There is nothing worse than landing a job in a great company, only to realize that the cultural fit isn't a match. Company culture is very important because it can influence large-scale managerial decisions, company ethics, and more. However, culture is also something that evolves as variables such as staff or location undergo changes, or as the organization grows or shrinks.

For small and large companies alike, it can be difficult for employees to identify and articulate the company culture for themselves, let alone prospective employees. If they don't know their culture, it only serves to reason that they eventually hire people who are not a fit. Furthermore, many companies confuse brand with culture.

For example, just because a company sells the hippest mobile device on the market doesn't guarantee that the culture of its office will mirror its brand personality and commercial success. Conversely, just because a company offers a product or service that seems staid or boring, doesn't mean it doesn't have the perfect office environment for you.

An important challenge for job seekers is to evaluate the company culture and decide whether it is a fit before accepting a position. This may sound impossible, but there are ways to assess corporate culture and avoid a potentially disastrous situation.

Assessing cultural fit

The cultural compatibility between an employer and candidate is critical for the long-term success of the relationship. Yet, it's what candidates are most likely to overlook during the job search because they believe that they are unable to learn about the company culture until they are already in the door. In fact, assessing the culture of a company can begin well before the interview process.

Pre-interview. Ask your network. Use LinkedIn, Jigsaw, Ryze, and other networking tools to query your network and determine if anyone you know has worked at the company or knows someone who has so that you can inquire about the culture. Other ways to gain more insight include

  • inviting current employees of the company to join your network and asking for their first-hand experience with the company
  • checking out the website to see if there are any employee testimonials, and if so, whether they seem authentic or scripted.

Observe everything. Evaluate all that you see and hear and everyone you meet during the interview process, beginning when you first walk in the door. Consider

  • First impression - What is the office space like? Can you see yourself working there?
  • Dress code - Are current employees dressed professionally, business casual, or as though they just rolled out of bed?
  • Energy level - Is the office buzzing, quiet, or chaotic?
  • Personal effects - Do people have pictures, toys, or other forms of self-expression in their work areas? Does it fit with how you like your office?
  • Desktops - Do they have the latest laptops, 1980s throwbacks, or something in between?
  • People - How do they act? Are there common themes in terms of behavior or personality?

Question everything. While visiting the company, don't be afraid to ask questions about the culture and the things you are seeing and hearing. Consider company behavior. Does the company promote from within, sponsor team lunches, or encourage professional development? If the answer is yes, ask for specific examples. As a learning and development professional, you should know just what to ask.

Lastly, ask each person you meet to describe the company culture, and see if you get consistent responses. Also, ask the people you meet how long they have been with the company.

Post interview. Ask for more. Most people assume that once the interview is over, they can't ask additional questions. If you feel you haven't met enough people, ask if there are other members of the organization you can speak to about their experiences.

Be honest. If you are still unsure whether you will fit in with a company where you have interviewed, ask your friends and family about the kind of office environment in which they think you will thrive, and decide if that matches your experience during your interview. Sometimes, the people who know us the best also know what's best for us.

Bottom line

In short, remember that you are interviewing a company, just as much as the company is interviewing you. So the more information you can glean about the culture, the more you can compare it to your own observations. With this information in hand, you are better equipped to make an informed decision about a company's culture and whether it's the best fit for you.

In an unsteady economy, many job seekers are reticent to do anything that may jeopardize a job offer. As a job seeker, you must remember that a job is more than the duties you perform. Your feelings about the "personality" of the company are equally important. Try to resist the temptation to take a job just because it's offered.

The economic recovery is going to take a while. And if you take a job that's a bad fit, you are likely going to be there for some time before you find another. Try to get it right the first time, and hold out for the best cultural fit.