What You See Is What You Get — or Is It?

How can you tell if a company is a great place to work?

When Jennifer Mack went to hear a presentation by Rolls-Royce leaders at the University of Bath several months ago, one of her fellow business students asked, “What does it take to succeed at the company?”


The immediate answer: “Testosterone! Testosterone! Testosterone!”

In some ways, the students were lucky: They got an honest answer. The female students knew not to bother applying; the guys knew what kind of culture they’d encounter if they did. They were lucky because few companies are so frank about their culture. Instead, their lavish offices and corporate artwork are designed to seduce customers and job seekers alike. A lot of effort goes into making these companies look inviting, successful, and fun.

The same is true for policies. Most companies now espouse a wide array of work-life balance and family programs. They place great verbal emphasis on healthy employees and a humane culture. Gyms, health clubs, and childcare provision all suggest that companies will keep your best interests at heart.

Yet the question I am most often asked is: How can I tell whether a particular company will be a great place to work? Somehow the buildings and the policies don’t seem to answer that question. Most often, I’m asked the question by women who are constantly trying to read between the lines to find out whether a company is female friendly.

We’ve learned the hard way that what you see is not always what you get. But for anyone who cares about company culture — and that’s just about everyone — it seems to get harder and harder to get a true picture of a company before you join. With up to 70% of Americans saying that they’d change jobs if they could, a lot of us are trying how to identify great places to work.

Of course, everyone wants something different from their employer. But the Great Place to Work Institute maintains that there are common denominators of being happy at work. These are trust, pride, and enjoyment — trust that management and co-workers are reliably, fairly, and openly informed; pride in one’s work and colleagues; enjoyment of both the process and the place. Great places to work are not about skyscrapers, plate glass windows, paneled offices, and corporate jets; they are about great cultures.


So what does a great culture do? How can you recognize one when you see one? Here are some thoughts:

  • Do you get to meet people at different levels of the organization? Do you meet in an open area, with open doors — or are you shut away in a conference room? Can people see your meetings? If the behavior you see isn’t open, it’s unlikely that you will find a culture of openness and trust.
  • Do different people give consistent answers to the same question? Are they looking for honest answers or trying to second guess what you want to hear? Second guessing suggests that the habit of honesty has faded.
  • Are their Web sites consistent? Rolls Royce US makes a big deal of diversity — but on the UK Web site, it isn’t even mentioned.
  • If offered a drink, always accept — and see who goes to get it. You may be told the hierarchy’s flat, but it isn’t that flat if only assistants get the coffee.
  • Can you see people like yourself in the top levels of management? If you are female, black, disabled, or gay and don’t see anyone like that on the board, be pretty skeptical about diversity policies. If it isn’t at the top, it won’t be at the bottom.
  • Find out the take up rate of family policies. In many companies, it never gets above 5%. Why? When everyone believes that there’s a price to taking family leave, they don’t take it. As one HR director confessed, “They’re really just designed to weed out the losers.” You may not have children now — but what happens when you do? Of when elderly parents need you?
  • Can anyone tell you — in public — about their last vacation? Can they even remember it? Does the sparkle in their eyes remain when the conversation reverts to work?
  • Find out about the heroes of the office. Are they the ones pulling all-nighters, fixing or averting crises, and scoring the biggest (but maybe not the hardest) deal? Heroes are containers of value: Those who are admired will show you what is admired.

The most gorgeous office I ever had was on the 40th floor of a glass tower overlooking Boston Harbor. Through the huge window, you could watch boats come in and planes take off. But even the most senior people there bickered like children. And I’ll never forget the evening when we waited past 10 p.m. to get sign off on a document. I didn’t mind much, but my colleague eventually confessed that it was his daughter’s birthday. He stayed at work for what turned out to be two minutes of face time.

By contrast, when I was a copyright clerk in radio, working in a grimy office for low pay, I was surrounded by talented people who treated me with respect and encouragement. Everyone talked to everyone, assistants lunched with producers, doors were — literally — propped open. My peers and bosses were male, female, gay, straight, black, Asian, Welsh, fat, thin, young and old, glamorous, and scruffy. Only years later did I look back and notice the absence of any discrimination, harassment, or injustice. I thought everywhere was like that.

Now, 20 years later, some of my radio colleagues are still there, still doing great work. In looking at corporate cultures, perhaps the greatest single indicator of all is retention: How long do people stay with the company? In companies with fast staff turnover, no one builds strong relationships — what’s the point if your colleagues are going to leave next year? Or, as Robert Putnam put it in Bowling Alone, “for people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems.” In business, the root system is the culture; it’s what nourishes the company and makes it grow.

It doesn’t take a lot of plate glass and steel sculptures. It takes time.

Additional Resources

  • Great Place to Work Institute: Lists companies that have scored highest on trust, pride, and enjoyment; includes trust indexes and culture audits for U.S. and international companies
  • Vault: “Gold Snapshots” offer interviews with current and past employees of companies
  • WetFeet: Offers insight into particular companies through interviews and insider guides
  • Where Women Want to Work: This free service offers research and comparison tools for women to identify employers of choice

Also, always look to see whether your company has a Web site for alumni. Former employees can give great insights and, while some may have an ax to grind, others have no particular reason to be other than frank.

Margaret Heffernan is former CEO of ZineZone Corp. and iCAST Corp. Additional information about Heffernan — as well as additional Culture Club columns — are available in Online Insights.