Understanding an Organization’s Culture Before You Take the Job
A few months ago, in New York City, I hosted an interview with Mollie West Duffy — the co-author of No Hard Feelings: Embracing Emotions at Work when an audience member asked Mollie this question (I’m paraphrasing):
How do you know during the hiring process if the job you are interviewing for has the right workplace culture for you?
Mollie shared her thoughts then punted the question over to me to share my insights as well — I totally stumbled over what to say. Interestingly, like the woman asking the question, I too was in the process of interviewing for new jobs and realized I hadn’t thought about “culture” as part of the hiring process. After, what felt like, totally bombing the answer, the question sat with me for weeks. During this time, I was determined to ask questions and make observations about what demonstrates a company or team’s culture before starting a new gig.
Since the talk with Mollie in March, I’ve applied to over 25 open positions, have had over 50 formal interviews, have had 4 case studies, and countless coffee chats and introductory referrals that I didn’t even bother to count. In an effort to redeem myself, I will share with you all of the questions, observations and lessons I’ve learned to anyone interviewing or hiring for a new position and tips for anyone looking to understand an organization’s culture before taking the job.
What is workplace culture anyway?
Workplace culture is made up of the shared belief systems and assumptions that people value across an organization. The people who make up an organization — their roles, backgrounds, upbringing, and personal identities — also influence an organization’s culture. In the workplace, the biggest influencers of culture are leaders and an organization’s strategic objectives.
I believe how leaders lead, develop, and direct teams is the greatest influencer of an organization’s culture and a clearly defined strategy can create a positive workplace culture where individuals thrive and find a sense of belonging. Despite the jobs that we do or the roles we hold (or titles), culture is the most important aspect to our daily jobs. When the work is hard or stressful, or we’re just having a bad day, the culture of an organization can be what we lean on to break through those challenges. When times are great or celebratory, we can lean on culture to be the fire that ignites creativity to persevere and continue beyond our momentus achievements.
Culture is the difference between bringing your whole self to work — your creativity, secret sauce, and uniqueness— and making work a transaction for doing exactly what is expected of you in exchange for a paycheck.
Each organization’s culture will be unique. So what’s the right culture for you? What will bring you a sense of belonging? It will depend on what is important to you. Whatever culture you are aiming to find, be sure that it is something you are excited about. After all, we spend nearly 1/3 of our day, over 2000 hours a year, and roughly 35 years of our life at work. Make it count!
Determine what is important to you
As you start looking for a new job, write down a list of things that are critical that you expect to exist inside of your next organization.
Ask yourself: What about my everyday life are important for me in my work life? Was there anything missing at my last organization that I desperately need at my next? What values do I hold that are important to me personally that I hope my teammates hold as well? Here is the list that I wrote for myself (in no particular order):
A development processor mentorship program — someone to push me beyond my comfort zone
Women in leadershipor a clear path to improve women in leadership roles
A program or strategic objective dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and equityand an explanation of the organization’s journey so far
The autonomyto experiment and try something new, even if it fails, without the fear of losing my job or title
The ability to speak up, be direct, share feedback, discuss problems, and find solutions with peers andleadership (culture nerds would call this psychological safety)
An organization that understands and leans into the rich creativity that comes with disagreement and conflict
General respect for downtime, time off, and sick time.
Please note: This is a list of things that are important to me and where I am in my life and career. There are a ton of things that might be missing that are important to you including benefits for time off, parental leave, work from home days etc. Make a list that is important to you.
Deal breakers and nuances
Determine which, above all else, are your total deal breakers. In other words, of the things listed, if they didn’t exist, would make your decision to work inside of the organization a hard “no.”
Next, determine if there are any other versions that would work for you if they don’t neatly fit your vision. For instance, one deal breaker for me is not having a strategic objective dedicated to diversity, inclusion and equity. If an organization is on the journey to defining the strategy, or has a clear grasp of what type of program they are looking to develop, I’m totally ok with that. It tells me the values and mindset of embracing differences is considered a feature, even if it’s not fully baked just yet.
Every organization will have a unique way of holding these values as part of their culture and each culture will have a different way of bringing values to life that might not fit perfectly on your list. Remain open to quirky and unique experiences in culture that you didn’t consider!
