How to Detect a Good Company Culture

More people are choosing jobs based on a firm’s culture and mission. Here’s how to correctly gauge whether a company’s all smoke and mirrors—or the real deal.

Published: Jan 7, 2020


When you think about the best job you’ve ever had, what comes to mind? It’s not likely the pay or the commute, or even the job stability. Instead, there’s a good chance that what you remember most are the camaraderie you had with your coworkers and the energy and atmosphere of the office.

It’s no wonder, then, that company culture is one of the biggest drivers in career moves. According to a recent survey by Korn Ferry, 38% of professionals who plan to find a new job in 2020 say they want to leave because their current employer doesn't support their values. Another Korn Ferry survey found that 63% of respondents said the most important factor when deciding to change jobs was the mission and values of the firm. That response handily beat out factors including career progression (14%) and benefits and pay (12%).

Dig through earnings-call transcripts, press releases, and annual reports, paying attention to moves to increase diversity, transparency, or collaboration across the organization.

But understanding a company’s culture isn’t always easy from an hour-long interview, or even a series of hour-long interviews. That’s especially true of weaker cultures, where interviewers may try and hide the reality of the workplace experience. Here’s how to draw back the curtain on what life really looks like inside a firm’s walls—before you decide to work within them.

Do your interviewers give detailed answers to your questions?

Whether you’re looking for a high-growth ambitious atmosphere or one that prides itself on people leaving the office at 5 p.m., you should be able to get a sense of transparency throughout your interviews. Companies that take pride in how they treat employees will share their experiences. If you ask your interviewers about the day-to-day, for example, and they look uncomfortable with your question, that’s a warning, says Nancy Von Horn, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Keep your ears open for responses that don’t actually answer your questions. It may mean there’s not much for them to say, so they’re trying to talk around it.

How often does your interviewer return to the company purpose?

While all companies talk about their mission in interviews, it’s important to see if your interviewers continue to circle back to it. What you need to determine, ultimately, is how the mission plays out on a day-to-day basis, Von Horn says. Is it just a statement, or do employees really work toward the mission because it’s something everyone believes in and wants to see fulfilled? At strong cultures, the mission isn’t just a tagline, but a crucial focus of your job.

What does the record show?

Researching your prospective employer can tell you a lot about the culture. Dig through earnings-call transcripts, press releases, and annual reports, paying attention to moves to increase diversity, transparency, or collaboration across the organization. Do a Google search to see if the company has been recognized on any prominent rankings related to corporate culture—there are lists for everything nowadays, from benefits and compensation to social responsibility and overall workplace happiness. It may also be worth looking into whether the CEO has made any public comments about culture, or better yet, if they’re one of the nearly 200 high-profile CEOs who formally agreed in 2019 that organizations should prioritize investing in employees and delivering value to customers over maximizing shareholder value.

What do former employees say?

Sure, you can check out online resources like Glassdoor to see what current and past employees say about a company. But it’s widely known that many of those reviews are requested by the company itself or can be fake. What’s better is to reach out to people who used to work at the company (preferably in the role or department you’re interviewing for), via LinkedIn or through shared connections, and pick up the phone to talk with them about their experience. The more folks you speak with, the better an idea you’ll get of the company culture. And while it may be obvious, it’s also good to ask them why they left; a disgruntled former employee, after all, is going to give you a different view than someone who left on good terms.

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