Coach’s Corner Blog

Company Culture: Will We Know It When We See It?

February 21, 2018 by 2 Comments

Company Culture

When companies are interviewing, the better ones not only attempt to ensure that the candidates have the requisite skills for the job, but more importantly, attempt to determine if they would be a good “fit” for the company culture. This issue of “cultural fit” is also very important for the candidate, but what is really meant by the culture of the workplace?

Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sought to answer this in a New York Times article.

In this article, he states:

The culture of the workplace – an organization’s values, norms and practices – has a huge impact on our happiness and success.

I interview candidates for branch manager roles for a national financial services firm and seek to understand their leadership skills as well as the potential fit for the culture of that company.

I have worked with that organization for over 15 years and have a very clear sense of that culture. But how do you determine what the culture of an organization that we are interviewing with might be?

You can ask people you know that work there. You can read all you can find about the organization. But are there ways to inquire more effectively?

Stanford professor Joanne Martin analyzed the stories that people told about their workplaces in a study 30 years ago.

They discovered an organizational uniqueness bias: People think their cultures are more distinctive than they really are.

She came to find there are 7 common stories that are told about companies that seem to reinforce a claim that they are unique. Although the details of the stories obviously differ, they can be identified as one of the following seven:

  1. Is the big boss human?
  2. Can the little person rise to the top?
  3. Will I get fired?
  4. How will the organization deal with obstacles?
  5. How will the boss react to mistakes?
  6. Will the organization help me when I have to move?
  7. What happens when the boss is caught breaking a rule?

Here are some examples of the first 4 based on my experiences:

1. Is the big boss human?

Early in my career they referred to the offices of the senior executives of my division as “mahogany row”, which was reflective of the decor of the area. There was also an executive dining room and all of these served to segregate senior leaders from the rest of the organization.

When you’re interviewing, ask how frequently the senior leaders engage in “management by walking around”. Do they hold “skip level meetings” where the managers of a group are absent when the boss talks to the employees? Are there “town hall” meetings with open Q&A sessions? Do the senior leaders cook the food at cookouts? All of these can reinforce the connection with others and the humanness of the senior leaders.

2. Can the best rise to the top?

Any company that has all its leaders promoted from within does risk developing an insular perspective of the work world. However, an organization should support the very best employees in rising to key leadership roles when they have demonstrated their competency along the way. See what you can determine about the mix of internally versus externally developed leaders.

3. Will I get fired?

After the financial meltdown in 2008, an investment banking group that I work with saw their business dry up. They were a very successful team and they had two choices: 1. Let a lot of people go, or 2. Preserve as much of the talent as possible to be prepared when the business returned.

This client chose to retain their talent but it required significant sacrifices on the part of most of the senior bankers, whose base salary was quite modest compared to the bonuses that they earned annually. This team gave up any bonus consideration in order to retain the team and be prepared when business turned around. When that happened they were well positioned in the marketplace.

This says a lot about the culture.

4. How will the organization deal with obstacles?

The recent admissions by Volkswagen and General Motors of not being honest with their customers about internal problems is in stark contrast to what Tylenol did in the 80’s when some of its product was tampered with.

Tylenol pulled all the product off the shelf even though the problem was evident in a specific geographic area. Their behavior is the blueprint for what has come to be known as “crisis management”.

I’m sure you may be able to come up with many examples of your own for all seven of the stories, but Prof. Grant comments that:

They deal with three fundamental issues. The first is justice: Is this a fair place? Second is security: Is it safe to work here? Third is control: Can I shape my destiny and have influence in this organization?

My hope is that this post will assist you in preparing for interviews in the future. It is critical that you, as well as the hiring organization, find the very best fit for each other.

2017 was an excellent year for job creation in the United States and the demand for talent continues to grow.

As opportunities present themselves to you, ask yourself:

  • Can you craft good questions to use in interviews that will help you to understand the culture of the hiring company even better?
  • Are justice, security, and control all equally important to you? How will you prepare to learn more about the issues that matter most to you?
  • Are you willing to walk away from what seems like a good opportunity because of unresolved concerns that were raised about the culture?

I wish you the very best in your considerations.

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    Simona Sirghie January 20, 2016, 10:29 pm

    Hi Willy,
    I love this post and it comes at the right time for me since I’m starting to look around and see what’s available. I always knew that a company’s culture is very important to me but didn’t know how to look for that in an interview. Thanks for your advice!


      Willy January 22, 2016, 2:31 pm

      You are very welcome.



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