Jocelyn Greenky really hates fluorescent lights, so when she started a new job years ago, she showed up with a floor lamp a few weeks in and dragged it over to her desk.
"It did not go over well," she says. That’s how Greenky discovered that every office has its own culture—and as a result, how sometimes even the smallest acts can look like a rebellion.
Now with more than 20 years of experience as an office culture and politics expert, Greenky says you should always understand a company’s norms and no-no's before you accept a job there. "As the new employee, you have to adapt to the culture rather than the culture adapting to you," she adds.
Previous research has shown that our coworkers and managers have a big impact on our productivity and job satisfaction. And workers surveyed by Glassdoor reported that company culture was more important than compensation and work-life balance.
So if you like chit-chat and a background hum, you probably won’t be happy in the tomb-silent office where you just interviewed. Or if you love coming up with new ideas and taking big risks, you may not like a place that doesn’t embrace change.
But how accurately can you pinpoint a company’s culture before you’ve actually worked there? Here’s what Greenky and other experts recommend asking and observing before you show up with your own lamp—or even take the job.
Bouvier Williams, EdD, president of Your Personal Brand Solution, says to read through the organization’s annual reports, find any articles about it in popular publications, and of course, scope out its own website—all before your first interview there.
"You’re trying to get the flavor of the organization," Williams says. "Does it come across as bureaucratic? Is it an organization that really believes in and fosters innovation?" And, most important, "Does it line up with the things you believe?"
Greenky says that as soon as you step into a prospective office, you should start observing. What are people wearing? Are their desks messy? Do they have earbuds in or are they talking to each other? Is there an open floor plan? If people work in individual offices, do they keep their doors open?
Pay close attention to body language, too, Williams says. See whether people are smiling, if they seem engaged, and whether they look happy to be there. "Not everybody in the company can happen to be having a bad day at the same time," he adds, so if you’re surrounded by frowns, that should be a red flag.
Asking about summer Fridays or dress code may turn off a hiring manager during the interview process. Even questions about expected work hours can be shaky ground. But Greenky says you can absolutely ask your would-be boss to define their office’s culture. "See what they have to say," she adds. "If somebody says it’s very corporate, for example, that means they play by the rules—that it’s more formal."
Williams also recommends asking some of these "subtle but revealing" questions as the interview progresses. For example: How are employees developed in the company? What happens when someone makes a mistake around here? How is risk-taking rewarded? How can people share their opinions about the work environment? What are some of the things that might get under your skin about working here? How does the organization deal with managers who manage poorly?
Yes, people really do read the employee handbook. No, it’s not weird to do it before you even have the job. If the hiring process is cruising forward and you’re seriously considering a position, Greenky suggests asking for a copy of the handbook. The rules and regulations inside can tell you a lot about a company’s culture—including how much it likes rules and regulations.
Both Greenky and Williams say talking to a current or recent employee is essential. Comb your own networks first. If that doesn’t turn up a connection, Williams recommends using LinkedIn to find past employees. He says to let them know you’re interviewing at the company and ask if they have a few minutes to talk about the culture there. "Be prepared to ask some fairly targeted questions," he adds. For example: Can you describe the office politics? Is there high turnover or constant churn?
Greenky suggests "tell me about your day there" as a good opener with current or former employees. She says it’s also a chance to ask all those questions you may not want to ask a potential boss about dress code, lunch breaks, expected hours—and maybe even lighting. That could shine a light on whether or not you've found your dream job, or if you should think twice before accepting their offer.