful people you talk to will agree that culture is a crucial factor for any job seeker to consider.

Culture Indicators

So, how do you find out about a company’s culture before you work there? Sometimes a company’s advertising will aim to communicate something about its personality. But be careful of putting too much stock in these branding campaigns. They’re nowhere near as reliable a barometer of culture as your own intuition on interview day.

Notice people, not the ones you are interviewing with, but others you see in hallways and work-spaces. Do they seem happy? How much stress do you see in their faces? How are they dressed? Office space says something about the culture. Do people have pictures and personal items on display at their work-station or desk, or is the scene stark and cold? What are the facilities like? Is there an employee workout room or a really nice break area? What about other resources that are important to you? You can learn a lot from the company break room. Are there notices about the company softball team, a bowling league, yoga classes, or other activities that appeal to you? Does the company have family-friendly policies, such as in-house day care and good maternity and paternal leave (sometimes called family leave)? Does anyone even talk about subjects like these?

Some companies offer perks such as snack bars and gym memberships, which seem great—but can come with tradeoffs. Is the employer using these benefits as incentives to keep workers on the job from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.?

There aren’t strictly “good” cultures or “bad” cultures. It’s all about what works for you. Companies with a range of personalities can be equally successful. At one company I know well it seems to be “casual day” every day, and people meet in nooks and crannies off hallways or in the large, open library. Another company has a formal, buttoned-up look, with meetings held only in swanky executive offices. It’s like the difference between Birkenstock sandals and a Brooks Brothers suit. Each company is great at what they do. But depending on your personality, you’d probably be more comfortable at one or the other. The crucial thing is to figure out what your prospective employer’s culture is and consider whether it will be a good fit for you. Never ignore visible signs that you may not be happy there.

Remember, if you find an employer with a culture that you can fit into, its a great thing. Don't delude yourself into thinking that you can overcome the obstacles posted by some glaring culture issue. If it smells funny and it looks funny, try to avoid stepping in it.

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