Why You Need to Know About the Culture of an Organization, and How to Mine the Info

Woman looking through binoculars

Whether you’re a seasoned jobseeker or new to the search, you probably know how important it is to do your due diligence before and applying to a job. You fervently research the history of the organization, founder(s), and any other relevant details you can get your hands on. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong!

When applying for a job—with any luck, the place where you’ll spend the majority of your waking hours for the foreseeable future—it’s just as important to understand the culture of the organization as it is to know who founded the organization and when.

Here are a few tips on how to get a sneak peek at an organization’s culture:

Social Media

Are they posting about an amazing brown-bag lunch that happened earlier this week or an impressive professional panel?

Want to learn more about office dress-code, work environment, or out-of-office events? Do some stealthy recon on their social media. Lots of organizations are turning to social media to offer the public, as well as potential employees, a better sense of the “behind the scenes” goings on.  Scanning through a social media feed can offer you useful clues into things like:

  • Dress code: What are people wearing in the photos? Are the photos taken in the office, at conferences, or during office retreats?
  • Work environment: Is there a common space for people to gather and eat lunch together? Are there quiet spaces as well as space for collaboration? Do they choose to highlight in-office fun like ping-pong, couches, costume contests? Is it a dog-friendly office?
  • Opportunities for professional development: Are they posting about an amazing brown-bag lunch that happened earlier this week or an impressive professional panel? Is staff Tweeting and Instagramming from conferences and workshops?

Google Search

Google can be a very helpful tool in your efforts to glean some information about an organization’s culture. Here are a few things that you can search:

Does a remote workplace offer the opportunities for collaboration and friendship that you’re looking for?

  • Images: Lots of organizations offer an “inside look” at their offices. Is it bright? Airy? Dark? Scary? Can you see yourself working there? A space can tell you a lot about an organization and if it will be a good fit for you.
  • Maps: Is there an office at all? When searching for more information on a specific office location, you may find that the organization doesn’t have an actual office and instead, the entire organization is remote. This isn’t a red flag so much as a real opportunity to do a pulse check with yourself. Would you be comfortable working remotely? Does a remote workplace offer the opportunities for collaboration and friendship that you’re looking for? All important questions to consider before applying.


Lucky for you, it’s 2017 and there’s a Yelp for everything. Glassdoor is a Yelp-like resource that offers former and current employees as well as folks who have interviewed with a particular company or organization an opportunity to anonymously review things like salary, benefits, and leadership.

Check out Glassdoor to see if the organization that you’re interested in working for is listed, and if so, see what people had to say. Do they feel inspired by the leadership? How do they run interviews? Do their benefits accurately reflect the value that they place on staff morale?

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that similar to Yelp, some people submit reviews because they have a bone to pick. Take these reviews with a grain of salt and if you see something concerning, do more digging!

How to Translate All of This Newly Discovered Info

Not everything listed above will be a deal breaker or maker for you, and that’s OK. The point is to do some light investigation in order to paint a fuller picture of the people and leadership with whom you may ultimately work for some day. Do they value the same things as you? Do they meet your top three must-haves for your next career move? Do you recognize opportunities to grow, network, and connect in the info you were able to unearth?

Have you tried any of these tips for investigating an organization’s culture? What did you find? If you have other stealthy ways to gather information on organizational culture before accepting an offer, share them here!

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As a seasoned communications professional with 15 years of nonprofit experience and 6 years of experience creating engaging content and copy, I love the idea that a thoughtfully crafted piece of content can spark social change. Here at Idealist Careers, I'm eager to offer job seekers, game changers, and do-gooders actionable tips, career resources, and "social-impact lifestyle" advice.
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    • Shubert
    • March 20, 2017

    Facebook is just that – a site to present a face. Glassdoor is an absolute joke! ALL across the board, it sounds like the same reviewer(s) with a pat, preconceived ‘review’.

      • Alexis Perrotta
      • March 20, 2017

      I agree that all of these platforms need to be taken with a grain of salt. Rather than hanging your hat on any one review site, it’s useful to consider what else it may offer you (if not always 100% unbiased account). Consider how you may dig a bit deeper after finding a negative review. Can this be fodder for honest conversation with your interviewer? Has the org. seen this review, and if so, how do they feel about it? Are they defensive? Diplomatic? If they haven’t seen it (or claim they haven’t), or if they are overly defensive, this may be cause for concern. There’s a lot of (occasionally imperfect) information out there, so it’s up to us as job seekers and nonprofit professionals to find out how we may leverage it all in order to get a more complete picture of an org.’s culture.

    • Daisy
    • March 21, 2017

    Would also love some ideas for asking about culture in an interview. I’ve basically received the “everyone is really nice” response and would obviously like to know a bit more.

      • Alexis Perrotta
      • March 22, 2017

      Great question, Daisy! You can certainly ask some more probing (not yes/no) questions to get a feel for the work style and company culture. Things like “What makes you most proud to work here,” “What was the best professional development opportunity that you’ve taken advantage of while working here?” “How does this org handle [failure, staff evaluations, etc.],” or “How does this organization celebrate success?” can all shed at least some light on the culture. While there are plenty of questions you can ask, of course, a good interviewer will always put their (and their organization’s) best foot forward, so it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of honest responses. Instead, I’d recommend doing a bit of recon. on your own. If you like to start your day early and hope to work in an office that shares your same enthusiasm for “crack-of-dawn productivity,” try to schedule your interview as early as possible. Once you arrive, take a look around. Are others in yet? If not, are they rolling in during your interview, or is the office basically crickets until 10:00 am? If the office feels empty, a nod to the empty seats and a question about when folks usually arrive is completely warranted. Same goes for if you have a preference (or need) for wrapping up a bit early from time to time. Schedule the interview late in the day to get a look at what time people start heading home. Do you like to work collaboratively? Ask for a quick tour of the office and take note of how many collaborative work spaces are available. Is your top priority the ability to set some boundaries and really “sign off” at the end of the day? Take note of the times that your interviewer is reaching out with questions or to schedule an interview. If she’s emailing you at 9:00 pm on a Friday, file that away as a potential red flag. While first interviews should be a bit more like a first date (save the big questions for rounds 2 and 3), once you get a bit further, you should be sure to ask specifically for things that you know you need (early departure on a certain weekday to pick up a child, care for a parent, etc.), flexible work environment with the ability to work from home occasionally, etc. Hope this helps!

    • Chre
    • March 24, 2017

    I also have not found glassdoor to be all that helpful. I just go to the website. If the organization’s website doesn’t clearly state their values and mission, I just move on. I also look at Linkedin to review leader profiles and see if we have any close connections in common.

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