How to tell if a company’s culture is right for you

How to tell if a company’s culture is right for you
How to tell if a company’s culture is right for you

posted 16 Nov 23

Company culture is often a catchphrase or buzzword used in job adverts to entice people to apply. But it is more than pizzas on a Friday, Christmas parties and free gym memberships. While these are great employee benefits, they aren’t company culture. 

If you like having perks at work, there’s nothing wrong with choosing an employer that offers them. Social events are a great way to foster connections between colleagues. Thanking workers with a treat at the end of a week can make people feel appreciated. But a firm’s culture should run far deeper. 

Culture is something you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there. It’s the character of a business or organisation.  

If someone asked you what it’s like to work for your employer, how would you describe it? What behaviours, attitudes, values and beliefs does the business encourage? Which ones does it discourage? How is the working atmosphere or environment? What is the communication and leadership style? That’s the culture of a company.   

As Brian Chesky, Co-Founder and CEO of Airbnb, puts it: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with a passion.” 

Understanding company culture and deciding what is best for you   

When you join a firm where the culture and your personal values align, you're more likely to enjoy your role, feel happy at work and be more productive. If there is a misalignment, the opposite could happen. You may be unhappy, checked out, less motivated to do your job and, ultimately, look for a new position. 

Culture means different things to different people and different businesses. Walk into two firms within the same specialism, and you’ll sense how their atmosphere and approach differ. It’s about determining the best situation for you, not anyone else.  

Unsure what culture you’d like? Here are some questions to ask yourself:  

  • Would I like to work for a small, close-knit team/business or a larger organisation? 
  • Do I value teamwork and collaboration? Or do I like autonomy and to work on my own projects? 
  • Do I like to take risks? Or do I prefer stability and structure? 
  • Am I results and goals-driven? 
  • Do I want to bring ideas to the table? 
  • Would I like a fast-paced or a steady environment? 
  • Do I want to work for a company where I feel like I’m making a difference? 
  • Would I like to work for an innovative or traditional business? 
  • Do I like variety in my working week? Or do I prefer knowing the status quo and having clear expectations every day? 

There is no right or wrong answer. Write down your responses to build a picture of what a good company culture looks like for you. Have this with you when you’re applying for jobs and in interviews. That way, you can assess whether it’s the right opportunity for you. Or, if it is one to pass on. 

Green flags: signs of a positive company culture 

Open communication 

Companies that communicate well early on are often the ones that have a transparent culture and nurture strong relationships across the business. It’s a good sign if they keep you up to date throughout the interview process and are open about when decisions will be made about the outcome – and if they deliver on their promise. 

But remember, communication goes beyond words. Interviewers that maintain eye contact and actively listen to your answers are a green flag. It shows that they’re interested in and value what you have to say. 

Work-life balance 

Two-thirds (66%) of UK workers believe work-life balance is a key consideration when applying for a new job. It’s also a reason why many people choose to leave an employer.  

Signs of a good company culture include job adverts highlighting flexible working and wellbeing support for staff (such as employee assistance programmes). Other green flags are when they celebrate or advocate for work-life balance policies on their website or social media.  

Looking beyond job adverts, what accreditations do they have? What trade bodies, organisations or associations are they members of? For example, do they have any Investors in People Accreditations or are they signed up to the Good Business Charter? 

Investment in employees and career growth   

When evaluating company culture, look at what learning and development or training and career growth opportunities they provide. Job adverts or descriptions, websites, or application packs are great places to look. 

See how many instances there are of workers being internally promoted. Companies that support and motivate their staff to grow continually understand the importance of rewarding and recognising employees’ hard work. (A 2022 study by Warwick University found that happy workers are 12% more productive.)   

Positive employee interactions 

Pay close attention to any exchanges you have with potential colleagues. This could be officially meeting the team, in an interview, during a walk around a site or brief encounters as you enter the building. How do they interact with you? Is it an environment you see yourself working in? Can you picture yourself as part of the team? If it’s a resounding ‘yes’, this is a great sign that you’ll fit right in and enjoy the working culture. 

