Mastering Corporate Culture: What Savvy Job Seekers Need to Know

April 1, 2015

A few years ago, my friend was unemployed. I referred him to another friend who was a recruiter, and might be able to help him get a job.

I thought it would be an easy match, as the position called for an aggressive salesperson, and my friend fit that qualification. But after I heard about how the conversation went, I was glad that my friend had a strong ego.

“You’re too old, you’re not corporate, your hair is too long and you don’t fit in with the company,” he told him. “You wouldn’t be happy here — I can’t help you.”

If someone had said this to me, it would have taken an industrial-strength broom to pick up the shattered pieces of my self-esteem.

Looking back on this situation, I wonder if the recruiter’s advice was cruel or if, in some way, it was actually kind. In today’s world, his words were not politically correct, or legal. But he did help in a major way, as he offered a reminder about an employment aspect that many job seekers forget: corporate culture.

The right environment

The oldest person working at my friend’s company was 25. The employees thrived in a high-pressure atmosphere with a tag-team attitude. It was just as important to join in after-work activities as it was to perform your 9-5 responsibilities. Going to a local watering hole, being part of the softball team and participating in karaoke night were what bonded everyone together. They all bought their suits at Brooks Brothers and had the same type of short, upwardly mobile haircuts.

My friend who was applying for the job was 42, had the 1970s David Cassidy haircut, bought his suits at Syms and liked to work independently. Was it a good fit? No.

It’s interesting, but my friends who have failed in their jobs haven’t done so because of a lack of skills but because they didn’t take note of the corporate culture. It starts with knowing who you are before applying for a particular job, and then discovering how your personality meshes with the organization.

Savvy job seekers study the corporate culture as much as the job description, and it’s ideal to understand the environment early in the hiring process. If a job calls for you to be the guardian of your CEO’s schedule, then he or she may need a watchdog. But you aren’t the right fit if being assertive is not part of your personality. On the other hand, if the organization values sensitivity and humanity, then a gruff, aggressive personality will not blend well with your boss or co-workers.

In a January 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek article, Scott Dobroski, a spokesperson for Glassdoor, said that the employment site has found “a significant rise in questions asked about cultural fit.” He reported that job seekers cite company culture as their second-highest priority, “almost tied with salary.”

Make sure to ask questions. Does the office have an open floor plan? Does the company value team spirit? Is it a cutthroat environment?

You also need to research the people. What do the staff members have in common? What do they like to do in their spare time?

Remember, you will be spending eight or more hours a day here. You need to be just as happy with the job as you are with the company’s culture — not to mention your colleagues. Do research and see what people are saying about the company. What is the mission statement and strategic plan? What is the atmosphere like?

The right attitude

Many CEOs agree that people can learn new skills, but an attitude that’s counter to the company culture isn’t as easy to fix. Your supervisor wouldn’t be happy trying to change you, and you wouldn’t be happy pretending to be someone you’re not.

It’s also important to be able to read people if you want to survive in today’s workforce. At my first real job, being long-winded was a problem for me. I was also sensitive. My boss described me as a “tortoise without a shell” and I noticed that she rolled her eyes every time I gave her an update on what I was working on. I learned that the best way to communicate was to be clear and concise. She didn’t want someone telling her a long story or explaining problems. She wanted quick responses that provided solutions.

Remember to be honest and authentic. Don’t change who you are or what you believe for a job. Instead, do your research ahead of time and you will succeed because you appreciate the company and its people.

Be mutually respectful in your interactions with co-workers and don’t inflame situations or cause conflicts. If company culture is new to you, then just observe other successful co-workers and you’ll get the hang of it.

Richard Spector is the senior manager of corporate development and industry partnerships for PRSA, where he counsels job seekers. He has conducted career presentations and webinars for NYU, WVU IMC, Ball State, Quinnipiac, Purdue and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Email: richard.spector@prsa.org.

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