The first thing I noticed when the elevator doors swept open was that half the lights were out. Two rows of cubicles stretched from one wall to the other, all empty. On a desk to my left sat a lone telephone, its cord a hopeless tangle of black ramen noodles, and to the right was my new office, the door ajar. It was my first day.
“Oh shit,” I thought. “I’ve made a horrible mistake. This place is about to go under, and I’m going to hate working here every single day until it does.”
Actually, I wound up really liking working there and was never laid off. But I did jump into the job hastily. I’d interviewed with the hiring manager over coffee, so I hadn’t seen the company’s offices. Since the website I’d be working on was a tiny B2B outlet, there weren’t any Glassdoor reviews I could have read anyway. I was also pretty eager to leave my current role, so it didn’t take much for me to accept an offer when I got it.
I lucked out. We moved offices after a few months–the original space had once housed print magazines that had gone digital–and the culture turned out to be a great match. Both of my managers during my time there trusted me to do my own thing, more or less set my own hours, and make significant choices, just as long as we hit our goals. Despite having very few colleagues, I learned a lot and enjoyed the work.
But even had I been more diligent, the typical research methods may not have told me whether the culture would be a fit. So I spoke to some experts to find out other ways to suss that out besides the usual advice to read review sites and ask former employees on LinkedIn. Here’s what they said.
At tech companies and startups especially, work cultures tend to be, shall we say, very clearly defined. That’s often by design. But Laszlo Bock, who until last year was Google’s longstanding and influential HR chief, suggests being “wary of the fine line between pride in a culture and arrogance about it.”
“My own bias,” he says, is to “seek out organizations where they are both confident in their culture but open to the possibility that they have more to learn and could be wrong.” Humility and a little doubt, in other words, are signs of a healthy culture.
You can apply a dose of skepticism in other ways, too, says Bram Daly, senior manager, client operations at the talent management company Alexander Mann Solutions. “There’s been a huge push over the last five to 10 years around employer brands,” Daly points out. When done right, those branding efforts accurately reflect a company’s culture and attract the right candidates. Otherwise they’re just another layer of sleek marketing that job seekers need to cut through.
Candidates are often told to dig into publicly available information, Daly explains, but the key is using that extra data to test an employer’s brand messaging. An earnings report might say, “‘We’re buying a building and expanding in Baltimore, and we value XYZ, and we’re hiring a bunch of veterans,’” he says, offering a hypothetical example. “Does that align with whatever narrative about the culture they’ve talked about, that you’ve read in the reviews on Glassdoor? Is it the same, or is it inconsistent?”
He suggests taking the same approach to interviewing. Most candidates know to ask interviewers to describe their work cultures, but Daly proposes following up with, “How do you exemplify that culture? Can you give me an example?” Pressing for specifics, he says, can reveal whether they “even know what the values and culture are at a higher level” and whether their own experiences match up with it.
You already know to reach out to current and former employees on LinkedIn, right? But which ones? “One way to get a read on a company’s culture is to talk to people who aren’t in ‘core’ departments, or are otherwise in the minority,” says Bock. “This gives you a better sense of what the culture is like across the firm.”
“For example, if you’re talking to an engineering-driven company, ask the salespeople or finance people if they feel valued and have freedom, or if they feel like second-class citizens,” he suggests. “If you’re talking to an investment bank, check in with some of the female employees.”
“If you don’t like your boss,” says Daly, “it doesn’t matter what the overall culture is whatsoever” (the data suggests this is true). So, he says, “Whenever I’m interviewing the employer, I ask, ‘How long have you been at this company?’”–knowing that it’s an easy question to answer. “Then you do the follow-up question: ‘Do you like it–and why?’”
“Again,” says Daly, “it’s sort of easy, and then they’re sharing their personal opinion. The real question is why–why do you like it? It becomes personal,” upping the likelihood that you’ll elicit a firsthand experience–making for another insider take for you to compare with the employer’s messaging.
Finally, both Bock and Daly say it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you when you’re looking for hidden stones to turn over. “Pay attention to how you are treated at every step of the interview process, and by every person, as well as how they treat one another,” Bock advises. “I was once interviewed by a partner at a consulting firm who was rude and dismissive to his assistant. I didn’t assume I’d be treated any better.”
Daly adds that while “culture fit” can feel like an abstraction, it often comes down to the day-to-day experience of the work itself. Maybe the office space is desolate and crappy, but you can work from home half the time–as I found I was able to. So ask about the average hours and remote work. “You need to get a baseline of what you’re walking into,” he says. “Those things really make a difference when you add them up.”