Many years ago, I interviewed for a position that seemed a good opportunity and a place for growth. The Senior Vice President invited me to a lunch interview in a restaurant downtown. We had a great conversation, and I was invited for a second interview at the main office. When I arrived, I was ushered from my car into a conference room where I interviewed with four separate people, all vice presidents or directors. They told me of a fast-paced environment that was forward-thinking and had room for career growth. The workplace culture looked great. I was then ushered back out to my car. I received a satisfactory job offer within a week, and I accepted.
The first day I arrived at the job, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Outside of the interview room, the place was a mess. The offices were old, musty and run down. The office furniture were relics from their last office upgrade in 1972. The work environment consisted of drab, falling apart cubicles with old fashioned computers and dot matrix printers. The bathrooms had no heat, air-conditioning or hot water. My desk was stuck between a huge network server and an old sewer pipe, and I had a dead mouse in my garbage can. No lie.
That wasn’t the worst of it. Once I started walking around, I observed most of the people were old and drab too. The employees were miserable and indifferent. Many were uneducated, had been working there since high school, and had risen through the ranks by luck. This was not the exciting, fast-paced environment they had sold me on. I realized my interviews had been carefully choreographed to avoid me seeing any of these nuances before I accepted the position. I stayed at the job for three years so as not to look like a job hopper, but I was counting the minutes to leave from the moment I stepped in the door.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson about assessing the workplace culture and environment before accepting a job offer. It is important to investigate these two things to understand if you are going to fit in and be content. Let’s define the difference between these two items and how to identify clues about them during your interview process.
The Workplace Culture
The workplace culture is the values and principles that trickle down from the executives, and dictate the work ethic, enthusiasm, and drive of the employees. The culture can be very competitive and cut-throat, for example, if the executive attitude is for everyone to make revenue no matter what. The culture may be do-it-yourself, where everyone is independently driven. The culture may be team-oriented, where every decision is made by a committee. Before you interview, you should determine which types of company culture fit your working style.
You can determine the workplace culture by doing two things during the interview process. One, ask pertinent interview questions about the company. For example, ask “What are the greatest challenges to working here?”, “What would you say the President values over everything else?”, or point blank “How would you describe the culture?” Listen very carefully to their responses, as these will give you valuable tidbits to the belief system of the organization. Watch out for statements that the company is slow or regressive, management doesn’t care or is disrespectful or irrational, or if there is a high amount of micromanagement, red tape, or politics. No matter what kind of culture you can work with, most people have a hard time with these types of problems.
Secondly, make sure you interview with someone lower in title. The lower on the totem pole, the more likely they will share the reality of the company values. Most management will gloss over the culture. An individual who works the ground floor will give you a view from the trenches. Look for any type of bad attitude, indifference, or frustration in the employee as these will clue you in to any negative company principles. Ask them how much they hang out with their co-workers outside of work, or if the office does any company gatherings like holiday parties, or potlucks. Have them describe the management for you, and listen for any disrespect or negativity.
The Workplace Environment
The work environment is the actual physical realm in which you will be working. This includes the physical set up (if the building is modern or old-fashioned, or if the decor is outdated or updated) and the people with whom you will be working (your co-workers).
I usually find there are three ways in which to determine the work environment. First and foremost, make sure you get a tour of the office building before you accept your job offer, and make sure you see people working at their actual desks. Watch how people are interacting or talking with each other. Observation of the working environment is the best way to determine if you are going to be content with the atmosphere. Look for piles of clutter, old or broken furniture, poor facilities, outdated technology, and any other clues that suggest they don’t take care of their employees or where they work.
Secondly, I like to schedule interviews around lunch time and arrive thirty minutes early so I can observe employees entering or leaving the building. Do the employees look stressed out, what are they talking about, are they leaving in big groups or individually, how are they dressed. If they seem to exhibit good rapport with each other, and trendy or modern clothing, I take this as a good sign that they are making sufficient money, they are cutting edge or forward thinking, and have a good work environment. The winner is when a good majority of them ask me if I need help or assistance, which shows they have a helpful, polite working atmosphere.
Thirdly, I look in the parking lot. Are the majority of cars modern and new, or old and broken down? The cars the employees drive will often dictate the atmosphere and money-making potential inside the building. If you see a lot of trucks, minivans, or American-made cars, there may be a large portion of blue collar, hardworking family people. If you see a lot of BMW’s, Audi’s and VW’s, it is likely the employees are educated, internationally sophisticated yuppie types. If you see a great deal of exotic cars, you may be in the presence of high paying, but high stress environment with lots of executives. Look at bumper stickers, license plates, and car seats as these all reveal clues. Again, what will make you happy is self-determined, but the parking lot holds a lot of clues to the people inside.
The happier and more content you are with the workplace culture and environment, the more likely you will have a good experience working there, display your best work ethic, and grow your career. The next time you are interviewing and considering a job offer, be sure to take these two items into consideration for the right choice for you.
by Sasha DeMarino