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How Job Seekers Can Find the Right Cultural Fit

cultural fit

A Fortune 500 company recently recruited a friend of mine, flying her halfway across the country for a two-day interview spree.

When she returned, she was pretty much ready to pack her bags. She liked everyone she’d met and they’d raved about her skills and experience. Then she got an email from her would-be boss, telling her that they weren’t going to pursue the hire because they felt she wouldn’t fit into their culture.

Huh?

Putting aside the wisdom of sending an email with that explanation (I have to wonder if they would have sent that email to a minority or older candidate rather than a young, white woman), the company was right that corporate culture matters–a lot– to job success and happiness. Hiring managers take it seriously when making decisions.

But too often job seekers don’t take it seriously enough. In their haste to leave a bad situation or end a frustratingly long search, they miss clues. Many job seekers rely too heavily on perks and benefits when evaluating a culture. Free lunches! Rock-climbing outings! Summer Fridays! Or they scroll through reviews on Glassdoor or ask a friend at the company and call it a day.

But the most important step in evaluating workplace culture is often overlooked: defining culture in your own terms. That means considering your own values and how they play out at work. As Roy Disney is credited with saying: “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

Workplace culture is a slippery concept, and that guy you know in sales or your friend in marketing may have entirely different values than you do. If free lunches come with the expectation you’ll work long hours without a break and you prefer controlling your time, they’re not going to make you happy for long. A supportive workplace is great, but if you are motivated by a desire to develop a breakthrough technology and the company doesn’t know how to innovate, you’ll soon move on.

Get clear on your own values and rank them according to their importance to you. When making your list, be specific. If one of your values is social impact, does that mean only working for a company that makes sustainable products or will you consider one that matches employees’ charitable donations or hires from a local training program for disadvantaged women?

And be honest. No one needs to see your list. Don’t get trapped into thinking you should have certain values that you just don’t. You may have been raised to be ambitious but find that you don’t want to manage people or a budget and pass up a promotion. Or your primary goal is to make as much money as you can even if that shortchanges your social life or the company’s products don’t interest you. For this purpose, values aren’t good or bad. They are the aspects of a working culture that you believe will motivate you to do well at your next job—and enjoy it.

Some values that might be on your list:

  • Security
  • Money
  • Prestige
  • Autonomy
  • Integrity
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Social Impact
  • Diversity
  • Influence
  • Learning
  • Risk-Taking

Once you’ve got your list, you can ask targeted questions during interviews that help you assess where the company stands on your key values. If collaboration is important, ask very detailed questions about processes, including approvals and the number of meetings. Worried about creative freedom? Ask what happens if someone has an idea that fails or how ideas are funneled through the company. Does influence top your list? Make sure the culture will allow your ideas to be heard or encourages you to attend and speak at conferences.

Creating your own definition of culture will give you a new perspective on the hiring process and make it more likely that when you get your next job, you’ll have found your tribe.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.