Red flags: signs of a negative company culture 

Poor communication 

If there has been a lack of communication during the interview or application process, this could be a sign of things to come. Does the process feel chaotic or disordered? Is there a lack of details about the panel or where you need to go if your interview is in person? Is the date constantly being rearranged? If a firm dangle the carrot with an interview only to ghost you for weeks or months, they either a) don’t respect your time, b) aren’t serious about recruiting or c) the company is disorganised. 

Other indicators of toxic culture are interviewers constantly interrupting you or rushing the interview. If they actively avoid or dismiss your questions or seem disengaged with your answers, this could also be a clue. 

High turnover rates 

Employees moving on to pastures new is part and parcel of the working world. However, a large number of employees leaving a business (especially if it is in a short space of time) could be an indication of a negative culture. 

That said, it is not always the case. Some businesses may have seasonal requirements, project-based roles or employ a large number of temps. Therefore, turnover will naturally be higher. Industries like Hospitality and Construction are more likely to have fluctuations and a regular intake of new staff due to the nature of the work. Certain positions will be in higher demand than others, and as a result, people may job-hop more frequently. This includes professions in the Accountancy & Finance and Financial Services sectors. 

Lack of transparency 

A company that isn’t open about its salary, benefits, working hours and organisational structure can raise red flags. Notice how they explain the role and company. Be wary if they sidestep questions or refuse to disclose information about your day-to-day tasks, why the position is vacant or the company culture. Refusing a site visit or the chance to meet the team could also be a sign of a toxic workplace. 

Excessive overtime expectations or no work-life balance 

A company that doesn't clearly state its working hours or requires unpaid overtime likely doesn't prioritise work-life balance or respect employees’ boundaries. In some cases, they could be breaking the law. In the UK, an employer can’t make you work more than 48 hours a week on average (there are exceptions for certain industries).  

Assessments, tasks and presentations have been part of the application process for years. However, you shouldn’t be made to jump through several hoops or complete hours of free work before you’re even hired. That’s a red flag, and a clue that the business isn’t serious about recruiting anyone for the role.   

Negative atmosphere 

Sometimes, we have a gut feeling about somewhere. Whether it is an in-person or virtual interview, if something feels off, then it probably is. Trust your instinct. You don’t want to accept a role only to realise your initial impression was right and you’re not a culture fit. 

How to research a company’s culture 

Check out their website 

The set-up of the business can affect their culture. Small businesses may be family-owned or have a family feel. Start-ups are often value-driven, and everyone works together to solve a problem for customers or clients. Corporate companies might have more structure and a hierarchy between leaders and staff. Visit a business’ website and read the about us, meet the team and leadership pages to create a picture of the company in your mind. 

Check out the job descriptions or careers section of the website, as well as adverts on job boards and social media. Do they speak about their culture? What words do they use to characterise it? How do they describe the business or team? 

Many businesses publish their vision, mission statements and values on their website. Read them thoroughly, so you can decide if it’s a company you’d like to join before you spend time applying for a vacancy.  

You may also get a sense of the business from their tone of voice (the way they sound and communicate) on their website and in their marketing.  

Leverage LinkedIn 

Looking at a company’s social media should be part of your research. It can give you talking points in interviews, learn more about their offering and understand their target audience. Sometimes, you may get a glimpse into their culture and atmosphere as well. For example, charity events and fundraising, staff promotions and development opportunities. 

However, business accounts can be carefully crafted by marketing teams. Look at individual LinkedIn profiles as well. Research the leadership of a business, the team you’d be joining and your manager(s). What content do they share? What accounts or profiles do they follow or regularly comment on? This will give you a feel for the personalities of people working there and the values or beliefs they share. 

Use LinkedIn to find current employees. Examine how long people work for the company on average. A low turnover rate and a high percentage of long-term workers can suggest a positive company culture.  

