3 Reasons Company Culture Matters in Choosing an Employer

3 Reasons Company Culture Matters in Choosing an Employer

by Kerry Scott on 11 May 2009

494387381_2266f84a11Photo by hydropeek

A week or so ago, I wrote a post about the CEO of Delta Air Lines and his interview techniques.  In the comments, Charles said:

“cultural fit ” – I’m sorry; But I do NOT get that and never have.

I have always viewed it the way you are viewing this guy as some one who wants to hire “people who came from backgrounds just like the people who already work here.”

If your organization has a professional environment and the job candidate has the necessary skills/experience and comes across in the interview as professional then how can they not be a “cultural fit”? What other culture are hiring managers referring to?

I definitely can’t speak for Delta’s CEO.  When I’m talking about “cultural fit,” though, I’m talking about the company culture, not the cultural background of the individuals who work there.  I’ve moved around the country quite a bit, and I was an HR consultant for six years, so I’ve worked for a LOT of companies.  Each had its own culture, and both the candidate and the company need to ensure up front that the candidate is going to be able to be successful in that culture.  Here’s why:

  1. The culture can make you miserable. I wrote a while back about a company I’d joined even though I knew the culture was not a fit for me.  Not long after I left there, I interviewed for a different job with a small company.  I was in the final interview stages, and I was meeting with the big boss.  I asked her to tell me about the office culture.  She said, “Umm, yeah, I probably should warn you about that.  We have a lot of single people in their 20s, and sometimes they sleep together.  There’s a lot of relationship drama here.  We usually drink beer in the conference room after work, and on Friday nights we all go barhopping together.  We don’t care who you sleep with, but if you don’t participate in the social stuff, you are going to be an outcast.”  Now, some people would dig that kind of thing.  I’m not one of them.  I hate bars, I hate beer, I hate office hookups, and if I’ve spent all day with my colleagues, the last thing I want to do is spend more time with them at night.  This saved me a lot of grief, because being an outcast in a small office is not that much fun.   Alison at Ask a Manager also had a question from a reader recently about being repulsed by the office culture (and really, the whole part about the spitting during meetings is totally worth the click).  The wrong culture can really make you unhappy.
  2. The culture can make you ineffective.  I worked for one company where the management style was very collaborative.  People met to address issues, spoke reasonably (for the most part), came to consensus, and then went out and did stuff only after everyone agreed.  This style has its good and bad points, but bottom line, that was the culture.  At one point, one of the department heads left, and the guy who was hired to replace him was completely different.  He swore a lot, he was loud sometimes, and he made decisions quickly with input only from a few people he trusted.  He had some great ideas, and he was brought in to make changes that really needed to be made…but he never got to make them, because his style was so completely different than that of the rest of the company.  Organizations tend to attract and retain people who like working there; that’s why cultures are so hard to change.  People there liked the collaborative, quiet, everyone-agrees culture, and they worked there because they wanted to be in a place where that was the norm.  The bucket of cold water they received in the form of this completely different executive was too much, and they resisted him to the point where he finally gave up and left.  In fact, he left for a company that was much more receptive to his style, and he was far more successful there.
  3. The culture is probably not going to change anytime soon. Ask anyone who has been through a merger of two big companies, and they’ll probably tell you about some painful experiences.  Even when there’s a huge push to adapt people to a new culture, and there’s lots of buy-in, and all of the executives really want to make it happen…well, culture is strong.  People don’t change because you tell them to; in fact, if anything, they often resist just because they don’t like change, period, even when they know it needs to be done.  Earlier in my career, I thought part of my role in HR was to change the culture of the companies I worked for to be more like what I thought it should be.  I’m WAY over that.  You can’t really force another person to change, and you certainly can’t change a whole group of them without a great deal of work and a very long-term commitment.  If that’s what you’re hired to do, and you have support from all levels of the organization to do it—great.  Good luck.  That’s rare though, and in my experience, it’s best to choose employers whose culture is within the range of those in which you can be happy and productive.  That’s best for you AND the company.

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abdpbt May 11, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Good ideas. Sometimes a toxic environment for one person works well for another.

BTW, yes, I came here before you told me you did List Mondays. At ABDPBT, we are a full service website.

abdpbt’s last blog post..45 Abandoned Hallmark Holidaysli

Kerry Sandberg Scott May 11, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Holy crap, that IS full service. Excellent.

Ask a Manager May 11, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Hell yes. I actually think workplace culture can play at least as much of a role in whether or not someone is happy in their job as the job itself. You spend at least eight hours a day with your job — that’s a lot of time to spend in a place with a feel that just doesn’t mesh well with your preferences.

