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What are specific ways to learn about a company's culture during the interview and application process to ensure a match?

I understand the value in conversation via LinkedIn/networking, as well as asking questions on this topic during the interview. I am looking for methods other than these.

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    Do you have specific aspects of the culture you want to know about? Company culture can be very broad. – Rarity Oct 1 '12 at 20:29
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    I think since this question was closed the standards have changed and this is a good question for the site. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 30 '15 at 18:44
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Observation

I'd say number one is observation. How do they ask questions? What are they asking about? How do they react when you give an answer?

Also - what's the decision making process.

The specifics are going to vary widely - not only by company culture, but also your location and industry. But key points would be :

  • how consensus driven are they?

  • how much are they interested in clarifying misunderstandings? How do they approach that?

  • how are they dressed? what are their mannerisms? What do they seem to expect from you?

  • how much of the interview is your qualifications to do the job vs. your personality and how you will fit in the team?

  • what do they think of as important points to bring up first?

External connections

My strongest impression is usually formed by the active members of the company that I meet, but I also like to know something of the impression from the outside. There's sites like Glassdoor.com that rate and review company cultures, which may give a subjective view. I've seen commentary there from ex-employees, as well.

The important thing to think about is that outsiders have an outside perspective. Sometimes that's more accurate - for example, I've heard employees talk so negatively about a decline in benefits that you'd think the world was ending -- only come to find out that across the board, the company in question still has the nicest benefits on the market, it's just that the market has waned - outside perspectives will tell you that.

Facts & Figures

Depends on the nature of your change - but getting metrics on the company isn't a crazy idea either. I do this particularly whenever I consider a smaller firm - I want to know how stable they may be, and I want to know details of the org chart and how I might fit into it. This may matter less when considering a giant firm, but still - things like stock price trend may give you a perspective that regular human commentary and observation cannot.

Finally

To me, it's usually a matter of putting it all together - looking for things that don't make sense that may require some research or putting the whole collection of information together to see whether what info I'm seeing is verified from multiple sources.

18

I agree with bethlakshmi that observation is one of your best bets, I want to expand on that part of her answer a bit though.

First, I always ask to see the spaces where I would work. If they resist this idea, that's a big red flag. It makes me wonder what they are hiding.

If they do give me a tour, I look at how people are interacting with each other. Is it a quiet place with everyone wearing headphones and talking only through electronic means? Is it noisy? Are people walking by friendly or totally in their own zone or, worse yet, clearly uncomfortable seeing a stranger or the manager you are walking with. Notice any casual conversation. Do people shut up when they see you (or the person you are with)?Does the person giving the tour allow you to meet people or does he or she interact with them in any way? How are people dressed?

Are the desks decorated with personal stuff or not? Are all the desks clean or are there some messy people? Do the desks appear as if they are interchangeable with no personal stuff and no papers or books and only laptops? Is there any privacy or is everyone in a big room? Are there spaces available for breaks or work discussions? What is the temperature like? Is the place shabby and the equipment clearly old?

Does the energy in the workplace appear happy or tense or laidback? I know it sounds a little strange to talk about evaluating the energy in the room, but really if you are looking for this, you can spot it. It really is more an evaluation of a bunch of signals you are not consciously processing like body language, tone of voice, etc. Energy is just the term that seems the best for me to describe all these subliminal signals.

While you are waiting watch how people treat the receptionist. How the lowest ranked people are treated is a good indicator of how anyone not a manager is treated. In fact, shamelessly listen in on all conversations around you as you wait for the interviewer or as you walk around the spaces in a tour. Conversations other people are having without them directly interacting with you or even being aware you are listening are critical to seeing what the company is really like on a day-to-day basis.

Everyone is different on what makes them comfortable. So there is no right answer to what you see.

Of course ask questions about thing in the culture that you are interested in. But don't pay attention to just the answer but to how the person is reacting to the question. There are body signals that can help you determine if the person is telling you what you want to hear rather than what the real answer is. This is especially critical when you ask about things like overtime. In fact, a good book on body language can help you start to see these things which is important in an interviewing situation.

13

My favourite is to see what clothes I can get away with wearing for the interview. If it's during a normal work week, I'll suggest that if I go into my normal job wearing anything but t-shirt and jeans, they'll smell a rat. Most companies that I'm going to be a fit for really don't care what I wear, even for the interview, and will say so.

Of course I don't know what culture you're looking for. You might want to dress up super-smart because that's the environment you want to work in. My point is that dress-code is a strong indicator of culture.

I'm always interested in looking around the office, while people are still working. Get a sense of the vibe. If the people I'm meeting try to hide me from the office, I'll ask if I can take a look around. I want to feel the environment and decide if that's a place I want to spend 8+ hours a day.

Another big clue is the people who interview you. In my opinion, HR should never interview people for skilled roles, at least beyond a simple phone screen. Even if it's just a manager, on his own, that's a red-flag. The kind of place I want to work let's a team decide who they want to work with.

Again, you might disagree with me there, or you might not be looking for a skilled role, but it's always a good way of looking at the culture of a company.

