10 Ways That Job Applicants Can Read Company Culture

Following are ten (or more) ways you can assess your potential future employer to see if the company is a good fit for you. Before you start thinking about what job you want or where you want to start looking, you need to get really clear on the type of experience you’re aiming to have in your next position. It will do you no good to dig into understanding a company’s culture if you aren’t clear on what type of culture is a good fit for you.

If you’re not looking for a job, you can reverse engineer these steps to make sure your organization is delivering on the culture promise during your interviewing.

Even organizations with famed cultures (Disney, Apple, Google, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Wegmans) have very different cultures — some are fun and irreverent, others are more conservative, some are focused on doing big world-changing things, and others are aimed at delivering amazing customer experiences.

To get started on your vision:

  1. Grab some paper and something to write with.
  2. Imagine yourself two years from now and write that date on the top of the paper.
  3. Think about that date and write down a few bullet points about what you’d like to be able to say you’ve accomplished or done by that date.
    This can even be the type of work you’re doing, the type of people you’re working with, or the kinds of things you’re producing. Give yourself about eight to ten things on your list that you’d be happy with if you could make them happen by that date.
  4. Now imagine you took a time machine to that future date and were watching a day in your future life.
    Start writing about what you see in your future on that date. Really describe the environment, the people you work with, and the style of work. Are you in lots of meetings making decisions as a group? Are you working alone to produce deep, concentrated projects? Are you talking to clients and customers each day? Are you managing others? What’s that look like? How do you do it? How are you being managed? What’s your relationship like with your manager? Spend about 20 minutes just writing down everything you “see” in that future vision of success.
  5. Take a day or two away from the vision before coming back to clean it up and add any more details that help to further define what you want to create for yourself.
    Start to think about what kinds of things you would need to see in a workplace to know that it would help you create that life for yourself. What type of office? What types of projects? What type of leadership? You’ll want to have this information to start to review the kinds of cultures you want to seek out.

Sometimes you have to do something now to be able to get where you want to go later. Having a better idea about what you’re really looking for is useful as you look at options. If you’re going to make concessions about taking a less-than-perfect job, then at least you’ll be clear on that from the start instead of being surprised later that you’re unhappy. There will be a long list of things that matter as you look for a new position: the leadership, the impact the organization makes, the location of the office, the money and compensation, the knowledge and experience you’ll gain, and the overall cache of the brand you are joining. Each person prioritizes that list differently based on his or her goals, career vision, and current status in life. It’s important to do this before you start looking for the job so you can focus on the things that matter most to you.

Once you have a clear vision in place, you can connect the following 10 ideas to turn that vision into your next job.

Researching Online

Before the mid-2000s, employer branding was mostly about company websites, glossy stock photos, and benefits brochures. Like consumer brands before it, the employer brand was completely controlled by the employer. If you wanted people to think you were kind and philanthropic, you’d share images of your team volunteering while highlighting all the groups you support. If you wanted to boost your brand as a creative place to work, you’d use bright images and teams working in “open spaces.”

Then social media and review sites shifted things (just like they did with consumer branding). The media was now controlled by the people, and the organization’s job was simply to produce the kinds of experiences that got people talking. With sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google reviews, employees took over the wheel of building (and sometimes destroying) employer brands.

As a job applicant, using the online resources can help you understand what a company is like beyond the happy stock photos and lists of perks. Once you’ve gotten clear on the type of culture you want, examine past and present employee reviews on these sites, specifically for:

  • Themes and patterns: What themes and patterns do you notice? Do things seem to be getting better or worse? As you read the reviews, do you see people frequently listing the same types of pros and cons? Do you notice trends within certain departments or even certain managers?
  • Words and phrases: Are there specific words and phrases that stand out? Do the reviews mention the kinds of things that matter most to you like training, development, or certain kinds of perks? If you have moved to a new city and are looking for a company culture where you might make friends, do you see people making comments about the team fostering that type of thing? All of this will impact your experience as an employee and should be involved in your consideration.
  • Inclusivity: Does the company seem to promote an inclusive place where new ideas and new people are welcome or does it sound like everyone has a similar background/experience?
  • Team: Does it look like employees work there for awhile or does it look like people leave quickly after starting? This could mean that there are culture issues for new hires and you’ll want to dive deeper in your interviews to learn more. Does it look like people have had great career opportunities and promotions within the company?

