Company Culture: How to Learn the Truth Before You Say “Yes”

company culture

These days, most professionals are familiar with the idea of cultural “fit.

”It’s the intangible part of job search and hiring—and often, it’s the most important part as well. Broadly speaking, “fit” is when the employee and the organization have value systems that align. Their core beliefs and behaviors are in sync. “Fit” is what makes an employee feel right at home within their company culture. They are surrounded by people, systems and environments that support their preferred way of living and working.

While interviewers want to understand your experience, skills and qualifications, they are simultaneously trying to assess fit. Likewise, job seekers should be doing the same. But, of course, it’s hard to gauge something so intangible.

If you’re looking to better understand the culture of an organization and how well it “fits” with who you are, here are some strategies to consider.

Define your preferences first.

You can’t assess the cultural match if you don’t first have a clear idea of the culture you’re looking for.

If you don’t know this before you start your search, you may find yourself easily swayed by empty promises and slick platitudes. However, when your ideal culture is well-defined, you’ll be more discerning. You’ll be better positioned to see past the bluster and identify which companies are truly aligned versus which are just blowing smoke.

If you’re not sure where to start in the process, ask yourself questions like this:

  • What kind of working environment do I thrive in?
  • What kind of people do I like being around in the workplace?
  • What principles are most important to me in my work?

Consider your past experiences, both good and bad, and be sure to capture your ideas on paper to help make them more concrete.

Also read: 6 Ways to Research a Company You Want to Work For

Do your research.

Once you’ve established your cultural ideal, it’s time to research organizations that might be a fit.

Start with the company website to get a general idea of how they position themselves publicly. Read the company mission statement and core values if available. Many company websites also include information about what it’s like to work there in the “Careers” section. But remember: This is a marketing tool. It’s not necessarily going to give you an accurate view.

To get a different perspective, jump over to and read what the anonymous insiders (and former insiders) have to say. Again, take online reviews with a grain of salt. People tend to be most motivated to share their opinions when they’ve had a negative experience. Still, these reviews provide helpful insight. Look for clear patterns and repeated themes.

Even more useful is to speak directly with someone in your network who currently works (or used to work) at the organization you’re researching. Ask them what it’s like. Depending on the relationship you have, you may get the complete unvarnished truth (from their perspective, of course) or you may get a slightly watered down version. Either way, you’re hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Ask specific questions.

In your interviews, ask questions related to specific aspects of culture that are important to you.

Avoid asking vague questions like, “What is your culture here?” This is far too broad and does little to show that you know what you’re looking for. It also allows the person answering the question to wander in any direction they choose, sharing details that are important to them, rather than the ones you care about most.

Look at your list of cultural wants and craft questions that relate directly to them. For example:

  • If it’s important to you to work with a group that engages in social functions after work together, ask, “When was the last time the team got together outside of the office?”
  • If it’s important to you that achievements are celebrated in a certain way, ask, “How was your last achievement celebrated?”
  • If it’s important to you that company changes are managed well, ask, “Can you tell me about a recent company change and how it was rolled out?”

Keep in mind that some organizations—especially large ones—may have “sub-cultures” in various departments. Therefore, these questions are best posed to the people who are closest to the group you will be working with. The initial phone screener, for example, probably won’t have the same level of insight as the hiring manager. 

Also read: Everything You Need to Know About Informational Interviews: The Basics (Part 1)

Monitor vibe.

Finally, company culture can be gauged simply by monitoring the overall feel you get in the environment. Obviously, this would have to take place during an in-person interview.

Don’t discredit your intuition. Often, your body can pick up on important unspoken signals about culture simply by observing the people and the general atmosphere. You can feel tension in the air, just as you can feel positive energy. You can see if people actually look happy and engaged, or if they look bored and unchallenged.

This is why, as a career coach, I advise my clients not to accept a job without first visiting the worksite. If a prospective employer does not want to show you where you will be working, it’s a red flag.

With a little investigative prowess, you can get a pretty good idea of company culture, even from the outside. It won’t always be a perfectly accurate view, but at least you’ve done your due diligence!

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About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a career coach, corporate trainer and public speaker who believes work can be a nourishing part of the life experience. Her website, Eat Your Career, is devoted to this mission. Chrissy is currently a contributing career expert for U.S. News & World Report and the author of the book, The Proactive Professional: How to Stop Playing Catch Up and Start Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life!), available on Amazon.