Also, just be yourself. Let them decide if you're going to be a fit or not. There's nothing more dangerous in an interview than pretending to be what you think they want. If you're right, you'll never be able to sustain the illusion; if you're wrong, you might scare off a good match.

All this said, there is no substitute for asking the right questions. None.

  • I am a professional at work and love to play when i am home. But I do seperate the 2. I would never consider wearing my harley shirt and leathers to an interview. I do not want to work somewhere that would hire someone that did either. It is about showing respect to the business. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 1 '12 at 20:57
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    @Chad: So you're agreeing with me? I'm not making the case that everyone should want to work where I would want to work. I'm making the case that attitudes towards dress-code says a lot about culture. – pdr Oct 1 '12 at 21:33
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    +1 for "HR should never interview people for skilled roles". HR interview = [crappy place to work, less skillfull team, more politics, less gets done] has held up almost 100% throughout my career. – MrFox Oct 2 '12 at 14:06
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That's a very good question, and I'm looking forward for other answers. In my opinion, here's a checklist for items to pay attention to when going through a interview process:

  • Punctuality: If your interview is getting rescheduled over and over, you might have a good insight about how organized (or not) things are at the company.
  • Environment: If the interview is conducted in a proper reserved room, with a calm atmosphere, it means there's enough dedication to this interview. If you get into the company and the chat starts with "I don't know where we're going to chat, let me check", raise the red flag.
  • Interviewers: If the decision of hire / no-hire is taken based on a single 5-minutes interview, be worried. An interview is a long and complex process, which usually goes through not only one interviewer. The interview might start with a phone screen before the meeting in person. If you're hired in a 10 minutes straight-to-person interview, I'd say they might get rid of you as this fast too.
  • Organization: The interview needs to have a proper agenda, or at least the interviewer must know what to ask. If they don't even know what to ask in a routine process like an interview, you can imagine how hard will be to extract from them what they want you to do.
  • Open chat: Smart companies and interviewers give you opportunity for you to ask what you want to know about the company. It's your turn to clarify any open question you may have.
  • Ensure you know the company you're applying to: A company that's really searching for a person to fit into it's culture will make sure you're not only spreading several curricula across every job site you may find. In the same way, ensure they're really looking for someone like you, instead of the first curriculum that reaches their mailbox.

The list is huge, but I believe we have here a good start. Reading on the internet about some recruitment processes (like THIS JoelOnSoftware article) is also very interesting.

One last thing: Remember that there are two different things to be taken into account: one is the company itself, other is the interviewer(s). In most of the cases, one will be the reflex of the other, but don't take it for granted.

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    Great points. If they have to reschedule your interview repeatedly there is a good chance there are alot of fires they are putting out. That can make for a challenging work environment if you are not the type of person that enjoys putting out fires all the time. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 1 '12 at 20:39
  • I disagree with a lot of your points. I've been hired on the spot once after a 2 min conversation (and a 3 hour coding test). There was no agenda, fail on punctuality, and the room was noisy. BUT the company was expanding at an insane rate, getting a lot done, and their only concerns about me were: "Is he an @sshole? Does he code well?". It was one of the best places I worked. – MrFox Oct 2 '12 at 14:13
  • Well @suslik, as long as you're comfortable with the environment, it's fine. I just assumed that people tend to be more comfortable under organized environments, which clearly isn't your case (and may not be enderland's as well) but the point is to assess it and think of it. – Tiago Cardoso Oct 2 '12 at 14:56
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    @TiagoCardoso the only thing that matters to me is: does the culture help me to get things done? An organized environment can be beneficial, but it can also be detrimental if there's too much process that wastes people's valuable time and brain cycles. What I'm trying to say is that it's a subpoint of 'getting things done', and I agree that it's a personal choice. – MrFox Oct 2 '12 at 15:20
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Be careful about a few things here:

  1. To whom are you asking these questions. An HR person may have a different view of how work gets done than the actual development team that may be in product development or IT. Thus, the HR person may give a boilerplate answer that doesn't help as they don't know the day to day specifics of how the developers actually work. Similarly, asking managers may give false data as their perspective may be skewed because they only see some of the work and not the other pieces. Imagine developers that work one way if the manager is away from the office but be completely different when the manager is sitting next to them. My preference here would be to find either current team members or those that recently left if possible to gather the data.

  2. Is the person really able to be honest with you? This is where if you ask some sensitive questions within earshot of the boss or other developers, you could get somewhat sanitized answers that aren't what you want. You want to take the contact far enough away from the office that the person can speak freely which may require a meal and a bit of a drive so that you aren't where the co-workers go to eat.

  3. Consider looking at what kind of social dynamics do these people have. If there are places where they often go for lunch, this may be useful to go and watch the potential future co-workers to see how they act at lunch. Similarly, consider what time do people start work, stop work and what kinds of other contact are done within the company? For example, do they use Skype, texting and other means to communicate with employees and expect people to be on-call most of the time?

  • I have removed these questions from my question because it was causing significant confusion. – enderland Oct 1 '12 at 22:55

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