Red flag alert: 5 tips to gauge company culture before applying

Jun 11, 2024

5 mins

Red flag alert: 5 tips to gauge company culture before applying

There are many important factors to consider when looking for a new job. Variables like salary, location, seniority, and responsibilities are all key components of finding a role that matches your skills, background, and ambitions. However, even a dream job can become a nightmare if you aren’t a fan of the company culture.

The old attitude towards work as a place where you clock in and tow the company line in exchange for a paycheck is long gone as young workers want to find an ideal environment. Considering that you’ll spend most of your life at work, it’s not silly to want a healthy, fulfilling relationship with your workplace and that’s where the importance of company culture comes into play.

Why does company culture matter?

A company’s culture is more than its brand identity, or the general demographics of its employees. It’s a manifestation of an organization’s core values, how they treat their employees, and how they see the role of work in everyday life.

In your personal life, whether you realize it or not, you have a great deal of say in what kind of environment you surround yourself with. From the people you befriend to the neighborhood you live in, the choices you make reflect your unique interests, values, and goals. The workplace is no different. Companies are managed by different people with different perspectives on managing the relationship with their employees, and not every environment will be your cup of tea.

However, the stakes are higher when it comes to your career. If you realize you don’t have much in common with a friend, or you find out one of your favorite brands is unethical, it’s not too complicated to change those dynamics. However, when your livelihood is on the line, it can be much harder to identify and correct a cultural incompatibility in the workplace. So, how can you stay ahead of any potential issues and make sure a company is a good cultural fit before you apply?

1. Assess their values

One of the most important factors in cultural compatibility is shared values. Unfortunately, discerning an organization’s values before working there or even going through a recruitment process can be quite difficult. It can be challenging to find information that speaks to the way a company runs, and even harder to verify the claims that a company makes. Still, it is possible to get a basic sense of a company’s values before you apply, and doing so will ensure you don’t waste valuable time and energy applying for a job with a company you wouldn’t want to work for. The most straightforward way to see what a company stands for is to read its mission statement.

These have been commonplace in most businesses since the 1980s when it became popular for organizations to distill the purpose and goals of their business into a simple, strategic message that could attract workers and consumers alike. Think of it as an elevator pitch that tells you what the company does, what it strives for, and what it believes in. Mission statements can usually be found on the company website, along with the history and any other relevant information.

Once you know what values they claim to champion, don’t just take their word for it. Keep researching to see if their brand identity aligns with the ethical and moral standards they broadcast in their mission statement. Look through their social media accounts or company blogs to see what stance they take on industry topics, what brands they partner with, and much more. While this won’t tell you everything you need to know about a potential workplace, it can give you a starting point to find the right fit for you.

2. Network with current employees

There is plenty of information to be found online, but getting information straight from the source is hard to beat. Reaching out to current employees with questions can be incredibly informative. You can start by identifying a few people to contact, and brainstorming questions that will help you get a sense of the company culture. For example, you could ask them how much flexibility they feel they have in terms of taking vacation days or working remotely. If they haven’t taken time off in a year and work 40 hours a week in the office, that’s definitely a sign that it may not be a very healthy workplace.

You can also use networking tools like LinkedIn to find people in various departments and seniority levels to get a broad sense of the company culture. Try sending them a message asking if they would be willing to participate in an informational interview. Informational/informal interviews are one of the best networking tools out there, and a surefire way to gain a better understanding of what life is really like at a company. Just be sure to exercise caution when choosing who to reach out to, the feedback you get from a recruiter or potential manager may not always be completely accurate.

3. Research leadership

Another useful way to gain insight into a company is to look into the people running it. Not just the people who would be managing you, but the executive and senior-level leaders at the company. The people who make the big decisions can give you a better idea of what the company culture is like because they are the ones who control it. While you can’t dive into their personal lives, there are a few indicators to look out for. You can look at their profiles on the company website or LinkedIn to see more about their professional background.

For instance, if you have a non-traditional background and are looking for an innovative, progressive company with lots of energy and adaptability, it may be a red flag if everyone at the senior level has an identical, traditional career path. Researching leadership can also shed light on a crucial component of cultural compatibility: DEI. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are necessities in any healthy workplace, and it starts at the top. If everyone in a leadership position looks the same and comes from the same background, it may be a sign that they don’t value diversity in their workforce.

4. Examine the job description

Without beginning the recruitment process, the job description can be the most revealing indicator of a company’s culture. While it may not lay out everything the company stands for, it can tell you quite a lot if you learn to read between the lines. Once you can recognize red flags in job descriptions, you’ll begin to spot the companies that might have a toxic workplace.

The first thing to look for is flexibility. While you may not be able to expect a fully remote position at your dream company, there’s no denying that hybrid work is the new norm. If a job description goes out of the way to emphasize that the position is fully in office, it could be a sign that they are not flexible with their employees. Other red flags to watch out for are not listing a salary range, unreasonable qualifications, non-inclusive language, vague descriptions of responsibility, and an over-emphasis on non-monetary benefits and perks.

5. Get an outside perspective

While there are many resources companies offer to give you a glimpse into what life is like in their offices, sometimes what you really need is an outsider’s perspective. When researching a company, it’s crucial to remember where you’re getting your information from. A recruiter or a current employee probably isn’t going to say anything negative about where they work, so it’s a good idea to get input from someone who isn’t on the payroll.

Go back online and do some more research on the company, but this time look at external sources. See where their name pops up in news articles or social media to see what the community has to say about their impact. Another great resource is websites like Glassdoor or Fishbowl, which allow real employees to post anonymous reviews of the company, giving real-world feedback on all different parts of the company culture.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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