Ask a Manager’s last blog post..should extra duties equal more pay?

HRPufnstuf May 12, 2009 at 8:55 am

This is a really timely post. When the economy is bad, people will take jobs without properly evaluating the culture, and it can be a train wreck. My first job out of college, I took without evaluationg the culture and is was not good. I remember during one weekly office meeting the boss explaining that the world was only 4 thousand years old, fossils were fake, and anyone that wanted to argue the point would be fired. That was enough for me!

Kerry Sandberg Scott May 12, 2009 at 8:58 am

Puf—I worked for that same guy. Small world.

I understand why people are making choices like that now. I mean, you have to eat. You have to feed your family. This advice assumes that you already have food in the fridge, the heat bill is paid, and your mortgage payments are up-to-date. Then you can think about whether you will be happy in the job…but I know there are folks out there who just don’t have the luxury of sweating this stuff right now.

Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com May 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

I have worked in some of the most diverse startups/companies. One I remember very fondly was started by two gents who could not have been any more different, one was hard core Catholic and the other one was sworn atheist (that is just scratching the surface of their difference). BUT we also looked like the UN, since we probably had employees from every continent, every religion, single & married, kids and 4+ kids, and etc. etc. It was the best place I have ever worked for! Why did it work? Culture culture culture! We did not need a single HR person in a 120+ person company, we left the paper pushing to software. We had two in-house recruiters who had phenomenal nose for talent and cultural fit. BTW, they are still with the company and I heard they are still growing even in this downturn.
That all said, so this article got me thinking about those true components of corp culture. Here is what I have so far:
1. Management style – open, closed, everyone involved, only top dogs make the calls.
2. Decision-making process – flat “org chart”, or team-based decisions, or the “pyramid”
3. Leadership style – we are here to lead our people by serving them or we are here to divide and conquer.
4. Life/work balance – we are all workaholics with no families, or we work hard and play hard, or we work hard and like to have other dimensions too
5. Reward system – rockstars get paid and people who support them are just B-players, or team over individualism, or balance value system
6. Company mission – we are equity builders, or quick hack and flip types, or company is something founders started to not be bored in retirement.

Now I am possibly missing some points, but at least those are the top ones that come to my mind.

BTW, great blog, Kerry. Time to add it to my RSS reader.

Apolinaras “Apollo” Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com’s last blog post..Time to make HR accountable! The rise of Human Capital professionals.

Kerry Sandberg Scott May 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

That is an excellent list, Apollo.

Paula May 13, 2009 at 6:48 am


Excellent list indeed.

Company culture is important. I’ve worked for a wide variety of industries as a technical communicator and my favorite places have been the places that had a really good idea of what their corporate culture should be and are working on getting there or are already there but are open to new ways of doing day-today business.

I’m very fortunate to be working right now and I’m blessed to be with a company that has a great corporate culture all the way around.

class factotum May 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

So how do you ask, “Does the director make you wait until 9 p.m. to discuss the weekly report with you?” and “Will you be counseled for leaving work at 6:00 p.m. — just for walking out, even if your work is done?” and “How often are you expected to come in on Saturday?”

What if you want a job where you work a reasonable 55-hour week and don’t want to know that they turn the lights out at 10 p.m. and you have to call Security to turn them back on?

class factotum’s last blog post..Marriage 101, Lecture 288: They say it’s your birthday, or, The boy who cried "Bee!"

Kerry Sandberg Scott May 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Actually, Class, I think I’m going to do a post on that next week (probably Monday). It’s not easy, but there ARE ways to find out just what you’re getting into before you take the job.

class factotum May 14, 2009 at 8:41 am

Thanks, Kerry. I had someone ask me in a phone interview, “How do you feel about tight deadlines and long hours?” I thought, “I feel like it is very poor management if it happens all the time.” When I had the on-site interview, they told me they regularly worked 70-hour weeks and weekends.

Sometimes an all-nighter is necessary. If you are doing a software conversion and are taking an entire factory offline to switch to the new operating system and have to do it on a weekend and test everything and get it up and running again by Monday, then YES. Yes, you have to work all weekend and maybe all night because this HAS TO BE DONE.

But every weekend? No.

Late every night? No.

Long hours and tight deadlines every week means unrealistic deadlines and understaffing, neither of which I want to be involved with. When I was asked that question, red flags started waving all over the place. I have already lived the sweatshop corporate finance M&A oh isn’t it glamorous! job and have no interest in returning.

Maybe I don’t need to know which questions to ask — maybe the companies identify themselves straight out!

class factotum’s last blog post..Sixteen tons

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