Career Doctor: Are You and the Company a Good Fit?

By Katherine Spencer Lee | July 2008


I’ve been out of work for a few months, and I just scheduled an interview for a job as a systems administrator. The job description sounds really interesting, but I don’t know much about the company, and that makes me a little nervous. At the last place I worked, I didn’t really fit in, which was a big reason why I left. Do you have any suggestions for learning about this organization’s culture?

Katherine Spencer Lee responds:

The excitement of a fresh start leads many IT job candidates to overlook one of the most important aspects of a new position: how well they’ll fit into the company’s culture. Every organization has a corporate culture – a blend of values that reflect the company’s policies and actions, that often set the tone for day-to-day team dynamics and employee interactions. If the culture doesn’t sit well with you, it can wear on you, no matter how much you enjoy the position’s pay or prestige. The result can be a short, frustrating stint at a company that wastes both your time and the employer’s.

While there’s no way to be certain about a company’s culture before you start the job, a little detective work can give you a good idea of whether a potential employer is right for you.

Define what you¿re looking for

Adapting to an unfamiliar work culture isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if you haven’t been with many companies. Take some time to think about the type of office environment that suits you best. Are you more comfortable in a competitive environment, or a supportive one? Innovative or traditional?

Make a list of your work values so you can see how well they align with a potential employer’s culture. If you value independence, for example, you’ll quickly clash with management that insists on being involved in minor decisions.

Investigate online

It’s fairly easy to develop a decent picture of a company’s culture with a little research. Start with the corporate website. Just as important as what the company says about itself is how it says it. An organization may profess to have a cutting-edge image, but if its website looks like a throwback to 2003, you might question that claim. Also search technology news and business sites. If your prospective employer is a public company, check out its annual report for more hints about life at the firm. The report may include information about community relations programs or work/life balance initiatives, for instance.

Next, use news websites and business portals to uncover more information. You might find awards the company has won, such as "best companies" honors given by FORTUNE, Forbes and Working Mother. On the other hand, you might learn the organization is involved in litigation or has recently received negative press.

Consult your network

Candid employees of the company, past or present, can provide the most revealing insights. Even if you don’t know anyone who has worked at the company, chances are someone in your network does know such a person. Since IT departments often have a different culture than the company as a whole, concentrate on finding technology employees. Online networking sites such as LinkedIn can help you expand your connections and gain more information.

Pick up on interview clues

The interview process is your best chance to learn about the culture of a company and its IT department. Take note of the workplace atmosphere, for example. Do employees seem engaged with their work and each other, or stressed and isolated?

When meeting with the hiring manager, ask questions geared toward the corporate culture, such as "What do you like best about working here?" You might also ask about the characteristics the company values most in employees or how performance is measured and rewarded.

You might learn just as much from the way the interviewer responds as from what he or she tells you. Does the interviewer hesitate before responding? Do you get a sense of genuine excitement, or are you just being fed the company line?

Confirm your impressions

Don’t put too much stock in any single impression, whether it’s from an interviewer, a friend’s experience or your research. The more impressions you get, the better you’ll be at detecting an aberration from a distinct pattern. A former employee’s complaint about a cutthroat environment, for example, might say more about that person than the corporate culture.

Don’t hold your tongue, however, about a misgiving that could become a deal-breaker down the line. A follow-up interview gives you a chance to address any culture-related concerns you’ve developed. For example, if you have impressions from several sources that management doesn¿t encourage creativity, ask about it directly.

Keep in mind that you’re not necessarily judging how well an organization works overall – you’re simply building the clearest possible picture of how well it might work for you. A company may have a thriving, efficient workplace that just doesn’t agree with you. But with a little background work, you’ll have a better chance of finding a culture that fits with you.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.