Secrets to Figuring out the Corporate Culture

June 30, 2010 at 11:25 am Leave a comment

Job hunters are often advised to check out an organization’s “culture” early on in the hiring process. (I’ve probably given that advice in this blog, too.) Yet what does that mean? And how can you determine it without seeming silly — “Excuse me, Mr. Hiring Manager, but what’s the culture like here?” doesn’t seem a really effective way to go. And even if you were to ask, you’d likely get a vague answer, one meant to impress upon you (something about not really liking meetings and trying to trim them) how progressive a company they are, rather than bureaucratic or top-down.

So it doesn’t really make sense to attempt to answer the corporate culture in a general way. Yet what is a smart strategy for job seekers is to try to figure out some of the specific ways and means of an organization — what makes it tick, what are the priorities, how the work flows and who really makes decisions. That’s what we really mean by an organization’s culture. And trying to determine how an organization works and what’s truly important there can be the difference between making a huge career mistake in joining a place that’s wrong for you and finding an organization where you’re apt to feel comfortable after a reasonable transition period. The trick is seeing whether this organization values what you value in the workplace — it could be a great culture but still all wrong for you.

Here are some questions to ask and things to determine to figure out an organization’s culture:

*Check out the company’s decision-making process. Get answers to the following questions: how are decisions made here? And who makes them? How much control of this process is in the hands of a few executives at the top? How much of a say do department or section heads and their teams have in the decisions that will affect them? Control over decision-making is a huge part of an organization’s culture and the clues you get about it should factor into your decision about whether to join an organization. Of course, most hiring managers will try to convince you that the process is 360 degrees or whatever the latest parlance is for a democratic, inclusive way to make decisions. So, do some research. Ask employees, former employees and people on different teams about this. Ask pointed questions about specific projects and who came up with the ideas for them and who made decisions about how they were carried out. Also, ask about where big decisions are made — if it’s in key meetings, find out who regularly participates in those meetings. If the team you’re considering joining isn’t part of that equation, that’s important to know going in.

*Get answers to this key question: How does one get ahead in this organization? You should seek to determine this not only to figure out whether you’d likely be promoted here but this is also a way to see what is important to the company. If handling certain duties or being on certain teams is the best way to get ahead, that says a lot about the organization’s priorities. Again, ask detailed questions about this of a number of people across the organization — as you’re likely to get different answers. Then put together the puzzle pieces to determine the priorities.

*Look at the work flow. In a newsroom, the daily press of the news often drives things. But how is the work organized? Is it organized? Where does this job fit in to that — would you constantly be on the receiving end of work and projects, or would you have a say in how you’d accomplish your job? Are projects front-loaded or back-loaded? Do people always seem to be running around doing, or are their plans for accomplishing tasks? If you are an organized and methodical person and the organization you’re seeking to join is more chaotic and free form, or vice versa, it could be a bad match. How the work gets done is an important part of the culture — seek to figure this out.

*Figure out the main methods of communication in the company. Is it an email-only place — could you hear the proverbial pin drop, except for all the clicking at the keyboards? Do people actually talk to each other? Is it a memo-driven culture where before you can proceed you need a supervisor’s sign-off on your idea? Or do supervisors and staffers seem to brainstorm aloud and in meetings? If you spend any time during the hiring process in the workplace of the company, you will get some information about communication — look for signs of this as much as you can while visiting for interviews and meetings. Again, a lot of this is personal preference — if you’re used to the hustle and bustle (and noise!) of a busy newsroom or a Hill office, for instance, and you’re looking at a communications job with a small non-profit where business is done through email, you may have some culture shock. And that may be less important than the effectiveness of the modes of communication in the organization; ask a lot of questions about whether management seems to communicate well with staffers. As most of us are all too aware, some communications companies haven’t quite figured out how to communicate with their own employees!

*Some food for thought for freelancers (and aren’t most of us freelancers or “consultants” at least sometimes??) — magazine writers aren’t incorporating much multimedia into their pitches or stories….According to this interesting piece by PBS/MediaShift (via, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg syndrome. Looks like there’s some opportunity out there for enterprising freelancers to shake things up a bit:

Magazine Writers Are Slow To Take Up Multimedia (PBS / MediaShift)

*And today’s job leads are focused in communications and journalism:

*The National Journal Group in D.C. continues to hire reporters and a few more editors amid a reorganization in which many veteran staffers took buyouts. This is one of the remaining openings — for an executive editor for the gotta-read-it political tipsheet The Hotline:
Executive Editor, The Hotline
National Journal – Washington, DC
leading daily news briefing on American politics, seeks an Executive Editor with sharp editing and writing skills, excellent news judgment, a new media…
From National Journal

*SRA International in D.C. is looking for a training and communications specialist:

Training and Communications Specialist
SRA International – Washington, DC
and facilitation of training courses both live and… Excellent verbal and written communication skills. Project Management. Communications Planning. Desired…
From Dice

*The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in D.C. has an opening for a senior consultant in strategic communications:

Senior Consultant, Strategic Communications
Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association – Washington, DC
Consultant, Strategic Communications Organization… Communications group, including media and public relations, member advocacy, and executive communications…

*AOL in Sterling, Va., (near Dulles International) has an opening for a managing editor for travel:
Managing Editor, Travel
AOL – Sterling, VA
TBD About Us na
From AOL

*Home Front Communications in D.C. has several openings — including this one for a senior digital media manager:
Senior Digital Media Manager
Home Front Communications – Washington, DC
FRONT COMMUNICATIONS is seeking a full-time Senior Digital Media Manager to develop, implement and execute digital media strategies and communications efforts…

*For someone looking to make a career shift, Follett Higher Education Group is looking for a textbook manager in D.C. at American University:
Follett Higher Education Group – Washington, DC
to customer service, communication, data entry and… associates. Responsible for recruiting, hiring, training and Performance Management of associates in the…
From Follett Higher Education Group

*And to wrap up today’s leads, Public Interest GRFX,  the in-house communications team for Environment America in D.C., has several openings, including for a communications and a design associate:

Good luck on the hunt today!



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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