How to Determine Cultural Fit During the Interview Process

You’ve just started a new job that seemed like a perfect fit on paper. Now that you’re on the ground, though, you’re not so sure. Before accepting the offer, you examined the title, job description, and salary to make sure the role aligned with your skills, interests, and career goals, but you might have overlooked the impact the company’s culture would have before signing on the dotted line.

If you can relate, you’re not alone. Many people underestimate the importance of cultural fit when embarking on a new role, believing their focus on the daily responsibilities of the job will far outweigh any discrepancy between their personal work preferences and the existing company culture. But this can be a costly mistake. If the company’s culture doesn’t align with your goals, expectations, and values, you’ll likely find yourself unsatisfied, and on the job hunt again, sooner than you’d like.

But what does “company culture” really mean, anyway?

What is “Company Culture?”

More than just perks like ping-pong and beer cart Fridays, company culture is comprised of an organization’s values, beliefs, and behaviors.

In some ways, company culture is explicitly defined in a company’s mission statement, HR handbook, and workplace policies. But often, what job seekers think of as culture comes about organically. For example, the way a company engages and supports employees; the style, level of formality, and transparency in communication; and the common attitudes and work habits among employees all contribute to the underlying culture of an organization.

The Importance of Cultural Fit

While it’s critical that what you’re doing aligns with your skill set and career goals, where, when, and how you perform your work will also have a significant impact on your long-term job performance and satisfaction. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of job seekers said that “cultural fit” was their single most important determining factor in choosing a role.

For hiring professionals, an employee who will fit into the existing culture will likely be more satisfied, exhibit superior job performance, be more engaged, and less likely to leave the company than someone who clashes with the culture.

In fact, research shows that cultural fit is more important in predicting an employee’s commitment to their employer than any other factor, including skill, talent, or experience.

It’s not to say that you cannot succeed in an organization whose values differ from yours, but in the long run, it’s likely you’ll be more happy and productive in an environment that complements your preferences. Luckily, there are steps you can take to uncover a company’s culture during the hiring process to determine if you’re a fit before committing to your next role.

How to Determine a Company’s Culture (And If You’re a Fit)

Getting a sense of a company’s true culture can be hard, as companies—like candidates—tend to put their best foot forward during the interview process. It’s not uncommon that the day-to-day environment inside a company paints a much different picture than the culture management outwardly projects. Think about it: Have you ever taken a role that promised flexibility, for example, only to land on the job and find yourself getting a sideways glance every time you intend to work from home?

But how can you determine your fit with a company’s culture without actually being on the job? Here’s what to do before accepting a job offer:

1. Identify Your Own Values

Identify past work environments where you’ve felt most happy. Whether it was the opportunity to take lead on projects, a collaborative environment, clear and transparent organizational goals, or maybe even the short commute—anything goes. 

Now, think about the type of environments that motivate you and stimulate your productivity. Do you work best under a deadline or when you have the freedom to work within your own schedule? Do your ideas flow more freely in a group setting, or do you achieve your best work solo? 

Lastly, consider the type of lifestyle you’d like your next job to supplement. Are you willing to be on-call 24 hours a day, or are you hoping to punch the clock at five p.m.?

There’s a variety of cultural factors to consider when deciding what matters most to you. Think about what you hope your next office culture will value, including:

  • work-life balance
  • flexible hours
  • recognition
  • diversity
  • personal development
  • growth opportunity
  • community engagement
  • innovation
  • focus
  • fun
  • collaboration
  • stability
  • autonomy
  • competitive salary
  • access to leadership

Make a list of the top 10 factors that you’d have in your ideal work environment, and note the aspects you’re not willing to compromise on in your next role—these are your deal breakers.

2. Conduct Company Research

To get a sense of a company’s culture and core values, first check out their company website, including career pages, mission statement, and the “About Us” section. Pay attention to the types of language they use, pictures they include, and the creative (or standard) titles they use to describe themselves. This can give you an initial sense of how the company wants to portray itself to the outside world. Taking a look at the company’s social media presence—or lack thereof—can help you deduce the company’s level of employee and community engagement, as well as their overall tone.

