How to Evaluate Company Culture as a Job Candidate

I talk to a lot of job seekers who care about company culture. They want a great culture that motivates them and makes them happy to go to work every day. But when I dig deeper and ask for specifics, usually things get vague.

What exactly is company culture? And how can you understand a company’s culture as a candidate who is an outsider?

At its core, company culture is the set of values and norms that dictate what matters at the company. Culture is deeply rooted in the beliefs and philosophies of the leadership. It signals to everyone the expected practices for working and communicating. Those that align with the culture will find success, and those that clash will struggle.

But how do you decipher a culture as an onlooker?

Keep in mind that companies are selling you on their environment. They are actively marketing to you, so that you’ll hopefully accept the offer they extend. So that means you need to be a subtext sleuth and look beneath the surface. How can you do this?

  • Watch out for perks masquerading as culture. A lot of companies and employees confuse perks with culture. Perks are the cool things that you’ll find in tech companies that make your work life easy and pleasant. Comfy couches, free meals or snacks, and monthly Mario Kart tournaments are perks. They are nice to have, but shouldn’t be the reason to join a company. If all a company can tout is their perks, you’ll need to ask your interviewers about what the company seems to value. If you don’t get consistent answers, chances are nobody has given culture much thought. There will still be a culture - but not a culture that has been thoughtfully considered.

  • Find out if a company walks the walk, or just talks the talk. Having stated cultural values is great. It means the leadership has distilled their guiding principles into something concrete. But even if that company’s stated ethos sounds great, how true is it? Talk to your interviewers. Ask them how they see company values playing out every day. Are people rewarded for acting in accordance with the company values? Do the values just seem like empty statements which sound good to outsiders like job applicants? Ask questions and listen intently to what you hear.

  • Turnover is telling. Ask about turnover metrics, or do some sleuthing on LinkedIn to see how long people stay at the company. Sure, people move around a lot in tech, but if several employees don’t even last a year, or you see a lot of senior folks jumping ship - chances are something is going on.

  • Glassdoor is gold. Checking out employee reviews on Glassdoor can be very telling. You want to look for trends and patterns. Do you see a particular issue coming up repeatedly, or a particular person being referenced over and over? Keep in mind that any anonymous sounding board is a hotbed for angry employees, but that repeated themes usually are rooted in truth. Don’t be scared off by anomalies, but look for consistent evidence.

Ultimately, you can’t be absolutely certain about a company’s culture until you’ve lived it, but if you do your homework, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re walking into.

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