cultureWe come across a cornucopia of articles, white papers and blog posts on workplace culture, with inspiring examples from companies like Zappos, Facebook and Google as well as innovative ideas from fast growing start-ups.

Some articles focus on the artifacts of culture like free food, foosball, pets at work, bring your mom (or dad) to work day and beer on Fridays (or everyday), and others focus on efforts to hire, develop and manage employees around their culture.  While both are important, there’s a critical perspective about culture that seems to be overlooked — that of the future employee. What can prospective employees do to get a sense of their future employer’s culture?  As a prospective employee, what can you find out about the culture before and during the interview process?

Why do you want to get a sense of culture before you take a new job? It’s all about culture fit.

If you fit with the culture, then you are more likely to be on your way to a rewarding, fulfilling work experience. If you don’t fit, well, the odds are likely stacked against you and you may be searching again for a new job sooner rather than later. After all, culture fit isn’t a one-way street – the notion of fit involves both the employer and the prospective employee. Employers sometimes have the leg-up in determining fit as they are more likely to have a sense of their culture than you.  That said, there are some options for job seekers to get a sense of culture before and during the job search.

David Youssefnia
David Youssefnia

Employer review sites come to mind to help you before the job search (to protect the innocent, we won’t mention names).  These are often filled with biased reviews from either disgruntled employees, crafty HR professionals or sneaky competitors (not to mention the lack of a representative sample and compilation of data over vast time periods). That said, it’s a starting point to give you some directional data on culture (but just know what you are getting, buyer beware).

This brings me to the second thing that employees can do to get a sense of culture. Ask these three simple questions. We’ve based these in part on research (both our research and others’) that identifies what culture can impact and how it can manifest itself (there are links at the end of this post to some of our research and other blog-posts on culture). It’s not an exhaustive list but hopefully will be a good start.

1) What do employees like most about working here, and what do they think can be improved? 

What to listen for:  Candor – are you getting the sugarcoated story about how awesome this place is (after all, you can bring your pet iguana to work and play foosball with your mom), or are you getting both the good and the bad? No workplace is perfect, and great places to work recognize what they need to work on.

2) Who tends to be successful here?

What to listen for: Are they able to answer the question easily? If so, does the description of who is successful sound like you? If they struggle to answer this question, then how will you know if you will be successful? If they can’t articulate what success looks like, then hitting your performance goals may feel like trying to shoot an arrow to hit a bulls-eye tied to a back of a dog chasing a cat (or an iguana).

3) Why do people leave?

What to listen for: Are they continuously being poached for talent or losing out on salary or career opportunities. Do employees make careers here or do they tend to burn out after a year or two and move on?

So if you are on the job market and meeting with recruiters, don’t be shy. Ask companies about their culture to make sure you find the right place for you.

David Youssefnia, Ph.D., is President of Critical Metrics LLC, a Seattle-based human capital measurement and analytics firm that helps companies measure and manage their culture and engage their employees. Read about the company’s research and blog for more information. You can follow David on twitter, connect on LinkedIn or join their Facebook page on Culture.

Top image by Newfrontiers, via Flickr.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


  • John T Doh

    Great post David, understanding the culture of a hiring organization is one of the most difficult things to determine. Your questions are much better than the obvious, yet not so helpful “how would you describe the culture here”.


  • ritaashley

    All important aspects for individual contributors to note. While it is always fascinating to learn about trash and treasures, vacation policy and dogs at work, the real measure of a corporate culture for an Executive, is how decisions are made. The single most important question an Executive can ask is how are decisions made? Second, how was the last crisis handled? How one accomplishes is far more important than sugar snacks and ping pong tables. The third most important question Executives must ask is, “How will you know when I have succeeded?” Best trick of all to learn if this is the right employer for you? Ask these questions of every person with whom you interview. Consensus?
    Rita Ashley, Executive Coach

  • Samreen M

    David, this is quite interesting as well as informative and helpful post for us who are stuck in the zigzag of the employer’s questions and don’t think that we have also the right to question as well. Job mismatch is due to the cultural clash in many cases as we lack the knack to question the employer. At that moment our first priority is just to have the job.

    Samreen M

Job Listings on GeekWork