09/27/2013 05:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

8 Ways Job Seekers Can Assess a Prospective Employer


When you apply for a job, much about the organizational culture is right out there for you to see -- and judge. Whether the interviewer offers you a beverage, whether human resources seems suspicious: all are clues for decoding the organizational culture.

How do you decide if you'll fit in?

In Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein presents the eight components of an organizational culture. Let's look at them in terms of you.

1. Patterns of behavior when people interact. These include the language people use and the customs, traditions, and rituals they observe. I went to a large computer company in the 1980s looking for business. I noticed that the people addressed each other very formally and seldom made eye contact. I knew that wasn't the account for me. Would it put you off if your coworkers were excessively guarded?

Customs, traditions, and rituals are very interesting. They tell us a lot about an organization. If the custom is to give all employees stock options, that's a fairly egalitarian company. If the organization still has a tradition of giving turkeys to employees at Christmas, you can assume the organization tends to be paternalistic and old-line. If there are many rituals at an organization celebrating individual initiative, you probably can conclude the culture of the organization is a meritocracy where performance is rewarded.

Rituals are always symbolic. They mean something. I was once on a corporate jet and reached over to get some peanuts from the bar. A hush fell over the room, and I saw the chief executive's administrative assistant turn pale. I looked at the assistant and asked, "Am I doing something wrong?" He said there was a ritual on the plane that no one ate or drank anything before the chief executive officer did. This ritual symbolized the importance of the pecking order to that company. If you didn't like hierarchy, you didn't belong there.

What kind of organization is the best fit for you? There are no perfect fits. Some just work better than others. In New York there are hundreds of different types of public relations agencies. I'd probably be a decent fit in about two of them.

2. Group norms or unwritten values. Organizations usually don't hang up a sign reading THE FOLLOWING STANDARDS AND VALUES ARE WHAT WE'RE ALL ABOUT. Since the rules are primarily unwritten, you have to be alert and do the digging. You might, for example, suspect that profits are more important than quality at your organization. Listen to how people talk about those two concepts. Do the two seem mutually exclusive? Maybe your mentor or a trusted ally can answer some questions for you.

3. The espoused or announced values. Sometimes some values are made explicit. These are usually contained in the organization's mission statement or an actual Statement of Values. This is supposed to tell you what the organization is about. At Ford, the official value is "Quality is Job One." That means quality comes before profits. At some organizations, diversity is a stated value; that means they tend to hire and promote minorities. Focusing on the organization's values can help you discover its heartbeat.

4. Formal philosophy. This includes the organization's written-down policies and ideologies that determine how the firm will deal with all its constituencies, from stockholders to employees. This will tell you a lot about the organization. For instance, if the organization has declared that it puts shareholder interests before all else, it might do any number of things -- such as downsizing yet again or even selling the company -- to boost its stock price, IBM had a philosophy of not laying off its employees. Because of that policy, security-minded people went to work for IBM even though they might have made more money elsewhere.

5. Climate. If an organization were a restaurant, "climate" would be defined as "ambiance." This includes the physical surroundings and the ways in which people treat one another.

The ambiance in the old-style corporation used to be large, institutional-type buildings in which you didn't hang up too many Dilbert cartoons. People treated each other with caution. Today, if you want, you can find organizations with warm, friendly, and casual climates. People can be expressive. Friendships spring up easily. And instead of dressing up, people dress down.

I once applied for a job where the receptionist was dressed à la Saks and had the icy look of a model on the cover of Vogue. I didn't feel comfortable in that chilly climate.

6. Habits of thinking. At some organizations thinking is done very slowly and carefully. There's no jumping to conclusions, and whatever is decided will be reviewed by committees. At other organizations discussion is lively and employees are ready to take risks. Which one is for you? Problems are solved very differently at the new IBM than they were at the old IBM.

7. Shared meanings. During the Iacocca turnaround at Chrysler everyone, from executives to security guards, shared the reality that tomorrow they could wake up and their jobs might be gone. This aspect of the culture helps people feel a part of something bigger than themselves and their careers. At Disney employees believe that they bring guests happiness. At some colleges and universities the administration believes it is helping to shape the future.

8. Symbolism. That includes everything from the style of architecture chosen for headquarters to how the building is decorated at Christmas. A consumer products company on the East Coast was housed in an ornate building. When the company was acquired, the new parent viewed that building as symbolizing all the excesses in the subsidiary's organizational culture.

Many human elements in an organizational culture can also be interpreted symbolically. If the job interviewer treats you well, that can symbolize the respect the organization has for its human capital.

Whenever I go to visit a new account, I make sure that I see everything symbolically.

Your Top Ten List

Many young people tell me they're not sure what they want, so how can they make a decision about their fit with an organizational culture?

The best way to get down to your inner core is to make a list. On that list write the ten -- not eleven, ten -- things that are most important to you professionally.

Your list might read:

A work environment built on trust
Interesting work
Opportunity to keep learning
Respect for the individual
Can have good relationships with colleagues
Funds to go for my MBA at night
Good health insurance for my family
Regular raises and a bonus system
A boss who's not crazy
No more than fifty hours a week of work

This list will quickly exclude many organizations, but it also leaves room for compromise. If the organization you're looking at matches a number of items on the list, you might consider it a suitable place for you to go.

Copyright © Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of The Critical 14 Years of Your Professional Life from which this piece was excerpted.