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We were at the Stanford at the same time, although two graduating class years apart. I just happened to read your very thoughtful -- and right-on-the-money -- letter in the January/February Issue of Stanford magazine. I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn."
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Assessing Company Culture

From Career Tips, 2017 Volume 6, June

"Bruce" called me up partway into his first day on the job: "I have to quit."

What was the problem?

Bruce was a superb relationship-builder. The role was accounts manager. Bruce would be responsible for maintaining and building large accounts. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?

Bruce had a friend at the company. In his excitement about being offered a job (and ending his search), he failed to dig into the detailed expectations of the job and how the company operated - their culture. He made assumptions based on the job title.

As a result, he found himself stuck in a cubicle staring at a computer screen all day (he was a bit of a technophobe) working on account financials. There was to be very little direct people contact with the accounts - a woeful mismatch to his talents and passions.

A deep discussion of the expectations of the job could have quickly revealed the mismatch. But how do you explore company culture to establish a fit?

Many people use the glassdoor website
or similar sites to look at the reviews people have posted. This can be a great first step, especially for larger or more well-known companies with a lot of reviews.

When there are few reviews, though, you need to take what you read with a huge grain of salt. There is a tendency for people with an axe to grind to be more likely to post something, and to be more detailed in their reviews. Thus you should generally only take what you read there as a starting point, giving you guidance as to areas to investigate further.

You can get good insights into the culture by talking to people at the company. But unless you already have networking contacts there, how do you get to talk to anyone in the first place, other than when you are on the interview? And when it's an interview setting, how do you know you are getting the straight scoop? Won't they feel constrained not to say negative things about the place where they work?

Here's an idea: Do a search on LinkedIn for people who used to work at your target.

This has two primary advantages:
  1. They may be more likely to connect with you and talk to you, vs. someone already working there. You aren't just a stranger saying, "I'm interviewing at your company, can I chat with you?", which might feel a bit awkward to them. Your approach is more along the lines of "I'm exploring opportunities at a place you used to work, and wondered if you would have 10 minutes to give me your perspectives on them."

  2. They will feel less constrained in what they say. Naturally, one of the questions you will want to ask is what led them to make a move. If they left other than for a great new opportunity, then you may want to take any negativity with a grain of salt. But since you can ask them direct questions (vs. just reading a pre-posted review on glassdoor), you have the chance to better establish the relevance of their perspective to your situation.
Of course, you can (and should) explore the culture during your series of interviews. An open-ended question like probably isn't going to give you a great deal of actionable Intel - this will tend to elicit the party line, and whatever is shown on the corporate mission statement. And we've all seen how often that company mission doesn't really translate well to the front lines.

So here are some questions you could ask to get a better look at the culture, and how it would affect you on the job:

  • What does the typical day look like here?
  • How does the company / operation typically manage peaks and valleys in the workload?
  • Are there many opportunities to get involved in activities or teams outside of your normal day-to-day work duties?
  • What brought you to this company?
  • What do you like best about your job? Your operation? The company?
  • If there were one thing you could change about your job / your operation / the company, what would that be?

    Finally, a friend who ran a staffing agency used to advocate that you visit the company a few times outside of the interview:

  • Go first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon and note how full the parking lot is.
  • Sit outside at noon and see how people look as they leave the building for lunch.
  • Does it seem like a large portion of the workforce actually goes out at lunch, even if just for a walk, vs. sitting and eating at their desk?
  • Observe how people are acting. Are they excited to go to work? Do they leave happy, or like the walking dead?

    Drop me a line with your own additions to how to evaluate company culture, at John@JHACareers.com.


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