Hiring: The Importance of Workplace Culture and Fit

by Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant

Hiring is risky. It's risky for the employer: if it doesn't work out, there is the unpleasantness of firing someone, work that's not getting done, possibly lowered morale for other employees, and then the hiring process to go through all over again. It is also risky for the applicant. Many hours are spent at work for a full-time job and if it is not working out, it can have an impact on other areas of the employee's life. The hours you are suffering at the office will deplete you and leave little time and energy for job hunting in order to get out of that bad situation.

20120806_Hiring.jpgBeyond what is stated in the job description, certain traits (such as honesty), and "soft skills" (such as diplomacy and conflict resolution), employers want to know that the new employee will work well within the culture at that particular workplace. This requirement is harder to define or describe in a job description. It's more of an "I know it when I see it" subjective evaluation, and this is why the interview is part of the hiring process; it is very hard to gauge an applicant's potential to fit in at that workplace without sitting down and talking.

Many job seekers underestimate the importance of fit. They focus on whether or not they meet the stated qualifications and think that is all that is needed to be a strong candidate. Applicants should be as concerned about culture and fit as employers are, because the better they understand what the hiring manager is looking for in terms of fit, the better chance they'll have of getting the job offer and being happy in that position.

Things to keep in mind about workplace fit

Fit includes many aspects of the workplace -- some more important, some less so. These aspects include attire, communication styles, formality/informality at meetings, how requests are made, how transparent and approachable upper management is, comfort with change, phone vs. e-mail vs. stopping by someone's desk, and socializing outside of work hours. At each workplace there are rules and expectations, both spoken and unspoken.

Flexibility is important in navigating the job search successfully and having a thriving career. It is crucial when adapting to a new job. You don't want to exaggerate your flexibility, though, and give a false impression to the hiring manager. Just as with dating, a work relationship that begins with you misrepresenting yourself is likely to end badly; forced or faked fit just doesn't work. Even the most flexible person will not be able to adapt to a severely dysfunctional environment, and there are some situations you should not even try to adapt to (a supervisor wants you to do something unethical or illegal, for example).

The tone of the workplace, and how people are treated and behave, is often set by person in the top position. This is not always the case though, especially in larger organizations, companies or library systems. The culture of a workplace can be difficult to change and when change does occur it is usually the result of a new person in an upper administrative position, or a decision from "higher up," rather than actions of individual employees. If you find yourself very unhappy with the way things are at your workplace, your best bet may be to move on.

Are you a good fit?

Some questions for yourself, to determine if you'd be a good fit in a certain job:

  • What is the "vibe" of that workplace? When you are there for your interview, are you greeted courteously, with a friendly smile? Or are you treated as if you are a nuisance? When you pass people in the hallway, do they make eye contact, smile and greet you? Or stare at the floor, expressionless, and rush past? Do you hear casual conversations in the hallways, or is there a tense silence? Observe closely and listen carefully when you are there for your interview, and trust your own judgment and "gut feeling."

  • Will you be able to work well with the boss's style of supervising? Does the supervisor for this job seem like someone you can get along with? Is s/he a micromanager or so hands-off you have almost no communication? Will your boss try to hold you back or help you move forward? Is this someone who addresses problems straightforwardly with tact, or blames the messenger for reporting any problems, or ignores them altogether? The more you can find out about the supervisor, the better.

  • Do you feel that the interviewer is being open and straight with you, or evasive or even adversarial or deceptive? Again, trust your gut here. Does the interviewer know the requirements of the job thoroughly, and are the interview questions appropriate and based on the duties of the job?

  • Is this a place where you can move forward in your career, or a dead end with little or no possibilities for advancement or taking on additional responsibilities or new roles? Will you end up having to de-emphasize your work at that job and put extra effort into work outside of it because the only way up is out? (This may be more of a problem with your immediate supervisor, or may be a problem of that workplace in general.)

  • Does this seem like a workplace where ideas and contributions are welcome and encouraged or even required, or is it somewhere where you're expected to keep your head down, your mouth shut, just follow orders and do your work?

  • What are your own preferences? This one is very important. What one person barely notices may make the next person absolutely miserable. Be honest with yourself about what your own deal-breakers are.

What to ask a potential employer

Some questions for interviewer, to learn about the culture at that workplace:

  • How would you describe the culture at this workplace? It is OK to ask this question directly, and if it makes the interviewer uncomfortable, or the answer comes with difficulty, that may be cause for concern.

  • Why did the last person in this job leave? How long was he/she here? How long do employees typically stay here? High turnover is often a sign of a troubled workplace.

  • What kind of orientation and training are given to new employees? Are new employees supported and guided through their first days and weeks?

  • What is an ordinary workday like? Is the work "9 to 5," predictable, always in the office, regular shifts on the reference desk, never any overtime? Or is every day different, new assignments and/or evening and weekend work required, sometimes on short notice? If the position requires desk duties or other public service responsibilities, how long is a shift? Are employees expected to check their e-mail and/or be accessible outside of formal work hours?

  • Is the pace of the work steady from month to month, or are there especially busy periods during the year? Are employees expected to work extra hours at certain times?

  • How is employee performance measured? How are employees recognized for exceptional performance? (Keep in mind that there are ways for an employer to express appreciation for employees besides raises and promotions.)

  • How much flexibility do employees have? Are hours rigid and the same for everyone? Are weekend and/or evening hours required and if so, how often? Is working from home an option? How often do employees have to fill in for someone else on short notice? (Answers to these questions will be determined in part by the nature of the work.)

  • Is professional development (classes, workshops, conferences, etc.) supported? Or something employees do on their own time and pay for themselves?

If you ask a reasonable question about the culture at that workplace and the interviewer gets angry or refuses to answer or says something vaguely threatening like, "Are you interested in this job or not?", that is a HUGE red flag. Something is wrong there and the interviewer does not want you to have this information.

If the interviewer gets angry at any point during the interview, actually, that is a red flag all by itself. At the very least, there is one person at that workplace who cannot control his/her behavior, not even for the hour or so of a job interview. Just as you would be judged harshly if you displayed anger, sadness, bitterness, or great anxiety in an interview, you should be on the alert for inappropriate emotion on the part of the interviewer. A manager doesn't want to have to manage an employee's emotions, and you don't want to have to navigate a supervisor's negative moods or work at a place where disrespect is tolerated either. If the interviewer's own "interview best behavior" includes anger or contempt or other impropriety, what will it be like to work there full-time?

Aside from your own observations and questions during an interview, there are other sources of information that may be available to you. You can talk to someone who works there or has worked there, or search for that employer on a site such as Glassdoor or Vault. One bad review may or may not be cause for alarm, but multiple ones, especially if they are each describing the same problems, you should take seriously.

As stressful as unemployment is, working at a job that is a bad fit or even toxic can be worse. Remember when you are interviewing for a job that you are there to gather information too, about the position and whether you will be comfortable and happy working there. Your goal should not just be to get a job, but to get a job that is right for you, where both you and your employer are pleased with your work and positive about your future there.


Creative Commons-licensed image via myprofe on Flickr

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