Should you go after that job? Tips for examining organizational culture and fit

When it comes to assessing a job opportunity, we often focus on work duties (day-to-day tasks, role in the organization, etc.) and total compensation (salary, health benefits, vacation time, etc.). However, an equally important part of examining a job is the culture of the organization: its values, work environment, diversity, and the other aspects that determine how things work and how it feels to be there.

Hiring managers often take fit—whether or not you’ll thrive in the organization’s culture—into account when making hiring decisions. Yet this shouldn’t solely be the concern of employers: since you will spend most of your waking hours at work, a good cultural match can make the difference between being somewhere you love every day and dreading the alarm clock each morning.

Try these tips for finding a good organizational fit as you go through the job search-research-interview process.

Know what you want and how much you want it

Just as it’s more efficient to go to the grocery store with a list than to walk the aisles trying to remember what you need, it’s more efficient to start a job search with a list of qualities you want your new organization’s culture to have.

As a start, think about:

  • Dress code (suit, jeans, casual Fridays)
  • Office/workspace layout (wide open, lots of closed doors)
  • Values (is innovation or tradition more valued?; is there a stated commitment to transparency, staff volunteering, sustainability?)
  • Work environment (how staff interact and collaborate, competitiveness, office mood, camaraderie outside the office)
  • Workforce diversity (ethnic, gender, age, professional background of staff)
  • Work/life balance (expected work hours, flex time, telecommuting options)
  • Office environment (windows, display of personal items/photos, gym or day care facilities onsite)
  • Training/professional development (emphasis on skill building, investment in your growth, opportunities for acknowledgement and advancement)

Also, just as most of us can’t buy everything in the grocery store, you might not be able to get every item you want on your employer-shopping list. So think about what’s most important to you and rank those qualities higher.

Start researching and observing

So how can you get all this info about an org you’re interested in working for? It varies. Factors like your expected work hours might be outlined in the job description, but you’ll likely have to visit the premises to get an idea of the office layout. Here are some ways to conduct research at different phases of the job search.

What to do before your interview:

  • Feel out the organization’s website. Ideally, in addition to displaying information, a website conveys an organization’s culture through its choice of colors, images, language, and tone. Note your impressions as you click through the site, as well as reading for the ideas, projects, or opportunities it’s promoting.
  • Examine the mission statement. What words does the organization use to describe its work? Is it casually written, or more formal? Is it expansive and broad, or does it have a specific focus?
  • Peruse the staff bios. What information is revealed: do they include strictly professional details or are there personal tidbits, too? Do all the staff have similar backgrounds? Are the photos candid or posed? Can you tell how long the employees have been with the organization? Are all employees listed or only those with leadership positions?
  • Check out the annual report. Flipping through an annual report is a great way to get a comprehensive summary of an organization because it often includes accomplishments, names and affiliations of board members, recent donors, org statistics, program info, and its goals and plans for the future.
  • Look for news and insights. Search the internet for press releases, blog posts, and news articles mentioning the organization. Also, ask around and see if anyone in your network has worked with them as an employee, funder, collaborator, etc.—they will have valuable insight into the culture. However, remember that assessing organizational culture is subjective—what could be an ideal environment for one person may not be for another.

What to do during your interview (keeping in mind that different cultures can exist within the same organization if it’s big enough):

  • Pay attention to first impressions. Note how you’re treated by the receptionist and any other staff members you come in contact with, as well as your interviewers. Are they polite, pushy, interested, skeptical?
  • Notice the employees’ attitudes. Do they seem happy, satisfied, engaged? or tired, bored, stressed?
  • Look at the office layout. Does it have cubicles? offices? common areas? much color? natural light? plants? what’s on the walls?
  • Ask thoughtful questions. Asking some of the following questions during your interview will demonstrate your interest in the job and can help round out your understanding of the org’s culture:
  • How are org-wide decisions made here, and how are those decisions communicated to the staff?
  • Does this organization emphasize working in teams?
  • Are there opportunities for further training and education?
  • Can you share the training schedule the new hire might expect for the first week?
  • Can you describe the management style of the person who will be supervising this position?

Bonus: One of the best things about asking questions like these is that you can often work some self-promotion into your reactions. For example, if you ask what opportunities for professional development are offered and learn that employees are encouraged to attend one conference per year, you can mention a highlight of a conference you attended at your last job, or one you heard about coming up that you’d like to go to. You’ll sound knowledgeable and on-point.

Lastly, there’s one factor that’s more important than all the rest: your gut feeling. Imagine being offered a job at the organization in question knowing just what you know from the sources above—would you be excited about taking it? Do you think you would you want to go to work every day? Why or why not? Paying attention to your honest answers to these questions is the best way to determine whether or not you and this organization are a match made in professional heaven.

How do you examine organizational culture and fit?


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    • eight
    • March 11, 2013

    While I really value the idea of looking for the right cultural fit in a job search, I think that this article is completely ignoring the minute level of deciding power that most job seekers have.

    Sure, I’d like to find an office with great natural light, casual dress, pizza lunches on Fridays, and puppies, but I also don’t have the luxury of being choosy. I’ve noticed that I, along many of my peers who are also knee-deep in their job searches, would love to think we have the freedom to pick and choose what we want in the workplace, but even getting an interview after applying for a job on a site like idealist (with no prior contacts at the organization) is rare. So when we do finally make it past that stage and possibly onto an offer, it’s hard to look back at a list of “must haves at my next job” and reasonably turn down a job because it doesn’t fulfill any of those. Until the economy picks up again and we job seekers have more deciding power in the matter, it’s hard to justify not applying to a job because the culture doesn’t seem right.

      • April
      • March 12, 2013

      Thanks for writing, eight. Of course you’re completely right that we all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes, and this could include accepting a job that’s not ideal for us. I just wanted to make the point that organizational culture is a facet of a job that bears consideration alongside salary, benefits, role, potential for advancement, etc. I’ve made the mistake of failing to take it into account, and wasted time in the wrong place.

        • eight
        • March 12, 2013

        As have I!
        Either way, thanks for bringing this to light. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to be choosy about my next job 🙂

          • April
          • March 12, 2013

          Thanks, eight. I’m sure you will—I hope sooner rather than later.

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    • Ella
    • March 19, 2013

    I would like to offer another response to ‘eight’… if you take a job at the wrong organization for you because you feel desperate, in addition to your own misery, from my experience there are several other repercussions to doing so:
    1. You won’t be available/ able to put in the time necessary to find the RIGHT organization for you. It doesn’t do you any service to put a quarter of your effort into 4 applications, instead of 100% into the one very best fit. Likewise, it’s hard to put your effort into creating a quality application for a good job for you when your energy has already been drained by a bad or wrong job.
    2. Just like your spidey senses should be telling you about the organizational culture, your own desperation is also palpable to the hiring person and will result in lesser offers/ no offer or worse job assignments (the undesirable shift, office, or responsibilities…)
    3. You may not end up performing to the standards you’re used to upholding, and when you leave, this may result in a less than glowing recommendation from the poor fit, at worst, a poor or no recommendation.
    4. It is difficult to overcome habits and thought patterns created to cope with an extremely stressful experience. You may develop coping behaviors in your poor-fit job such as double-checking everything through the boss, and then carry that over to your new, good-fit job, where such behaviors are likely to be seen in a different, maybe negative, light.

    • lukebently
    • March 19, 2013

    Wow thanks for this. I am going to use these tips to help me find a job. If any one else has any other tips please let me know. Thanks for any help.

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