Compare these reviews to information you see on the company website. Does it look and sound like the same place? Or does the company’s website seem like an entirely different experience? You will start to get a more holistic view of the company culture when you compare all this information together. Use this to start to form your own opinions. If you are early in the interview process, use this information to help focus some of the questions you ask during the interview. You might want to ask about career development in more detail if you see lots of online comments about career stagnation or even rapid professional growth.

Recruiting Responses

You’ve been there. The job posting promises a great place to work — an environment full of respect, positive relationships, and strong collaboration. As you read about the culture and the commitment to employee success, you start to think, “Wow, is this place real?” Then you submit your resume or fill out the 125 questions that the application system requires, and then you wait. Sometimes you get an automated response from a recruiting robot; other times, you get nothing. Was your submission successful? Did it disappear into a pile of craftily wordsmithed documents? Is anyone out there? Hello?!?

The response you get during the recruiting process can give you a clue into the company’s culture. The more time and energy an organization puts into designing a positive applicant experience, the more likely that company is to have a positive employee experience. If the application process feels more like a cattle call, then make sure you investigate deeper if you do end up in an interview.

Here are some ideas:

  • Did you receive a response from your submission? Was it personalized? Was it written in the same voice as the rest of the company’s career page/job posting?
  • Was the job posting clear and specific, like the company really understands what it wants and what success looks like? Or was it a copy-and-paste of every other posting of the same job title?
  • When you spoke to someone on the phone, was the person friendly? Excited to talk to you? Curious about what you were looking to do next in your career?
  • Did the scheduled phone screens and interview calls start and end on time?
  • Were you able to speak to the manager you’d be reporting to on the phone? Did that person seem invested in finding a great new employee?

Once you’ve thought about the answers to these questions, start to think about what that tells you about the culture of the company. What do they value? How do they treat people? Are those things in line with your desired work culture?

Marking First Impressions

Congrats! You’ve made it to an in-person interview. You’ll be visiting the office and meeting some of the employees. For a lot of job applicants, this stage causes anxiety and nervousness, which makes them focus on their own energy — sometimes so much that they miss some valuable feedback.

When you arrive for your interview, start to look around to see what you can learn. You can often tell a lot about a culture by watching how people interact and how the office is designed. Culture is something you can feel. Make sure to give yourself enough time that you can observe for a few minutes before your interview starts. Look for some of the following:

  • Were the instructions easy to follow to get to the office?
  • Were you greeted and welcomed by someone who seemed happy to see you?
  • Do the people in the office look excited and active? Are they laughing and talking to each other? Is it more conservative and quiet? Neither of those is better than the other, but one of them is probably a better fit for you.
  • Do you see people collaborating? Are they working alone? Again, neither is better, but one is probably better for you.
  • Can you tell that the company has invested in the building? Is the office cozy and warm? Modern and sleek? Trendy and hip? Conservative and clean? Again, none of these is better than the other, but they do contribute to a totally different type of culture. So be clear about where you want to be and where you can do your best work.

Use the observations to start to paint a picture of the company culture. Can you see yourself thriving there? Do you think it’s the kind of place that you’d enjoy contributing to each day?

Noting Interview Questions

An effective interview should be focused on learning more about each other — the company learning about you and you learning more about the company (and your future boss). The questions and style of interview should create the opportunity to do exactly that. If you notice that lots of the questions are aggressive in tone or accusatory, then maybe that environment and that style of communication aren’t right for you. If the questions are all over the place and unrelated to work, then maybe the position isn’t as clearly defined as you want — or maybe you’re okay with that. Either way, pay attention to the interview questions and style. They can be indicative of how things may play out later.

Finding the Right Time and Place

Here’s the deal: People take jobs for all types of reasons. Maybe it’s the chance to work on a specific type of product. Or perhaps they’re following a specific leader they really want to work with (or liked working with in the past). Maybe they’re working through some things personally and need a place to lie low for a while, so they take a job that’s less demanding. Or perhaps the job has some great benefits that can help them finish college with their employer’s help. All those are perfectly fine reasons to take a job. You’re always looking to improve your status in life, and this doesn’t always mean you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder. Improving your status in life isn’t necessarily about improving some materialistic part of your life — it is about taking stock of your current needs and then making choices that serve your current situation best. You have a big life, with lots of moving parts, and, at different times, your career will take more or less of the spotlight.

