The Corporate-Culture Conundrum

(Rebecca Amber/U.S. Air Force photo)

Jack Sullivan couldn't have been happier after landing his dream job. The position, salary and perks were exactly what he was looking for. But after the initial euphoria wore off, he discovered that going to work was becoming the same daily grind all over again. Although he couldn't put his finger on exactly what was wrong, he knew one thing for sure: He was not comfortable in his new job.

What Went Wrong?

Jack did not fit with the company's corporate culture, which is no surprise given that a company's culture -- the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that commonly unite its employees -- are often unstated and unwritten.

According to Brandon Spruth, former culture and talent manager for now-defunct, a website that matched users with service providers, the first step toward determining whether you will be a good match for a prospective employer is by figuring out what you want from a company's culture. Do you want a family-friendly company? A social as well as professional outlet? An emphasis on work/life balance?

Know what you want before you go into the interview. Unless you know an employee already working for the company, your interviewer may be your only insider, so ask questions that can provide a window into what working there will really be like. Take note of both the intentional and unintentional information your interviewer gives out in words and actions.

Try popping these questions during your next interview to see what kind of information is revealed about the corporate culture you may be joining.

Does the Company Have a Stated Set of Cultural Values?

Progressive companies are aware of corporate culture's influence and have thought about the values they want to promote in their organizations. If the company has no written cultural values, ask to see the mission statement, which should also provide some insight in this area.

What Does It Take for Someone to Be Successful Here?

What kind of personal characteristics is the interviewer looking for? Risk-taking? Entrepreneurial spirit? A team player?

Take note of the personality traits that are encouraged and rewarded and think about what this says about company culture. Asking this question early in the interview also allows you to incorporate these sought-after characteristics into your answers.

What Kinds of Employee Achievements Are Recognized by the Company?

Again, the answer to this question will reflect what the company values and rewards -- especially if any unusual awards are given outside of the standard sales or customer service awards.

Can You Describe the Environment Here?

Listen to the adjectives the interviewer uses. What aspects of working there do they choose to talk about -- the camaraderie among employees, the career development opportunities or the free breakfast bar?

How Often Are Company Meetings Held?

Are meetings held weekly? Monthly? Yearly? Who attends? What does this say about the priority management gives to keeping its employees informed?

What Kind of Sponsorships or Philanthropic Activities Does the Company Participate in?

Does the company support programs like Take Our Daughters to Work Day and encourage employees to participate in a walk/run for a particular charity, or does it steer clear of these things? Are you comfortable with the activities the company publicly supports?

Also, pay attention to the kinds of questions you are asked. Are the interviewer's questions eliciting responses that reveal your values and expectations? If the company has stated cultural values, do their questions reflect them? Is the employee/employer fit a concern for the interviewer?

Finally, don't leave the company without getting a good look around. A few glances around the office can provide volumes of important information on corporate culture, such as:

The Physical Layout

Are the VPs in cubes like other employees or in lush offices? Are special rooms delineated as "team" rooms for collaborative work or brainstorming? Does the layout promote or discourage interaction between departments?

What's on the Walls?

What does the breakroom or lobby look like? Things like a picture of the company softball team, the sign-up sheet for a college basketball pool or an open invitation to a yoga class all indicate what daily life might be like.

Your Overall Impression of the Place

From the dress code to the door code, can you picture yourself working there? What does your gut say about becoming part of this company?

Although you can survive a bad fit in a company's culture, why endure a mismatch when you could be thriving elsewhere? For many people, work is more than a paycheck; it is where they meet their friends or spouse, spend most of their waking hours and define their personal identity. So make sure it's not just a company where you can work, but a company that works for you.

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