Read employee reviews 

Sites like Glassdoor and Indeed allow staff to leave reviews about their present and former employers. Employee reviews can provide insight into a firm’s working arrangements and culture. However, use your discretion. You don’t know the circumstances around why someone has left.  

One or two unfavourable sentiments might not be anything to worry about. A string of negative comments could be more problematic. Pay attention to recurring themes or concerns from workers.  

Searching for a company in the ‘News’ section of Google is also worth doing. You can see if they’ve had any positive or negative PR. 

Questions to ask about culture during an interview 

Interviews are the ideal time to find out more about a business’ culture. We’ve put together a list of questions you can pose to interviewers. You don’t have to ask all of them; pick the ones that resonate with you or that you’d most like to know.  

How would you describe the company’s culture?

This may seem like an obvious question, but it is a chance to hear it from the horse’s mouth. If the interviewer seems flustered, can’t answer you or appears to read the answer from a script, this could be a red flag. Whereas if they respond enthusiastically and with candour, this could be a green flag.  

What kind of person do you think would be a good cultural fit for the company? 

Asking about what kind of person they’re looking for can easily affirm whether it is the right role for you or not. If their explanation sounds like you and you want the job, describe how you’re a cultural fit to highlight why you’re the strongest candidate.  

If their response doesn’t sound like you, it might not be the role for you. Thank them for their answer and chalk it up to experience. You’ll know what and what not to look out for in your next application or interview.  

What are the company’s values? 

If you can't find a firm’s values online, ask about them during your interview. It can help you determine if the company’s culture and your personal beliefs align. 

What is your favourite thing about working for the company? 

Hearing current employees' and managers' thoughts gives you a deeper insight into the business. You may learn something that you wouldn’t find on the company’s website, via their social media channels or from job adverts. 

If you feel comfortable, you could also ask what one thing would change about the company if they could. How do they react? Do they answer or avoid your question? Does their response feel genuine or scripted? 

How are projects delivered? Is it a team approach, or do people work on their own projects? 

This goes back to our earlier question of whether you prefer collaboration or autonomy. Depending on which working style works best for you, you’ll know whether you want a team-led or individual-led culture.  

What is your management style? 

You want a boss who brings out the best in you. A manager's style can be perfect for a particular employee and help them succeed in their role. In contrast, another employee might struggle or feel constrained under their lead. 

Some managers provide direction, while others include their team in the decision-making. One manager could be involved in the day-to-day duties and hand out tasks. Another might be more relaxed and encourage employees to use their initiative. 

Only you know what style you respond to. Listen carefully to answers during interviews. What does your gut feeling tell you? Does it sound like the right approach for you? 

What training or learning and development opportunities do you provide for employees? What opportunities would there be for long-term career growth? 

Showing that you want a long-term career and are serious about developing your skills can impress interviewers. Unless it is a temporary role, most employers want someone who is committed to the business. It also gives you the opportunity to find out how they invest in their staff, and whether that suits your professional and personal goals.  

How do you encourage staff to have a work-life balance? 

Job adverts and descriptions can only give you so much information about the culture of a business. Work-life balance can be tricky to judge until you join a company. But asking the question in an interview can start to build a picture. Do the interviewers openly answer or skirt your question? Does their answer tick all the boxes for you regarding work-life balance? 

What does success look like in this role/how do you measure success? 

This can help you determine whether a business has a goal and targets-driven culture. Or if they create an environment where ideas are free-flowing, and employees solve problems. Returning to those earlier questions, it is about what style makes you feel comfortable and confident. 

If I’m successful, what is the first thing I should do when I’m in the role? 

This is a tactful question, as it can give you a plan of action if you’re offered the job. It also gives you an understanding of what is important to the business. Assess how this aligns with your values and way of working to establish whether you’re a cultural fit.  

Work with a trusted recruiter to find your ideal culture  

When you sign up with Search, you’ll gain access to our network of more than 6,000 leading UK employers. You’ll be paired with a consultant who will dedicate the time to get to know your experience, goals and values. They will work with you to match you with a company where they know you’ll be a cultural fit. Contact us today to find out more.