Make smart observations
You’ve been told all of your adulthood that you must be prepared to ask smart questions during your interviews in order to show interest in the job, role and company. This is the time to not just ask smart questions to show that you’re smart — the hiring manager already knows that because you’ve got the interview — it is the time to really dig into asking the questions that you truly want answers to.
Take a look at your list of wants and generate as many questions as you can. During your interviews and in preparation, take notice of all of the things that are happening that aren’t being explicitly said to you and be bold to frame questions around your observations. Below are observations and questions I made along the way and examples that I encourage you to steal.
Take a look at the organization’s website. Are their values listed and written for everyone to see? If they are (or if they aren’t) here are some questions you can ask.
What values does the organization hold? Can you name them? Does everyone know these values? What values do you see lived most frequently? What values does leadership demonstrate most often? Can you give me an example of how some of your values show up in everyday work life?
Notice your interactions with the hiring or talent manager thoughout the interview process. For instance, one company that I was interviewing with would often send emails late at night, post 11pm, to schedule an interview for the next day orwould send emails over the weekend to confirm scheduling. To me, this was a sign of long hours and grueling expectations. For myself, I tend to draw a hard line at weekends and post 8pm emails especiallyfor someone I’m not working for yet! I do understand that sometimes life gets hectic and sending late emails might happen from time to time, here are some questions to ask to determine the work balance norms:
What are the typical working hours for this role? Do people in this role often work late nights or over the weekends? What are the expectations of leadership in this role? Is there anyone in this role currently that I can speak to in order to learn more about their day-to-day experience?
Observation: Diversity + Inclusion
Thanks to technology, a lot of interviews are conducted via video conferencing where it makes it easier for you and the organization to get the interview process going without having to travel; and unlike the phone, you can see your interviewer or future teammates faces!
Use this time to make observations about the surroundings and interactions. If diversity is important, take notice of the people who are interviewing you from interview 1 to interview X (depending on how many the process takes). Are you meeting people of different races, genders, educational backgrounds, cultures, etc? Are the people you meeting only senior (are more junior roles less valued as part of the interview process)? Are the senior interviewers all men? Some questions to consider:
I noticed a lot of the those in leadership are men, are there any plans to elevate more women into leadership positions; if so, what is that plan look like in the next 2–5 years? I noticed that I haven’t spoken to any people of color as part of the interview process, does the organization value people of different backgrounds, cultural, or educational experiences? Can you speak to your overall approach to inclusion and where the organization is on its journey to being more inclusive? Can you share any examples of how inclusion shows up at your organization?
Ask lots of questions, especially if you’re not sure
If you’re not sure, continue to ask questions to get the answers you need. If you’ve run out of time in the interview, ask for the interviewer’s email and follow up. In a lot of these examples, I purposely tried to make the questions open ended as to not lead the interviewer into giving the me the answer that I wanted to hear:
Development: How would you describe the professional development process at the org? Is it formal program or a more flexible “choose your own adventure” structure or is it something else completely?
Breaks:What is the organization’s time off, vacation, and sick policies? Are there times when people are expected to respond to emails or meeting requests during their time off? In what cases does this happen?
Communication: How are leadership decisions made and communicated? Can you give me an example of when leadership made a tough decision and communicated that effectively to the organization?
Feedback and Psychological Safety: Tell me about your culture of giving and receiving feedback? How does the company embrace and handle conflict? Can you share any examples?
Quirks: Tell me about some unique quirks at your organization that are special. Can you give me examples of these in the last month or quarter?
After you’ve had your chance to ask your important questions and make critical observations, take a moment to think through all of the data that you’ve capturing both in person, over the phone, throughout the process and anything else you may have experienced during your interaction with the organization.
Consider how you felt after your conversations — did you feel energized and excited or depleted and defeated? Were you able to showcase your strengths, creativity, and thought processes or did you feel like you were being tested to have the rightanswers that fit specific expectations?
There are no right answers, however, try to set aside that “gut instinct” as your go-to guide. Trust all of the data, the observations you’d made, and the list of important cultural features to be your guide to making a decision to move forward in the interview process or take the offer into a the right workplace culture for you.