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Does Their Corporate Culture Pass Your Sniff Test?

How much do you know about the corporate culture of a prospective employer? Until you work there, you’re in the dark, right? By reputation, a manufacturing company might be known as a meat grinder or a large law firm as a cold and unfriendly place. Yet how much of this reputation is true and how much of it is sour grapes?

How much do you know about the corporate culture of a prospective employer? Until you work there, you’re in the dark, right? By reputation, a manufacturing company might be known as a meat grinder or a large law firm as a cold and unfriendly place. Yet how much of this reputation is true and how much of it is sour grapes?

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It’s imperative to discover the true nature of corporate culture before you accept a job offer. If the company likes go-getters, but you’re a slow-starter, look elsewhere. If the company likes consensus builders, but you shoot from the hip, maybe it’s not a good fit for you.

Unless you’re equipped with science-fiction powers of precognition, your options for evaluating the culture as a job candidate or job seeker appear limited to talking to people and power-reading on the web. The obvious place to start, the careers section of the corporate site, is usually a dead end. There you can read the type of gloss that belongs on a Hallmark greeting card. If reading about the CEO’s family values melts your heart, so be it, but I’d rather know if the company nurtures or chews up its young. And to get that kind of information you have to dig – deep.

Headhunters know this better than job seekers do. “There’s no point in a client attracting an individual who will not enjoy the environment,” says Andrew Kris, partner, Borderless Executive Search in Belgium. “If the [new hire] isn’t successful in the job at the end of the day this will be considered a failure by the headhunter.”

If you have the advantage of working with a recruiter here’s what to check out:

  • Before the recruiter talks to you, the recruiting firm should spend time with its corporate client and conduct a thorough assessment of the company’s culture. What is it like to work there and which types of employees are most likely to fit in and succeed?
  • The culture of the company should be embedded into the job description, says Kris. If it’s not mentioned that could mean that the recruiter doesn’t know.
  • Once there appears to be a good match and a job offer seems imminent, arrange to talk to your prospective boss’s direct reports. “Ask what it’s like to work here and what this guy is like to work for?” suggests Kris. You need answers “before you make a life-changing decision.”

Of course, not everyone has the advantage of working with a recruiter (or headhunter if you prefer); many workers, especially those just starting out are likely to respond to ads or choose a company that they know or admire. To peel back the onion, Jac Fitz-enz, Founder & CEO, Human Capital Source in Silicon Valley suggests looking at case studies of companies that do an excellent job of managing talent. Beyond newsstand publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, Businessweek and Fortune, try the Harvard Business Review, HR trades and journals, such as Workforce Management (though not all of it is free). “Those would be the first ones I would look for if I wanted to make a change and find a company that’s somewhat enlightened,” he says.

Vault, a career service provider, fields employee-based satisfaction surveys across different fields and offers the results to its paid members.

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Another option is networking with people who either currently or recently worked in the organization. Mining social media sites such as Linked-In or Xing among others can provide you with a fast and easy source for those contacts. You may be surprised to learn that employees and former employees are only too happy to receive your unsolicited e-mail and to offer you guidance.

And yet, even in the Internet age, the sniff test still applies. “There are all kinds of non-verbal clues when you walk in the door,” says Fitz-enz. He remembers the first time he walked through the lobby doors at Hewlett-Packard’s corporate headquarters: “There was a feeling about the place, an aura about it … and it wasn’t a little cozy room.”

Fitz-enz says that you can sense the culture in the energy of the people and in the look of the worker’s eyes. “You just have to pay attention,” he says.

“Ultimately,” says Borderless Executive Search’s Kris, “it’s cultural adaptability that makes for success in any new organization you move to.”

Rusty Weston, My Global Career • San Francisco, Ca • rusty@myglobalcareer.comwww.myglobalcareer.com