What are you hoping to find on your next job search? It could be a salary hike, a snazzier job title or a flexible schedule with remote or hybrid work options. Or could it be that, like so many other job seekers today, your top priority is something less tangible: an organization with a company culture that is well-suited to your work style and values.

Just what is a company culture, anyway? A firm’s culture springs from its leaders’ beliefs and values, which are then translated into goals, policies and behaviors that trickle down through the entire company. Suppose the businesses you’re planning to target for your job search are small or midsize firms. In that case, you may be tempted to think organizational culture doesn’t matter and applies only to big companies you’ve read about, like Apple and Southwest Airlines.

The truth is, even the smallest companies have a corporate culture, whether they know it or not. And it can be identified in something as formal as a mission statement or as informal as a Slack chat.

Examples of company culture include a collaborative work environment versus one where employees concentrate individually on specific projects; a highly hierarchical and complex management structure versus a flat organizational structure that helps involve workers more in key decision-making; and a workforce that prides itself on strict professionalism versus one that encourages fun and risk-taking.

Focus on the elements most meaningful to you when evaluating a new position. Perhaps you put a premium on work-life balance and are looking for a manager who champions flexibility. If sustainability or social movements are important to you, consider looking for a company with strong commitments to the environment or diversity. If you know why you want to work for a certain type of company, you’ll be better able to focus your job-hunting efforts.

Any company that wants to hire you will emphasize its positives and downplay its negatives, but it’s up to you to determine whether an organization is one you want to be part of.

Doing that takes work, though, and is not for the faint of heart. It requires going beyond the layers of the well-guarded image a company puts out and getting underneath the hood.

Consulting your network

Use your professional network to learn about the company’s reputation and organizational culture before accepting a job. Doing your own research, including a deep Google, helps you get a fuller picture of a workplace, not just the one management wants to present. 

Here are some examples of things to look for as you consider employment opportunities.

  • Basic job satisfaction — How happy are existing employees? Is the company cultivating loyalty and respect? Check reviews on sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn to see what current and former employees are saying. 
  • Work-life balance — How does management encourage balance in its employees’ lives? Does the company offer a personalized approach to reviewing work arrangements or simply ordered everyone back to the office? What is the organization doing to promote employee wellness, both mental and physical?
  • Collaboration and team spirit — In a healthy organizational culture, leaders take responsibility for failure and share the credit for success. Look at the company’s website, social media and other messaging channels. Are midlevel employee teams featured, or are most of the success stories told from a manager’s or client’s perspective?
  • Career development — Does the organization have a learning and upskilling culture? Try to find out what the company offers in terms of training and further education, and how much of the cost they will cover. Also, ask your interviewer to explain any examples of how people have used the company’s programs to move up.
  • Leadership that walks the walk — A company needs to be unified by a common set of values, beliefs and goals that support productivity and innovation. Management should live by those values. If you know a current or former employee of the company, ask them whether they think leadership adheres to its own corporate ideals. Also, see if you can find out whether it’s common or uncommon for managers to trust employees to make their own decisions.
  • Effective office environment — If you’ll be 100% remote, this probably won’t be important to you. Still, even if you’ll be commuting to work only one or two days a week, the office space is a part of organizational culture. It can affect how effective you are at doing your job. Do you need your own cubicle where you can pin up family photos, or are you comfortable with a more nomadic system like hot-desking or desk hoteling? If you’ll be fully remote, find out how good the company is at setting employees up to succeed at home.

Looking for remote jobs? See this post for tips on how to find them.

Asking About Company Culture in an Interview

The job interview process itself can provide a lot of insight into an organization. Is it chaotic and disorganized? Or is it very by-the-book, with no corners cut? A sloppy interview process likely means other areas of the business are similarly in disarray, and a by-the-book approach may indicate that the company is bureaucratic and has little leeway for individual personality. Conversely, a smooth, warm interview can be a sign of a company with a positive organizational culture.

When you’re interviewing, be sure you have prepared questions for the interviewer that cover company culture in addition to the nitty-gritty of the new position. Here are six critical questions to ask:

  1. What do you like about working here? Ask your interviewer and any employees you encounter while on the company’s premises what they like about the organization. If they’re honest, you’ll get an insight into what life will be like after you accept the offer.
  2. What traits could have helped the last person in this position succeed? This question can be very revealing. Not only will you learn what traits the hiring manager is prioritizing, but you’ll see how they talk about past team members.
  3. How do you help remote and hybrid workers feel included in the team? This is a good question to ask even if you plan to work in the office full time. Inclusion and team cohesion are top priorities for managers in a healthy organizational culture. If the interviewer’s answer betrays the sense that some employees are more valued than others due to their scheduling arrangements, that’s a red flag — even if you’re interviewing for a role that would place you in the advantaged group.
  4. What do you wish you’d known before starting here? This question gives a hiring manager or a potential coworker a chance to reflect on their time in the company and what they’ve learned about adapting to the workplace — and it helps you avoid mistakes others have made in the past.
  5. How is this organization different from the competition? This might seem like a softball question that lets the interviewer sell you on the company, but it also reveals a lot about how the company views itself and its values. What are employees proud of? What does the leadership prioritize above all else?
  6. What would you change about this company if you could? This question is subtle and insightful. Rather than asking what the interviewer hates about a company, you’re asking for their ideas on how to change it for the better. 

When it comes to evaluating organizational culture, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Knowing your own priorities, working style and goals is paramount to determining whether you’ll succeed in a company. Research widely, ask questions and listen to your gut as you evaluate a new workplace, and you’ll be able to make a fully informed decision about your next step.