10/23/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Forget Salary: Think Corporate Culture

The economy may not exactly be exploding right now, but it is heating up. Even if companies are doing so on the cautious side, they are starting to hire again. Headhunters are shuffling resumes and more people are being called in for interviews. What's different is that fewer people are jumping ship for higher salaries. With less job security and fewer benefit packages being put on the table, more and more people are asking themselves, what am I really getting at this new place? It's as if they are saying, "Do I just want another job? Or do I want something that supports the life I want to live?" If you dread the thought of your workplace, then maybe it's time for you to do the same.

The first two questions most people ask when looking for a new job are "what is my title," and "what is my salary?" Those are the bragging rights of any job. Unfortunately neither leads to real happiness. Rarely does anyone ask about the culture of the office, the management style of their boss, or what their co-workers are like. Then they wonder why, three months into it, they have are so unhappy at work. This is not just about work/life balance. This is just about finding balance and happiness at work.

Think of it this way. You spend the majority of your waking hours at work. So if you want to be happy in life, you had better find a way to be happy at work, and that can't happen if the office you're spending your time is a toxic environment where lying, cheating and backstabbing is overlooked or commonplace. If being happy in life is a priority for you, then you have to find a company whose culture fits the beliefs, principles and moral code that are important to you. If you're thinking about changing your career, or just your job, take a few minutes to ask yourself what do you like or dislike about the culture you currently work in. Then you may ask why company culture is not a priority on your list?

Yes, salary and title are important. Success and growth are important. But are they so important that you would risk your happiness on them?

I cannot find a more fitting example of this than an article I read on the departure of Greg Smith from Goldman Sachs where he described the culture as being "toxic and destructive." So much so, that he felt he could "no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for."

For many people, that was the first time they ever heard the term "corporate culture." It confused people, but why? Every society has a culture. It is defined by the shared values and practices that group of people have; and it's no different for a company.

Think of a company's culture just like you would a society's culture. Would you want to visit a country that discriminates and defiles women? Would you want to visit a country known for theft, deception and bullying? Then why would you join a company that follows those practices?

The next time you look at your current job, take a moment to separate the actual work from the culture you are working in. If you are unhappy at your job, you may find that work is not your problem, but the culture in which you spend the most waking hours of your day is.

The good thing is that you live in a world and at a time where there has never been more of an opportunity to do what you want, how you want, and with whom you want. For the most part, nobody is forcing you or anyone you know into working anywhere. The very computers that created our work/life conundrum have also created the opportunity to start a business, to work from home, or to join a company large or small, which is why the idea of a corporate culture has never been more important than it is now. That culture is the over-riding factor that will define whether you love your job or loathe it. It will define whether you are successful at your job or struggling.

As Thomas Monaghan III, chairman and chief executive of Corporate Executive Board, a research and advisory services firm stated, "culture matters." A recent study of 500,000 employees from 150 companies showed that companies with very healthy cultures have lower misconduct and labor costs, and deliver long-term shareholder returns 5.8 percentage points higher than the average company. Why? Because when a company's goals and values are in line with your goals and values, everyone benefits.

So stop thinking of your job as work, and start thinking of it as a relationship. One in which you will spend the majority of your waking life living. If you take the time to find the right company to partner with, one that has a culture that you want be a part of, one with whom you share the same values, sense of integrity, goals and objectives, then you have the start of what could be a very long and mutually rewarding relationship. If not, then just admit that you're in it for the money and expect to be treated in that light.

So what can you do on your next job interview? Treat it like the start of any relationship. Yes, take a look at the package before you, but also take a moment to delve a little deeper. Take a moment to ask about the culture, the goals, and even the people that you will be working with. Take the time to think beyond the money and the title to make sure it's the right fit for you. It will save yourself, your boss, your co-workers and the HR person a lot of time and trouble in the end. Most important it will save you the need to add "finding work/life balance" onto your to do list. Because if you find the right place to work, one where you fit, then work will just be another segment of your life; and that is the biggest step you can take toward your happiness.

What's YOUR Strategy for Happiness?

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