Make sure you have a clear career vision so you know what you’re trying to do next and what you need from your employer to get there. Find a job and an employer that gets that. Using the career vision you crafted, use the following questions to start to match companies with your career vision to make the best choice for you:

  • Is having programs for people just starting their professional careers important to you?
  • Is working on lots of different types of projects in line with your current desire to build some projects into your resume?
  • Are you interested in moving into leadership roles? Dig deeper into how the company prepares people to take those roles and if it has a commitment to promoting from within. You can seek out examples of both.

Investigating the Manager Relationship

During the interview process, you’ll likely get to spend time with the person who will be managing you (often called the “hiring manager” in corporate recruiting speak). Take this time to really explore how working together will be. When you talk to disengaged and unhappy employees, the root cause often comes down to their relationship with their manager. Find out how the manager likes to communicate. Dig deeper into the size of the team you’ll be on and how that group is managed. Are there team meetings? What is discussed? How are decisions made?

Learn more about what your manager is looking for from you. What would make this hire a win for the person? What type of employee does the manager most enjoy supervising? How are one-on-ones and professional development conversations handled? How does the manager deliver feedback?

Talking to Other Employees

You really can’t get a better view into a company’s culture than by spending a little time with other employees. You can also get a snapshot of this by watching people interact when you’re onsite for your interview. But nothing beats being able to chat directly with a few people who currently work there.

Ask the recruiter (or hiring manager) if you can talk to other people at the company during your onsite interview. But don’t waste your question with, “How is the culture around here?” People will often just fill the space with niceties that don’t help you learn more.

Instead, try to dig deeper into the areas that matter most to you. Ask for specific examples they’ve seen or been part of, such as:

  • What type of development experiences have they had?
  • How often does the team hang out together? Was it easy to make friends?
  • What types of assignments and projects are they working on?
  • When was the last time something didn’t turn out as expected, and what happened?

Learning about Career Growth

If you’re looking for opportunities for promotion, professional growth, or gaining new skills, then be specific in seeking that information. It’s pretty common these days for career websites and job postings to talk about potential and growth opportunities, so use that as your chance to get more details.

Here are some ideas for gaining insight into what potential there is for growth:

  • Instead of “Is there room for career advancement?” ask “Can you give me an example of someone who started here within the last year and how that person’s career trajectory has been?”
  • Instead of “What does the career path look like for someone in this role?” ask “Can you tell me about someone who accepted this role in the last year or two and what that person is doing in the organization today?”
  • Instead of accepting the job description at face value, ask “What does success look like in 6 or 12 months from now if I accept this position? How would you measure whether it was a good decision to hire me?”

Talking about Teamwork

You’ll be spending your day working with other people in some capacity (most likely). Take some time to learn more about how that happens at the company with which you’re interviewing. You want to find out how teams work, how they collaborate, how they’re assigned, and what you should expect from being part of the team. All of these things point to the culture of an organization and should start to shape your ideas around how working here will feel for you. Culture is about the condition inside the organization. It’s about the way things are handled and how it feels to be part of the team. This is your chance to uncover more about those critical areas. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do people often work alone? Or is everything brought to a group level conversation?
  • Are decisions made by consensus? By consultation? By directive?
  • Tell me a little about how the team works together. Do you have any examples from the team I’d be joining of working with people in other departments to get something done?

Uncovering Potential Challenges

Making a decision requires that you understand both the potential upside and downside of a role so you aren’t surprised later. You can do this by conducting your own reference check on the company and your potential boss. Ask specific questions during the interview process and meet with current employees. The more you can uncover about a company, its culture, and how it deals with trying times before accepting a position, the better chance you have of finding the job that fits you. Find out what challenges may occur and how they’re handled by asking:

  • When current employees come up against challenging roadblocks in this role, what are those typically? How do they resolve them?
  • What would you expect to be the biggest challenge I will experience in the next 90 days, 6 months, or 12 months in this role?
  • What kinds of roadblocks/frustrations have people in this role experienced? How did they overcome them?