Company culture isn’t just a buzzword, it’s the entire ethos of an organisation. If you’re going to be spending 40+ hours a week working for a company and in close confines with your workmates, you want to be sure that everything from the way they celebrate a win to the values they believe in and where they see the company going match up to your expectations.
It’s not just about beers on Fridays either (though who doesn’t love a good drink with colleagues after work?!) – company culture brings a sense of belonging. It’s about feeling like you’re at home and that you’re not just a cog in the machine. You’re working with people you love, and you’re doing the things that matter to you in a supportive environment. There’s nothing worse than turning up on day one to realise that the mood in the office isn’t quite what you imagined.
So how do you figure out if you’ve found a company culture match?
We caught up with our Divisional Manager, Ben Lapworth, to get some insights on how to pluck the right information on culture in a short, high-pressure space of time like a job interview.
Knowing what you want in a company culture
It’s fair to say everyone has different work habits. While some of us enjoy a lot more ‘play’ in the all work no play equation, others enjoy a quiet environment where they can keep their head down and sink their teeth into the workload.
Some of us want to work within a company culture that values giving back, doing the right thing and having a greater sense of purpose. Others are more interested in working in a strong team environment where everyone chips in, celebrates success and gives out many pats on the back.
Each company will have unique strengths when it comes to culture, so it’s important to get clear with yourself on what ‘good company culture’ looks like to you. This will be key when it comes down to picking out red flags and making a decision.
Question 1: “What group activities does your company get involved with?”
Asking this question gives you the opportunity to tactfully uncover how dedicated to team events and outings your potential employer is, without directly saying “am I in for a lot of team-building outings and team building events?”.
If they’re able to answer your question right off the bat with a “we do this every week/month”, you’ll know you’re onto a social winner. The more detailed the answer, the more dedicated to team bonding and group activities the company is.
From this point, you can quickly pivot to find out two things;
How much emphasis they actually put on company culture. Essentially, if they're doing regular team events and celebrate milestones in style, this is a telling sign that they value how their staff are feeling and how they engage with one another. So much so, that they’re setting up these practices to create that culture and to build that environment.
Follow up by asking what kind of activities they do. There’s a big difference between weekly chess club and downhill mountain biking, for example, and both are blueprints for culture and whether that’s going to align with who you are as a person and employee.
A good example of this actually happens right here at 84 with what we call the ‘beer test’. In the final stage of our interview process, we have a drink with our candidates to get a feel of what they are like outside of the office and get to know them in a more informal and fun environment, as we enjoy having a beer with one another and we believe this reflects our culture well.
Having a fully-fledged social calendar is also the next step up from your run-of-the-mill “we do Friday drinks” company culture. If the business has a social calendar (or even a social committee), you can bet that they’re organised and proactive when it comes to company culture.
There are different variations of this, some might feel a bit over the top and celebrate every event in the calendar year, and some are more relaxed with an event planned here and there - it all depends on what you feel is relevant and how involved you want to be as an employee.
This will also give you an opportunity to gauge whether you have time and dedication to commit to a full-blown social calendar - make sure to get an understanding of what involvement is expected of everyone and how your lifestyle would fit into that.
Of course, if your company isn’t able to give you very clear answers, this might be a red flag that company culture is on the back burner and they’re all work no play, which might not be right for you.
Question 2: “What are your company values and how do you ensure your employees live up to them?”
Next on the list of questions to ask would be to ask point-blank what your potential employer’s company values are - but also how they make sure everyone lives by them.
As Xero puts it; “Company culture is the personality of your business and workplace environment. What builds that personality is the core values of a business. Put these values into action and you'll see them reflected in your employees and throughout the business itself. Thus, creating a company culture.”
In short - there’s a big difference between displaying company values on a poster on the office wall, and walking the talk every day. For example, here at 84, our company values are “All in, you first, 3-steps ahead”. We help our employees live up to them with our quarterly ‘values award’ that is voted by the entire team. Nominations are based on the team member that has shown to live up to our company values the most for that quarter using examples. This gives everyone something to strive towards, and makes sure that we’re all on the same page when delivering work each and every day.
Living the company values is what makes culture happen, so if your future employer is having trouble defining what their values are and how they’re living them, you can bet the culture will reflect this.
Question 3: “How would you describe your culture?”
It may seem like a no-brainer, but asking an open-ended question like this one always gets the interviewer talking, and lets you get an understanding of how well defined their company culture is from their point of view.
You can follow up from this and ask how their culture compares to others in the industry, or how they differentiate themselves in terms of culture from other businesses. This is your moment to flip the script and ask what they have to offer you.
Question 4: “What does the company do for social good and how do the employees get involved with this?”
As we mentioned earlier, for some people company culture means doing good and getting amongst the community. Companies now place far more emphasis on not purely making money, but what they’re doing for the betterment of the environment or the local community.
You might find that your prospective company doesn’t have any social good practices which may tell you something about the business’ cultural mentality, or, it may just be something they haven’t thought about.
Are they all about making money or do they actually do a lot of social good for the environment? If your expectations of the company go beyond your salary and doing good is important to you, this question is a winner.
Question 5: “What do you do that others don't?”
This question is a strategic move for two reasons. Firstly, it gives the company an opportunity to let you know of any unique selling points that don’t necessarily relate to their social calendar but do form culture in a company. Maybe they have a free fruit basket delivered on a Monday morning, maybe they’re a dog-friendly office, or maybe they’re all about flexibility and making your job work for you. Whatever it is that makes them shine, this is the time to mention it.
On the flip side, it gives you the upper hand in the interview. The question gives off a subtle tone that you have other options out there and that they need to compete to get to you, without coming across as too arrogant and assured.
Picking up any red flags and making your final decision
At the end of the day, what looks like your dream job might feel like a hard no to someone else. It’s all about picking up on little things in the interview that might make you question whether the culture does or doesn’t align with your values.
If you’re not into alcohol and the company sounds like a bit of a boozy atmosphere, or the boss loves organising company social sports teams and your ideal night after work is tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and Netflix, it’s probably not the right type of culture for you.
Our best advice is to have a good think about what’s important for you before you head into the interview, so when you ask these questions you’ll be alerted to any warning signs and pick up on subtle red flags.