11 ways to gauge your next employer’s culture

Workplaces have personalities, just as people do. Identifying that personality—and whether it jibes with yours—takes some doing but is essential if you want to thrive there.

Sizing up personalities is easy. A rich vocabulary lets us distinguish between introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, and so on.

When the conversation turns to corporate cultures, however, often we are at a loss for words. Our own company’s culture is familiar but hard to articulate; other organizations’ habits are as mysterious as they are powerful.

What we don’t know about business cultures can hurt us. If you wave goodbye to a familiar, highly idiosyncratic culture (such as General Electric or Nike) and jump into a bewildering alternative, you risk a gear-grinding failure. When academic researchers ask people why a new job didn’t work out, the top factors revolve around culture clashes. By contrast, finding the right cultural fit greatly improves your chances of a smooth transition and fulfilling work in the years to come.

So how can we size up companies with the same clarity that we apply to people? In recent months, I’ve been talking to business audiences in the U.S., England, and Scotland about ways to create something like a Myers-Briggs grid, pinpointing what’s distinctive about different organizations’ habits and values.

Here’s the key insight: Companies reveal their personas in the ways they handle life’s most routine tasks. Glide through the 11 questions that follow, and you will see why someone who thrives at Apple probably wouldn’t make it at Allstate, and vice versa. You’ll also get a better sense of organizations that match your natural preferences.

1. Does your next employer focus on mastering the big stuff, or the small stuff? If it’s the first, you’re heading into a culture of creativity. Breakthroughs are crucial. Someone else can take care of the details. If it’s the second, you’re in a culture of craft. Precision is what pulls you ahead of the competition. End up on the wrong side of this divide, and you’ll be seen as the person who is “too detail-oriented,” or “too sloppy” to succeed.

2. Which discipline calls the shots in an internal tug-of-war? Google operates as an engineer’s paradise; Oracle, by contrast, regards sales as the driver that makes everything go. For that matter, think of Steve Jobs fixating on Apple’s product design and then telling engineers to make that vision come true, instead of telling designers to accommodate whatever the engineers wanted. When you switch jobs within an industry, your fate depends on getting this new rhythm right. Be ready to realign your priorities if some department that you didn’t expect—such as finance or legal—turns out to be in command.

3. What would get you fired? What mistakes are tolerable? Companies never advertise these grim truths, but they play a huge role in defining culture. At some places you safely can talk back to the boss, miss a deadline, or overshoot your budget, as long as you do great work. At other organizations it’s a different story. Rules are rules, and people who don’t understand that are sent packing.

4. What powers do your new leaders hold? Founder-run companies are famous for bosses who weigh in on everything from entry-level hiring to your desk decor. Your success depends on accepting this hands-on presence. Not so at many public corporations, where senior management can be surprisingly distant. Once you’ve settled into a particular system, it can be quite jarring to switch.

5. How does your new company work through disagreements? Many top hedge funds treat confrontation as a way of life, on the belief that stress testing helps the best ideas prevail. In other areas of finance, keeping everyone working together harmoniously is the ultimate goal. Try to find employers whose conflict-resolution strategies aren’t violently at odds with the way you handle strife.

6. Who is admired? Mocked? Taken for granted? Start with attitudes toward competitors, which can range from blood feuds to a diplomat’s desire to build an industry together. Look at the ways front-line employees talk about customers when no one is looking. Also take note of attitudes toward suppliers, regulators, and consultants. Once you’ve sized up the terrain, ask yourself: Can these new likes and dislikes become second nature to me, too?

7. Who is the enemy? Some companies are defined by a Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry for market share. Others are disruptors that declare war on traditional ways of doing business. A third group is on a public mission, seeking to conquer obesity, ignorance, poverty, or some other social ill. The more you know about a company’s enduring battle—and how it’s being fought—the more you understand about its culture.

8. What’s the path to promotion or other rewards? By now, most companies have learned to say the same soothing things about how they treat employees. So, dig deeper. Find out whether there is a star system or a more egalitarian approach. Learn whether internal rewards are driven by clocking long hours, doing standout work, getting along with your bosses, or surviving until the next seniority milestone. What you discover will help you identify a company’s hidden magnets that guide people’s conduct.

9. Does everyone know the rules? A famous California company holds a lot of meetings, but if you want to have an impact there, it’s not enough to be invited to the main event. You also have to attend “the meeting before the meeting” and “the meeting after the meeting.” In those sessions a separate elite sets the real agenda. Giant companies tend to be jammed full of such eccentricities, which reward longevity and make it hard for newcomers to have an impact.

10. Does this company’s long-ago history matter? Intense cultures often have their own version of “Mao’s Long March,” in which a founder’s struggle keeps being retold decades later to reinforce a message. That’s valuable in many cases, but there are offsetting examples (such as Safeway and AT&T) to indicate that moving forward has required a cultural reset-and a willingness to let go of some of the past. Be prepared for wildly different roles that a company’s history can play in its modern-day culture.

11. What are this organization’s iconic stories? Visit 3M, and you’ll hear about the birth of Post-It notes. Peek into Amazon, and someone will tell you about thrifty desks made of doors and angle brackets. Those stories are told for a reason: They reinforce values of ingenuity and frugality more effectively than any pamphlet with bullet-point slogans can do. If formal inquiries don’t fully illuminate a company’s culture for you, sit down over a meal with some insiders and draw out their stories. That’s a proven way to uncover the real core values.

As you work through this list, you may find that your prospective new employer has razor-sharp values in some of these areas but is hard to pin down in others. That’s typical if you’re dealing with a company that has many diverse divisions or has been reshaped in recent years by takeovers, top-management changes, and restructurings.

Ultimately, what you’re looking for is a good match in at least seven or eight areas—and nothing that seems like a job-wrecker. Find a fit close to your natural working style, and you stand a very good chance of achieving new professional successes while feeling good about your job.

Just make sure that you aren’t walking into a new company that’s offering you a great title, a great pay package—and a culture that makes you nauseous. The torment of working at a company that doesn’t share your values will overwhelm everything else.

George Anders is a contributing writer at Forbes, a LinkedIn Influencer, and the author of multiple books. His nonfiction works include: “The Rare Find: How Great Talent Stands Out,” and a companion e-book: “Becoming a Rare Find: How Jagged Resumes Lead to Great Jobs.” He also recently wrote a crime-heist novel called “The Benjamins.” A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.


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