How to assess a company’s culture before joining them?

Contributed by: Deepak Sawhney – Leadership & Business Coach (ICF), Hyderabad, Career Coach – IAIP

I am, in some ways, not competent to share my views on this subject. I have just changed 3 jobs in 26 year long career. The only competence that makes me write and share here is my “mistake” in not assessing or ignoring certain aspects when I evaluated few organizations. I thereafter validated it with some of my friends and colleagues.

The process to evaluate must begin when there is a call from hiring consultant to sell you the role & company. High growth, organization undergoing change, new role created are some of the words you would hear from the consultants. The promoter wishes to change the culture hence looking at professionals at this stage. The selling spiel would persuade you to have a meeting or interaction with company officials. Been persuaded somewhat, if you ask for Job Description (JD), you may get to hear that since this a senior role, when you meet the top man, he will explain the role and challenges to you.

If you ignore this and agree for meeting, you have made your first mistake in assessment.

A nicely drafted JD may land up in your inbox, if you are lucky. Along with it will be a caveat that this is an old one and new one is under discussion. Ignoring it would be also a mistake. Let us say you did not realize the mistake and wish to go ahead. Then you must find out from social networking sites if anyone has worked at the company or knows someone who does currently.

  • Invite current employees of the company to join your network and ask for their first-hand experience with the company. Rarely would you get a negative response, because firstly the guy doesn’t know your intention well enough, even though you may explain. Your ability to share details is limited as it would mean that you are revealing that you have been approached to replace some existing role holder in the company. It is prudent to connect with ex-employees and seek feedback. Among various questions that you may ask, do ask about how the organization treats its employees as and when they resign. A lot about company culture is revealed from the way they treat their employees as and when they resign. From relieving troubles to settling the claims. If you cannot get to ex-employees and talk to them, you are probably not well prepared.
  • Check out the Web site and see if they have any employee testimonials. If so, do they seem authentic or scripted?
  • If the website has details of senior Management team members, do try and understand if they have been there in same role for pretty long. If they have been, look at cultural affinity of these gentlemen to CEO/ MD / Founder. Don’t ignore this fact. It is an indicator for you to ask relevant question during the interview.
  • Assuming you ask and get the name of your prospective line manager, do seek specific feedback from your contacts / sources.

If you do not take these actions now, you are probably making your 2nd mistake. Without gathering enough information about company culture, if you go for interview, you are not prepared well, suffice to say.

One should also notice the sequence of interactions arranged for you, at the company. In case your interactions during the interview process does not include your supervisor or he comes later after his seniors / peers have interacted with you, do not ignore this vital fact. It could mean that when you are in the job, the other seniors / peers to your supervisors are likely to determine your agenda and action. It could mean inter-alia that your supervisor is either weak / ineffective or is being accommodated. In this situation your position will always be weak in the organization, if you decide to join them.

Notice, if the interview environment is seriously meant for the interview or there are frequent disturbances. Pay attention to the discussions happening during the disturbances, it may give you some idea of the culture and the attitude of employees in the organization.

When you will land up for interview / interaction, everyone will seem normal and friendly. The ticket will arrive promptly and vehicle at airport would be there to drive you to Guest house or hotel before you reach office to meet the HR or Country Head. Even the receptionist will know about your arrival and you will be ushered in well.

Let us assume that you have been courageous enough to reach the stage of interview, ignoring vital sign sin the process till now, at least now, evaluate all that you see and hear and everyone you meet during the interview process beginning when you walk in the door. Consider things like:

  • First impression: What is the office space like, and can you see yourself working in it? Are the aesthetics as per your liking?. Once I had visited a client’s office. The client was a beauty industry giant. As I walked into the reception, I saw the walls were painted grey. I felt somewhat claustrophobic.
  • Dress code: Are current employees dressed professionally or business casual, or do they look like they just rolled out of bed? People in the creative industries like media are open, creative and carefree. At such places you would see people in colorful t-shirts, kurtas, ethnic styles etc. While at manufacturing set-ups, people generally dress formally in pastel colors.
  • Energy level: Is the office buzzing, quiet, or chaotic? What kind of visitors come to the office, how are they treated etc.
  • Personal Effects: Do people have pictures, toys, and other forms of self-expression in their work area? Are the desks full of cosmetics, snacks, unorganized?
  • Desktops: Do staffers have the latest laptops, 80s desktops, or something in between? Are people carrying gadgets given by the company?
  • Cafeteria/ Meeting place: How are the facilities in the canteen- beverage vending machines, food, drinks, water? How are the sitting arrangements?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the culture, and the things you are seeing and hearing. Consider things like:

  • Company behavior: Do they promote from within, sponsor team lunches, encourage professional development? If the interviewer answers yes to any of these questions, ask for specific examples.
  • Ask each person you meet to describe the company culture and notice if you get consistent responses.
  • Ask each person you meet with how long they have been with the company.
  • If you feel you haven’t met enough people, ask if there are other members of the organization you can speak to about their experience.
  • Try to ask as many questions around your role. If role was already existing, ask why did the previous incumbent had left.

Recruitment, obviously, is a huge cost to the organization. A wrong hire adds on to the expenditure. It is also true that a wrong on-boarding is a cost to the individual’s career and life. One should be wary before leaving and joining a job. Decisions can always be amended though; the only factor irreversible is time.

 – DS

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