Work culture and job hunting

The thing about a company’s culture is that you can’t tell what it’s like when you’re interviewing. You’ll have to be more creative if you want to learn what a company’s culture is like before you take the job.

Someone asked me if I’d discuss how to find a company with a great culture — particularly during an interview so you don’t get stuck in a place with a bad culture fit. And since I’m on the job hunt again, it’s a good time for me to reflect on this because I also want to find a company with great culture.

So why did I say it’s not possible to do this during an interview? To explain that, I need to define work culture. Then I’ll discuss ways to find out what kind of culture you’re walking into. I’ll wrap up with some ways that companies can do a better job communicating their culture.

What is good work culture?

I should be clearer about what I mean when I say “good culture.” There are lots of useful definitions of work culture like, “what is and isn’t allowed at a company” or “how decisions are rewarded, penalized, or ignored.”

My definition of “good work culture” is:

A company with a good work culture uses a consistent set of values to make decisions and take actions.

“Values” — what are those? Oh yeah, we’re going down this rabbit hole. Here’s my working definition.

A company’s values are the set of beliefs, principles, and priorities that underlie actions and decisions.

In other words, companies make decisions. Those decisions are based on values. Companies that use consistent and predictable values to make those decisions have good culture. Companies that use inconsistent or unpredictable values have bad culture.

Your job satisfaction depends on this work culture. Do your personal values match your company’s values? Can you predict the way others will make decisions based on the company’s values? Based on your answers, I can tell you how happy you are with your job.

Let’s stitch this together with an example. Say you work for some random company. The break room has a poster that lists Your Company’s Values like:

  1. We let employees make decisions independently
  2. We share information openly
  3. We are honest with each other

Now imagine you’re presenting your product’s roadmap to the CEO. She says, “that’s great, but we need to launch [some feature not on your roadmap] this quarter because the board says so. Find a way to get it done.”

I didn’t see “the CEO gets to override your choices” or “the board’s preferences are more important than independent decision making” on that list. But those are the values which was used to make that decision. It makes you feel like shit when someone can clobber your decisions in a way that’s inconsistent with your company’s values. You’re expecting everyone to follow the company’s values, so why does the CEO get an exception? Shouldn’t the CEO be the model for the company’s values?

Another example — let’s say your company has a list of values that includes “work/life balance” but your manager says you need to put in extra hours this weekend because you’re going to miss your ship date. Your company has a bad culture because the unwritten rule “we hit our commitments” overrides the written rule “work/life balance.”

By contrast, this company could have good culture if your boss told you not to work this weekend because work/life balance is more important than hitting your ship date. And obviously you’ll be happier in that company — the company whose written rules match the way they make decisions.

So a company with a good culture is one that makes decisions based on a consistent set of values on a day-to-day basis. Ideally these values are written down and made public so everyone understands how decisions are made. You’ll be happier working at companies like these.

A company with bad culture is one that uses an unpublished or inconsistent set of rules to make decisions. They’re unpredictable — the next decision may use an entirely different set of criteria. The randomness of decisions and values makes you less happy working there.

And that’s why you can’t tell what this company’s culture is like when you’re interviewing. Culture is the expression of a company’s values through decision making. You will only witness those decisions when you’re working at the company, in that moment. An interview won’t tell you crap about their culture.

But you still can try to find out what a company’s culture is really like — if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Discovering a company’s true culture

So you want to learn more about this company’s culture? You’re gonna have to hustle.

You might have a list of “culture” questions that you ask when you’re interviewing, but these won’t work. Asking what people do for lunch or number of hours worked won’t tell you about the company’s culture because culture is something that happens when decisions are made. Worse, the interviewer could lie. In fact, they probably will lie, especially if they like you and want you to work there.

The best way to learn about a company’s culture is by asking current employees who will be candid with you about it. Do you have a friend who works there? Maybe someone who knows someone else that works there? Someone who’s willing to answer your questions honestly? Invite that person out for coffee. Ask them questions about their values and the way they make decisions. It’s the best way to learn.

Don’t have a contact there? Try cold calling someone. LinkedIn makes it trivial to find people who work at other companies. Send a message to someone who is or was in the role you’re applying to. See if they’ll give you a few minutes of time to chat or reply to a question about the company’s culture — especially the way the company makes decisions.

If all else fails, try reading reviews from employees on sites like Glassdoor. You’ll have to take those comments with a grain of salt, but they’re often indicative of what a culture is really like. For example, if several people mention the exec team is lost or inconsistent, you’ll have a pretty good idea about what you’re walking into.

None of these are fail-safe, but you’re get a better indication about a company’s culture by finding people who are willing to be honest and leveraging your social connections. Give it a try.

A call for honesty in values

I want to propose another solution to this problem — a way that companies can help potential employees make better decisions about company culture.

Companies need to be really, really honest about their values.

Most companies want to seem like they’re cool, progressive places to work. When they publish their values, those values look sexy but don’t match the reality of working there. Values like “we let our employees make independent decisions” sound great but are rare in practice. If companies were really honest about their values, employees could make better decisions about which companies’ cultures are a good or bad fit.

For example, if your company values hitting your ship dates, then your values should say “our employees do everything they can to achieve their goals” and should not say “we value work/life balance.” But if your company really does value your employees’ leisure time over working endless hours, put “work/life balance” on your website.

So if you’re in a position where you can set your company’s values, be honest about them. And if you’re an employee who notices the gap between what your company says they value and what they actually value, speak up. You, your coworkers, and potential employees will be better off for it.

That’s all I have to say about work culture and finding a job. Happy job hunting, and I hope your next employer has better culture than your last one.

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