Visit sites like Glassdoor to see how the employee reviews stack up against the company’s self-image. No hiring manager is going to reveal that the company lacks diversity or the unlimited sick time policy is internally discouraged, but an anonymous employee will.

Employee feedback can give you first-hand insight into what it’s like to work at a company, but don’t forget to take these subjective employee testimonials with a grain of salt. While their opinions can add context to your overall understanding of the company’s culture, since people tend to leave more negative reviews than positive ones, you may come across a former or current employee whose advice is more resentful than constructive.

You can also reach out to present and former employees on LinkedIn. Whether they want to brag about their place of work or just complain to the nearest person willing to listen, most people will be willing to share some insight into their company’s culture. Even a few politely phrased questions can help you glean insights into team norms and habits that you won’t find in the HR handbook.

If you’re not sure what to ask current or former employees, start with these three questions:

  • Would you recommend working at your company to a good friend? Why or why not?
  • What types of people are most likely to succeed in this environment? Why?
  • What would you say are the biggest pros and cons of the current company culture?

3. Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open During the Hiring Process

Throughout the hiring process, use your time in the lobby to your advantage. Pay attention to what you see and hear around you, taking note of how people are working. Is it quiet? Bustling with energy? Is everyone friendly, or do their conversations lean toward quiet professionalism? Are people milling about and working collaboratively in conference rooms, or are they sitting in cubes working independently?

As you walk through the halls, take note of visual cues around the office that can reveal the organization’s personality. You can expect a vastly different culture from a company whose bulletin boards boast quarterly numbers and company deadlines than one whose walls are littered with pictures from the latest company dodgeball tournament.

You’re once again only viewing a small piece of the puzzle, so try not to draw conclusions from this single set of observations. You can, however, get a general sense of the office’s formality or lack thereof. Consider if the office is somewhere you can see yourself fitting into and enjoying.

4. Ask The Right Questions

During the interview, make sure to ask insightful, nuanced questions beyond: “Describe the office culture.” Asking the right questions will give you a clear picture of the organizational environment you’ll be stepping into.

Instead of asking, “Would you describe the culture as collaborative?”—a question most hiring managers would answer “yes” to—ask the hiring manager how often the staff members meet as a team to get a better sense of the amount of time employees actually spend collaborating on projects.

Be sure to ask for concrete examples to ascertain whether the listed benefits are actually something employees are actively encouraged to utilize on a regular basis. If you’re hoping to take advantage of the career growth opportunities they advertise, for example, ask the interviewer to describe the career path of someone who took the role five years ago.

Here are other examples of discerning questions that can help you gauge the value the company places on:

  • Transparency and communication: “When and how do team members give feedback to one another?” or “Can you tell me more about your process for giving and receiving feedback?”
  • Autonomy: “What kinds of projects would a person in my position be able to own from beginning to end?”
  • Openness to new ideas and innovation:Can you give an example of a time that someone in my role made a suggestion that was later implemented?”

5. Reflect and Decide

Take the time to assemble all of the information and observations you’ve made throughout the hiring process into a cohesive picture, and think about the aspects of the culture that make you absolutely want (or not want) to work at that organization. Think back to your deal breakers—the cultural values you said would be non-negotiable in your next role—and make sure the prospective job passes the test. As much as it might be tough to skip over what looks like a sound offer, recognize that day-in and day-out, you could be working in an environment that holds values contrary to yours.

No matter the environment, there will be times in any company culture you’ll face challenges and experience some doubt. But by working for a company whose overall values and core beliefs align with yours, you’ll be more likely to have long-term satisfaction.

For additional career advice, explore our other posts from our career advice archives including 6 Signs It’s Time to Change Careers (And What to Do About It)and “8 Tips For Acing Your Next Virtual Interview.”