Pushing past the ‘sugar coating’ to determine a company’s true culture

Office Safari

You are so fantastic that everybody wants you! Now it’s time to be a bit selective – do you really want to work for them, yes it may be your dream role, but is the culture right for you? After all, it’s imperative to know whether they will appreciate your encouragement of staff to take up the next desk safari challenge.

On a more serious note, it can be hard to determine what a company culture is like, and culture can make or break a job as well as influencing your confidence and drive. When interviewing, your potential new employer (like you), they will put on their best game face. This means that you often won’t get a true sense of the culture in the workplace.

So how can you judge the culture of a potential employer and whether they like office pranks and desk safari challenges before signing on the dotted line? Workplace culture is extremely important to me as I’ve worked for the brilliant, the good, and the ugly – the difference it’s made to my performance and enjoyment is huge. So along the way I’ve devised the following strategies and questioning to help gain an insight into what a company’s culture is like:

  1. Look up company review websites, which feature reviews and ratings by current and former employees. One company review website, which is growing in popularity in New Zealand is Glassdoor.
  2. Check out the company’s social media accounts (and if you can current employees). Look out for what’s going on, if they have fun and if there are any an indicators of what it’s like to work at the company. Several years ago when interviewing for a contract, I noticed the director’s PA had tweeted saying “Ops I just spilt my coffee all over my boss #fail”. I slid this into a conversation in my interview, which to my luck generated a great conversation that not only gave me an insight into how she reacts to situations but also taught me how she interacted with colleagues and those she managed.
  3. Is there a social hierarchy? Find out whether the CEO and managers socialise, meet and connect with people outside of their team. Do they treat staff as an equal regardless of age, position or title?
  4. Ask to meet some of the team members/employees (especially if you are going to be managing a person or team). If the company wants to ensure you are the right fit for the team, they should welcome this request or already have it as part of their recruiting process. Ideally, when you meet it will be in a relaxed environment over a coffee or drink. You are more likely to receive an honest response from team members rather than those who are interviewing you, so it is worthwhile. At my current workplace, we have a peer review process, which involves the potential new employee going out for a casual drink with three or four of us (employees). Not only does that mean that we get to assess if they are right for us and our culture, but whether they see themselves fitting in.
  5. Ask in your interview what the company culture is like. I always ask this question and when I do, I am looking for two things in their answer. First, I want to know how employees work together and support each other. Next, I want to know if employees are sociable and if the company puts some effort into bringing everyone together as a team. Of course, it is unlikely that they will say something negative, however if they answer enthusiastically and spend a decent amount of time describing the culture, it’s likely they like the culture themselves. For bonus points, you could also consider asking, “why did the last couple of people leave?”
  6. Ask your interviewer what do they personally like about the culture, as well as what it’s like compared to the last place they worked at. This will give you a baseline to help understand their view on the company’s culture.
  7. What happens when someone makes a mistake? Are individuals able to learn from their mistakes or are they crucified the first time they make one or something goes wrong? We’re all human after all and things don’t always go to plan.
  8. What is the busiest time of the year or quarter? This will let you know whether they are always busy and perhaps overworked. Take note whether people work together at these busy times and if they are collaborative.
  9. Look out for humour and laughter. When you arrive at the office and while in the interview look out for laughter and humour.
  10. The good and bad statements staff make. Ask what is the most common “great” statement said by staff about the company, and on the flip side, what is the worst complaint heard regularly in the office? Amusingly the most common complaint I’ve heard at my workplace is that one certain colleague keeps leaving half a banana in the fruit bowl!

Finally remember here in NZ we pretty much live in the land of two degrees of separation so do ask your network if they know what the culture is like. There is always a good chance someone will know of someone who can give you their thoughts (although make sure you gain an insight into the context of their opinion to measure its worth).

I’d love to hear your thoughts on your best method of determining the culture of a potential employer?


This blog post was originally posted on the Potentia blog.