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6/24/12 - To Investigate Culture, Ask the Right Questions

by Bill Barnett, HBR Blog Network  Bill Barnett led the Strategy Practice at McKinsey & Company and has taught career strategy to graduate students at Yale and Rice. He now is applying business strategy concepts to careers.

In my last blog post, I encouraged thoroughly investigating the culture you're thinking of joining. In the comments, some people agreed they needed to learn about culture but were unsure how to approach it. A few were skeptical. I believe you can learn about culture, even in the early stages. Here are suggestions about how to structure your inquiry.

To get started, be clear what culture to learn about. In a large institution, there may be big differences across departments. Cultures also can be moving targets. Large institutions may change with their environment. In start-ups, expect everything to be different a year later.

Be sure to understand the role you'd have, what you could accomplish, and what you'd learn. A strong culture will set people up for success, and you need to be sure that's in place. In discussing your role, you'll also get insight into how the place works.

Then, ask questions that point the discussion to how the organization works. General questions — "What's the culture like?" or "Are people treated well?" — seldom work. I've come up with specific sample questions you can ask as you're interviewing for a job or talking with others who know the institution. They're grouped into six topic areas.


1. Purpose. Seek an institution whose purpose you could find inspiring. Consider asking:

•Is the institution's purpose being met? What happens if there are gaps?
•When has the purpose changed a decision? What if purpose conflicts with financials?
•Who are the heroes?

Form an opinion whether people are proud of their product or service, and of their institution. Do people use the word "we" when mentioning it?


2. Teamwork. Consider how people work together, especially if you prefer to work in a highly collaborative environment or more independently. Ask:

•How much do you work with your colleagues? What team accomplishments make you proud?
•Are there special activities to promote teamwork? Are they voluntary?
•Are people mostly competing for promotion and credit, or are they selflessly united behind the institution?

At their best, teams can be a strength, but some can be a problem. Weigh the answers to these questions against what you want out of your work environment.


3. Colleagues. Who you'll be working with and how they interact with each other is an important aspect of culture. Find out:

•Who in your institution do you spend time with outside work? What do you do together?
•Who in your institution do you expect to be part of your professional network over time?
•Who are your mentors? Do leaders continuously engage with you or coach you?

Judge how much deference people give to senior people and whether that feels right. Consider your past experiences, and ask yourself how the talent compares to your classmates in college or in earlier positions.


4. Communication. How people communicate with others — and how they expect you to communicate with them — will affect your day-to-day life. Consider asking:

•Except for sensitive information, do people know what's going on?
•Do people say what they think? Are they direct and blunt, even if others are offended?
•Is everyone encouraged to participate in discussions and have dissenting opinions? Does the boss listen?
•Are people careful what they say and how they say it? Do they avoid controversial issues?

Consider how well people's communications styles fit with your preferences. See if the communication during the interview matches the answers to your questions.


5. Performance. Before taking a job, you need to know how fair or demanding performance management is and how supervisors will be looking at your work. Ask:

•How would I be successful here?
•What determines performance evaluations?
•How is negative feedback communicated? Is it private, respectful, and focused on improvement, or negative and embarrassing?
•Do performance measures reflect differences in difficulty? Are measures adjusted when employees have limited influence on results?

Some like it when there's no doubt what's on the line. Others prefer a more nuanced view of performance. How do they compare to your preference?


6. Productivity. A good match of process and policy against your preferences will significantly affect your productivity.

•Are the right people involved in decisions at the right time? What steps must be taken before a big decision is made?
•Do supervisors have an open-door policy? Can people drop in with questions, or do they require appointments?
•What policies does the institution have on day-to-day activities (e.g., dress code, work hours, office environment)?

Look around the office while you're there. Is it orderly or disorderly? Is the hiring process professional and respectful? Are there any red flags?


Cultural characteristics can be more or less appealing to different people. You might want an institution where performance is king, while others feel that isn't fair. You might seek the clarity that formal structure and process provide, while others want a wide open environment. The culture you want is part of your aspirations, and understanding culture is part of deciding whether to accept an offer.