I’m preparing to interview and have heard that it’s important to fit into a company’s culture. How could I figure out what is a company’s culture and how do I compare different companies?   Signed M


Dear M

This is a very advanced question for a young graduate to think about.  Usually the young grad is only thinking about the work, the compensation and maybe the location.  Every company has a distinct culture.  Like a marriage, a poor match between your personality (and preferences) and your company’s culture can result in unhappiness and even a nasty divorce. 

What do I mean by culture?  A company’s culture embodies the core beliefs and “how we do things” in the company.   There was a time at IBM when everyone is supposed to wear a white shirt, dark blue suit and a red tie, and they project no-nonsense professionalism.  Would be comfortable with that?  When you meet a prospective employer, look deep for what makes that company tick not just the superficial stereotypes you assume.

My suggestion on characterizing a company’s culture is to look at the following ; 

1)     What is the Company’s Brand?

The Brand is the external image of what the company stands for.   Can you identify with that Brand?   If you are a non-smoker, can you work for a tobacco company?  If you are BMW, you stand for the “Ultimate Driving Experience.”  If you are Disney, you stand for wholesome family entertainment.  The company’s external Brand carries over to internal beliefs (or is it the other way around?)  At Disney, you’re a cast member and you are always on stage to project that wholesome image.  For lesser profile companies, you might have to dig to find out how the company sees itself to get a clue on the values and behavioral expectations inside. 

2)      How is the employee’s performances evaluated?  

People will behave conforming to how they are judged.  But it can get complicated when you might not actually know what’s expected of you. For example, what do objectives mean?  This seems like a simple question.  One company sets objectives which are “aspirational” in that they are very stretched and are very unlikely (and not expected) to be achieved.  Another company sets objectives expecting them to be your personal commitments.  Woe to you if you missed them.  It’s common that you might not even be given objectives, but rather you get some vague directions.  It’s important to know the process on how your performance will be evaluated.  Will it be the sole discretion of your manager?  Will it be via a committee of your manager’s peers?  Will there be input from your peers?  Will you have input early In the process?  

3)      How is the employee compensated?

You are interested in how your performance is evaluated, but your ultimate interest is how that translates to money!  What is the company’s philosophy?  Is the pay system designed for quick turnover or long term retention?  Is the pay pegged to the company’s performance and varies year to year via bonus?  What’s the variability of pay among your peers?  Does the high performer (you will assume you’re in this group of course) get much bigger raises than lower performers?  Or is the variation so small that everyone gets roughly the same?  Is your pay tied to the performance of your team?  These are very important considerations and they say a lot about how the company views its employees.

4)      How are the company ethics? 

Do only results count, or do the way you get the results matter as well?  Everyone will say they are ethical so don’t take this at face value.  Ask about how ethics are institutionalized.  Are there examples of ethics enforcement.  Remember how UVa does it via the Honor Code.  Look at what happened recently with Wells Fargo.  The company set demanding objectives for their bank branches and don’t care how they got them.  The pressured employee’s found that it’s implicitly OK to set up fraudulent accounts for customers and delivered the results management demanded.  The end justified the means, right?  Well it was OK until it was discovered and heads rolled.  In a company with strong ethics, this will not happen. 

5)     How are they organized to get things done?

How bureaucratic are they?  What’s their policy on delegation of authority?  How decentralized is the company?  Are all the decisions centrally made at the top?  Do lower level people have the authority to act?  Are people encouraged to exercise initiative or must everyone wait for orders?  Is there teamwork and cooperation among different operating divisions?  There’s a wide spectrum of philosophies among companies running from “do it by the book” to “just get it done.”  You might get an initial flavor of this by observing whether people looked regimented or free lancing while going about their work.

6)     What’s their philosophy on diversity and career development?

What’s their formal career planning process?  What actually happens during the year and over the years?  What role do the individual employees have in the process.  Do they support cross functional or cross divisional moves?  Without such moves, it might be “us” against “them”.  How diverse are they?  You’ll get a lot of vague lip service on this.  Ask for diversity statistics in the organization.  Look especially at actual diversity among senior management.

I have interviewed a lot of potential new employees for my company.  I have been amazed how little the interviewees ask.  If I had a conversation with a new grad and he/she raises and discuss the above questions, I would be most impressed about the maturity and depth of that person.

Lastly, there are no right or wrong answers to the above except for the ethics.  A company without strong ethics is not a company you want to work for.  You have to look at yourself and decide what type of organization makes you comfortable and challenged.  Some people are risk takers and impatient to move on and shine, while others might be more comfortable working in a well defined and directed environment.  Look for organizations to match your preferences and good luck!


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