by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Why should job-seekers care about a potential employer's corporate culture? Aren't there more important factors to consider, such as the job itself, salary and bonuses, and fringe benefits? These factors are indeed important, but increasingly career experts are talking about the importance of employee-employer fit in terms of culture, with the idea that how well the employee "fits" the culture can make the difference between job-search success and failure.
What is corporate culture? At its most basic, it's described as the personality of an organization, or simply as "how things are done around here." It guides how employees think, act, and feel. Corporate culture is a broad term used to define the unique personality or character of a particular company or organization, and includes such elements as core values and beliefs, corporate ethics, and rules of behavior.
Corporate culture can be expressed in the company's mission statement and other communications, in the architectural style or interior decor of offices, by what people wear to work, by how people address each other, and in the titles given to various employees.
How does a company's culture affect you? In many, many ways. For instance:
- The hours you work per day, per week, including options such as flextime and telecommuting.
- The work environment, including how employees interact, the degree of competition, and whether it's a fun or hostile environment -- or something in between.
- The dress code, including the accepted styles of attire and things such as casual days.
- The office space you get, including things such as cubicles, window offices, and rules regarding display of personal items.
- The training and skills development you receive, which you need both on the job and to keep yourself marketable for future jobs and employers.
- Onsite perks, such as break rooms, gyms and play rooms, daycare facilities, and more.
- The amount of time outside the office you're expected to spend with co-workers.
- Interaction with other employees, including managers and top management.
How do you uncover the corporate culture of a potential employer? The truth is that you will never really know the corporate culture until you have worked at the company for a number of months, but you can get close to it through research and observation. Understanding culture is a two-step process, starting with research before the interview and ending with observation at the interview.
Before the Interview
Before you've even been invited for an interview, you might consider doing an informational interview with the company. Informational interviewing is a great research and networking tool. Read more about this tool in our Informational Interviewing Tutorial.
Once you've been invited for an interview, while you are researching the company for the interview, spend some time searching for clues about the company's culture. Review the company's annual report, Website, and other materials. Some companies even discuss their corporate culture on their Website -- and we list a few of them at the end of this article.
Other Websites, such as WetFeet.com, provide key information and feedback from company employees. WetFeet offers "expanded coverage" for certain companies, which describes the company's culture and lifestyle. Find other sources of company research in our Guide to Researching Companies.
At the Interview
Experts suggest arriving early to the interview -- unannounced if possible -- and spend the time observing how current employees interact with each other, how they are dressed, and their level of courtesy and professionalism.
During the interview, you should consider asking one or more of these questions to get a feel for the corporate culture -- as well as gain key information you'll need to make a decision if a job offer is made to you:
- How are decisions made - and how are those decisions communicated to the staff?
- What role does the person who gets this position play in decision-making?
- Does the organization emphasize working in teams?
- What are the organization's priorities for the next few years?
- Are there established career paths for employees in this position?
If you get a chance to meet with other employees (or make your own chances by finding out where they hang out), you can ask one or more of these questions to try and get a handle on an organization's corporate culture:
- What 10 words would you use to describe your company?
- What's it really like to work here? Do you like it here?
- Around here what's is really important?
- How are employees valued around here?
- What skills and characteristics does the company value?
- Do you feel as though you know what is expected of you?
- How do people from different departments interact?
- Are there opportunities for further training and education?
- How do people get promoted around here?
- Around here what behaviors get rewarded?
- Do you feel as though you know what's going on?
- How effectively does the company communicate to its employees?
Final Thoughts on Corporate Culture
The bottom line is that you are going to spend a lot of time in the work environment -- and to be happy, successful, and productive, you'll want to be in a place where you fit the culture. A place where you can have a voice, be respected, and have opportunities for growth.
Examples of Company Statements about Corporate Culture
- Southwest Airlines, a major airline company.
- Microsoft, a technology and software development company.
- Synaptics, a worldwide developer of custom-designed user interface solutions.
- Coca-Cola, Inc., one of the world's leading beverage companies.
- General Electric, a global infrastructure, finance, and media company.
- W.L. Gore & Associates, a fluoropolymer technology company.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.