How to Understand a Company's Culture from the Outside

07/18/2016 09:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2016-07-18-1468879232-4861615-companyculture.png
Illustration Credit: Liz Fosslien, fosslien.com

By Mollie West

Imagine you've just received a job offer. Congratulations! If you're like most people, the first question on your mind is, "Wait? How do I know if I'll like this job?" All you have is an offer letter and a job description with policies and procedures. How can you understand an organization's culture from the outside? My favorite definition of culture comes from Airbnb's Brian Chesky: "Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion."

According to MIT culture scholar Edgar Schein, there are three ways to understand culture: 1) Artifacts--which are visible things like what people wear to work; 2) Beliefs and values--which are more invisible, like valuing consensus when making decisions; and 3) Basic underlying assumptions, which are usually unconscious, like a belief that you should hire people like yourself. So how can you find these out?

First, I recommend putting aside the letter and description. Start doing some Harriett-the-Spy style research and get curious! First, think back to your visit to the office during your last interview. (Even better, see if you can come back to the office for an informal visit or a lunch before you have to make a decision on your offer.) Within the office, scan for the following: what are people wearing? When do they arrive in the morning? Do people normally ask questions and interact with co-workers by sending an email or by walking to each other's desks? What is considered hero behavior within the organization? Just as important, what is considered sinner behavior? Imagine you're a detective trying to describe the organization in your spy notebook.

What you're looking for are the norms of the organization. Just a few years ago, you'd never find norms actually written down anywhere. They remained unsaid and intangible. But as organizations have started becoming smart about sharing their cultures, some organizations have started writing down their cultural norms. This is helpful for your next step: searching for norms.

Second, ask your contacts in the organization to send you anything the organization has published about its culture. Additionally, dig around online and see what you can find. In 2009, Netflix published its seminal culture deck on slideshare.net. By publishing this deck, Netflix went down in the culture hall of fame. Ostensibly this deck was meant for internal use only, but the public eagerly browsed through the company's culture philosophy. Suddenly, anyone on the Internet could read about how Netflix employees communicated, requested vacation time, and got promoted. It satisfied our curiosity about what it's really like to work there.

Since 2009, many more companies have followed Netflix's lead, and are publishing culture decks, codes, manifestos, and handbooks. For example, Big Spaceship, a Brooklyn-based digital creative agency, created a different kind of employee manual: one that "will help you begin to understand our values and the way we make decisions as a team and as a company. Our manual belongs to you. Read it. Share it. Change it." Facebook published its Little Red Book, a manifesto about the company's culture. The only way to see all of Facebook's Little Red Book is to work at Facebook (and legend has it that it appeared overnight on all employees' desks across all offices), but the book's designer shared a sneak peek on his website. IDEO published its values in the Little Book of IDEO. You can read the digital book online, and all employees get a physical copy of the illustrated book.

Third, connect with a couple of people from across disparate parts of the organization via email, LinkedIn, or phone. Specifically ask these people what their role is and what team they are on. This can reveal the internal power dynamics of an organization. For example, at Pixar, even the accountants are called "movie makers." As Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull explains in his book Creativity, Inc., if I asked an accountant what her role at Pixar is, she would say, "I'm a movie maker who works in accounting." This reveals that Pixar's structure is incredibly flat and purpose-driven. Similarly, when people at Square (the credit card processing company) meet other employees at Square whom they haven't met yet, instead of asking, "What do you do here?" or "What is your role?" they ask "What team are you on?" At Square, teams trump individual titles. This reveals how important teams are to Square's structure.

Fourth, ask your contacts about lunchtime. This is a particularly telling question because it reveals how people interact outside of project or team norms. In an interview on LinkedIn Pulse, an engineer who has worked at Microsoft, Apple, Google, Adobe, and Facebook, said that he always asks his interviewers, "Do they eat lunch as a team? At Apple, for example, because of the levels of secrecy, you can't talk to anyone else within the company about work except your team, so teams tend to eat together. At places like Facebook with free food all of the time, people tend to eat by themselves or with some friends they make there. How the company does things will determine how you will interact with people in general."

Lastly, ask your contacts at the organization one important final question. Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant (author of Give and Take and The Originals) has developed a few questions to elicit revealing stories about an organization. In an article in The New York Times, Grant reveals the one question that can instantly tell you volumes about a company's culture: "Tell me a story about something that would only happen here." Grant presents four types of common stories that follow from this question, and what they might mean about a company. The stories will help you answer three questions, he says: "First is justice: Is this a fair place? Second is security: Is it safe to work here? Third is control: Can I shape my destiny and have influence in this organization?"

All of these questions will help you answer your million-dollar question: what is the culture of this place actually like?

Mollie West is an organizational designer at IDEO in New York, NY. She helps IDEO's clients shape the conditions that influence how employees experience their work. She designed a start-up culture toolkit, and her writing about organizational culture has been published in Fast Company, Quartz, Stanford Social Innovation Review and other digital outlets. She co-founded the Capital Good Fund, Rhode Island's first microfinance fund in 2008. You can subscribe to her newsletter at www.mollieawest.com or follow her @molliewest.