February 7, 2020

Before you decide to change jobs, it's important to "decode" the culture of a prospective workplace, Joann Lublin writes for the Wall Street Journal. She offers five strategies on how to "uncover both red flags and positive signals about … corporate culture" in order to avoid a "culture misfit."

6 levers to build a differentiated organizational culture

The importance of decoding a company's culture

According to Peter Crist, chair of Crist/Kolder Associates, an executive-recruitment firm, "About 30% of executives taking new jobs fail to figure out the company's culture correctly and end up leaving relatively soon."

That's why you need to ask the right questions before you accept a position, according to David Reimer, chief of the Americas region at Merryck & Co., a leadership-development firm. "Posing the right set of questions is your best bet for getting a candid read on whether a company's culture is open to outsiders," he said.

With that in mind, Lublin offers five ways to gauge a prospective employer's culture—before you accept an offer.

5 ways to determine a company's culture

1. Determine who's important and what matters.

To fully understand the unwritten norms of a company, Gail Meneley, co-founder of Shields Meneley Partners, said you should determine what types of behavior are acceptable, especially for those higher up in the company. For instance, Meneley recommends asking whether high sales performers are given more leeway, such as being able to make deals without the typically required internal approval.

"You may feel uncomfortable working for a business where there are different rules for different people," she said.

2. Make recruiters tell you about suitability.

According to Crist, a recruiter who has managed placements for your prospective employer should have a good grasp on whether the company's culture would be a good fit for you.

Crist recommends asking the recruiter "why the five previous people you recruited were successful."

3. Confirm that what you hear is what you'll get.

Lublin also notes that perspective hires should ask the right questions to ensure you fully understand a company's culture. For instance, Lublin notes that a media industry executive left a job after realizing that she and the members of the board had different expectations about the company's future and success.  

The experience led her to realize that she should have pushed the board for more information about why management in the past had ignored changes that were needed to turn things around. 

4. Ask to consult temporarily.

Getting a closer look at the company from within through a temporary consulting job can also help you determine whether you'd be a good fit for a company's culture, Lublin writes.

Tissa Richards, a tech industry executive, did exactly that, consulting for Armory, a software startup she was considering joining. "It's kind of like dating someone before you marry," she said.

After attending a series of meetings, Richards determined she enjoyed Armory's culture of autonomy and transparency and joined the company.

5. See what it's like for everyday workers.

Another good way to discern a company's culture is by talking to the everyday workers about their jobs. One former executive at United Parcel Service (UPS) said he regretted that he hadn't talked to administrative assistants before taking the position he accepted years ago.

Once he did talk to them, he learned that his boss had been through 12 assistants in the past 14 months. As a result, the executive stayed for less than a year at UPS. "I failed the most in assessing the cultural fit," he said.

Joelle Jay, an executive coach, recommends walking through corporate offices and examining people's body language as you walk by, seeing if they smile or avoid eye contact, for example.

"Pay attention to your internal warning systems," she said. "How would you feel about [working] with these people?" (Lublin, Wall Street Journal, 1/15).

6 levers to build a differentiated organizational culture

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