How to Tell If a Company’s Culture Will Strangle Your Soul

During the depths of the Recession, landing an engineering or development job was a phenomenal win. If by chance the employer’s cultural values aligned with yours, it was a bonus.

17213669_mBut here we are in 2013, with the overall economy gaining steam and the unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent. The situation is even better in the tech sector, which posted a mere 3.5 percent unemployment rate in the first quarter. With signs showing an economic recovery is underway, even if it’s advancing slowly, it’s time to put cultural fit back into the equation when you’re deciding whether to join a company.

Evaluation Tools

The first step is to know yourself and your values well. “You need to know what is important to you. For example, how much do you care about a flexible schedule, a collaborative environment or a quiet work space?” asks Evelyn Frith-McNeill, a career adviser for NOVA, a workforce development organization in northern California.

As an example, Frith-McNeill describes a woman in her 20s who recently visited the Google campus. She had a friend working there and was interested in joining the company, as well. In the end, though, the woman realized Google wasn’t for her. She needed a quiet, private working space that would be unlike Google’s open, sometimes noisy environment.

Once you have a good grounding in your values and have prioritized them, the next step is to seek out companies that fit them. The place to start is their websites, where you can find hints of the culture in its the mission statement and by viewing employee photos and video clips. Also, join the company’s social media networks to see how it interacts with prospective job seekers, employees and customers, says Melissa Venable, chair of the technology committee for the National Career Development Association.

Other places to look include Glassdoor and Yelp. And, of course, use your network to contact people who already work there.

Interview Assessment

When you get in for an interview, remember that the discussion is as much about you vetting the company as the company vetting you. While you’re sitting down with the recruiter, hiring manager or potential team you’ll be working with, Nick D’Ambrosio,  founder and managing director of First Round Search, poses some questions you should ask.

“The No. 1 thing you need to ask is, ‘why is there an opening?'” he says. “What you’ll want to hear is that the company is expanding and that’s why there is an opening. If it’s because of turnover, that says something about the company.” Then ask, “Why did the person leave and how long did they work at the company before they left?”  Says D’Ambrosio: “If they were there for less than six months, that’s a red flag.”

Given that the former employee left so soon, here’s another question: What would make for a successful candidate?

Of course, asking these things isn’t always easy. “Developers and engineers tend to be introverts and asking these hard questions aren’t in their DNA, but it needs to be done,” D’Ambrosio stresses.

5 Signs It Ain’t Gonna Work

After looking at your values, researching the company and interviewing with the hiring manager and team, it’s time to figure out if you’ll feel like the proverbial square peg in a round hole if you take the offered job. Look for these five warning signs:

  • The company has fewer than 70 percent of the values you seek.
  • Your gut is screaming, “no way.”
  • You have zero comfort level with your prospective team or boss, based on their personalities, age or peculiar habits.
  • The company, its products or services, or the job itself lacks any personal meaning.
  • After a couple months on the job, you’re ready to jump to another one.

“When people are without work and they need a job, they’ll take whatever comes along,” observes Frith-McNeill. “This will likely change as the economy recovers.”

You have to hope so. It’s one thing to put in long hours. It’s another the feel like you’re a galley slave while you’re doing it.

10 Responses to “How to Tell If a Company’s Culture Will Strangle Your Soul”

  1. Richard Morgan

    Another place to look is the Better Business Bureau. What is the company’s rating? One company I looked at was rated an F. Even that may be misleading – this company was a well-known pharmacy, and many of the complaints were because of the customer’s insurance problems, not the pharmacy.

    Also look for reviews of the company at These can be enlightening, but be careful – many are from disgruntled ex-employees, who may have been fired for reasonable causes and are prejudiced or looking for revenge. If you can’t find a review of the local office, look for reviews of the parent company.

  2. johngalt2001

    > … Signs It Ain’t Gonna Work
    > …
    > Your gut is screaming, “no way.”

    But if you’re in the Hudson Valley of NY, where the economy is **never** going to recover, you’ll find yourself going back to that same has-been 3-letter tech company that you’ve been stuck working at over the past 15 years. Like going back to an abusive spouse over and over, you find yourself with no other option than to go back to be abused and then eventually kicked to the curb again.

    • Richard Morgan

      To each his own. “Strangle your soul”??? You need to get a life if your job matters that much, or start your own company. I don’t care what goes on at work – I put in my day, do my best at it, and go home to my life. As long as the pay is good, I’ll put up with almost anything. Enjoying my work is a bonus, but as long as it pays the bills, I’m good.

      And forget the perks – trips, gifts, picnics, etc. If it doesn’t show in my paycheck, it’s irrelevant.

  3. Great read. is also good for spotting bad companies to work for. They collect (anonymous) reviews of companies from employees at the companies . Some people say they’re biased because people who bother to write do so out of motivation to vent and others says they’re biased because people want to say nice things about their company and the people they work with closely.

  4. > You have zero comfort level with your prospective team or boss, based on their personalities,
    > age or peculiar habits.

    Age?! Seriously? Is this article condoning ageism? Being uncomfortable around someone because of their age is in the same category as religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or nationality. There are many attributes that a manager or a team may have that may make a person uncomfortable to be around. A bastard at any age is a bastard.

  5. What recovery? It’s still very tough out there. I can’t imagine how it must be in other occupations. That lousy contracting gig (which more and more IT jobs are) still beats unemployment.

  6. Tanya

    The thing is… Smart recruiters and hiring managers will hardly ever tell the truth if the company has skeletons in the closet. I work for a company that treats old employees less well than the new, and turnover has been very high in the last year or so. But when they interview, they say the position is open because we’re growing so fast. Someone on the outside is not going to know they’re lying. So, getting the true picture is very difficult.

  7. ELTON

    I hear what you’re saying but sometimes staying in your comfort zone isn’t good either. You don’t grow as a professional doing that. In my recent job search, I refused to take positions that would have been identical to what I’ve done in the past and I signed on with a company that was much smaller than any other I’ve worked for previously. I wanted to try something new. Was that the safe path? No. Is my gut churning heading into this new role? Yes. But, it’s a challenge and I’m not going to enhance my skills by playing it safe. Of course, I’m not sure I would have taken the risk a year or two ago. But I view the improving market for tech workers as a backstop. I’m reasonably certain there will be jobs available to fall back on should things go sideways.