How to discover the corporate culture of your next employer

Jerome Parisse-Brassens

It’s happened to many of us: we go through a recruitment process, have one or several interviews, ask about the organisation and work conditions, before finally accepting the job. Then we start. But after a few weeks, sometimes days, we realise that it’s got nothing to do with the place that was painted to us during the recruitment process.

What went wrong? Two things.


The first thing is that the description of the organisation and its corporate culture that was given to you was aspirational. The values were in fact the stated values, what’s done when everything goes well. At the end of the day, the recruiter wants you, so they’ll make things rosier than they are to make sure you sign up. Wrong strategy. Too many organisations are wasting resources by not being upfront about the truth and then losing the people they have recruited because they are disappointed by what they find. It would be more helpful and less risky to paint a realistic picture and state ambitions.


The second thing is that you didn’t try to find out what the culture of this place really was. The question is, “how can you find out about the culture of a business without being in the business?” Analysts face the same question when they buy or sell shares. Research conducted by Walking the Talk showed that 94% of respondents reported that culture plays an important part in their investment decisions, with over 70% indicating that it is either quite or very important in their investment process.  Only 6% of respondents indicated that culture played no part in their investment decisions. The analysts have come up with ways of identifying culture from afar. Here are some of things you can do:

  • Does the organisation feature in a list of best places to work?
  • Trail the internet and recent news to see if there is any mention of the company in relation to culture, employee satisfaction, engagement, bullying or harassment, and lack of integrity.
  • Find interviews of the Chief Executive or some articles relating his/her views. Many CEs are public figures and you will be surprised by what you can find. Try to find out whether they are walking their talk.
  • Talk to ex-employees – you can even find them online these days.
  • Check the physical offices: are they comfortable, designed for collaboration, open, or closed and dated?
  • Think about your first contact, often at the reception desk: was it friendly and customer-centric, or did they never look you in the eye?
  • Check the brand image they want to give, and think about whether it is aligned with the kind of culture you are looking for or not.


The best thing you can do, however, is to ask the right questions during the interview process. Feel free to ask the usual questions about the job, pay conditions, leave and other perks, but zoom-in on culture to conduct your own culture assessment. Here are some of the questions you can ask. They are somewhat unusual questions, so the recruiter will probably not be prepared for them, and their answer will reflect the truth.

  • What behaviours, which should not be tolerated, are tolerated here? - This is one of the most significant questions you can ask to identify cultural patterns.
  • Who was the last person to be promoted? What are they like? What role did they hold? - People being promoted are a powerful symbol of what is valued in an organisation.
  • What are the criteria for performance management? Are behaviours part of it, and if yes, what behaviours? What gets rewarded here? - Recognition and rewards are systems that shape culture very strongly.
  • Which of your values plays out the most – and which one plays out the least? - Very seldom do organisations talk about the hierarchy in their values, but there is always one. Which values are kept in a crisis, and which ones are dropped? This is important to find out.
  • What gets always discussed in meetings? How do meetings start and finish? - Time spent reveals what is valued, and meetings are important rituals where important things are discussed. Find out what’s important, and you will get the culture.
  • Would you recommend this company as a great place to work because of its culture?

These simple questions will give you a lot more accurate information than what you have been told.

Are there other questions you’ve asked in the past to find out about culture?

Have you ever experienced a real difference between the culture you were described and the culture you found?

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