FACTS: Company Culture Affects You DirectlyOct 08, 2023
Company culture is a big buzzword in the professional realm. And all companies seem to boast that theirs is elite, right?
I mean, just look at most job postings. Odds are pretty good that somewhere in there they will reference culture.
It’s just as common to see recruiters and hiring managers sharing their roles on LinkedIn with the exclamation “great culture!”
Here’s the thing, though.
Company cultures can’t be all good for everybody.
And sometimes? The culture is downright toxic.
That’s why company culture is such an important factor to consider when looking for a new job, or deciding whether or not it’s time to leave your current position – because it directly affects you and your work-life balance.
No matter how few days you’re in the office, you will undoubtedly feel the effects of company culture, both positive and negative.
In this post, I’m exploring what exactly company culture means, how to identify if a company culture will work for you, and clues for spotting the difference between supportive and toxic workplace environments. Hint – you can usually feel it in your gut.
Company Culture Defined
Let’s break down this buzzword, shall we?
I like to define company culture really specifically - and I’m not talking about pizza parties or foosball tournaments.
Company culture refers to a company's core values both in action and in policy. Why? Because too often the values on the website aren’t remotely aligned to the day-to-day experience.
Recruiters will often point out perks, benefits, and compensation as evidence of their company’s “GrEaT CuLtUrE!” Be careful not to take this at face value. Sometimes, these perks sound amazing but the company is actually quite toxic, using these benefits as a shield for hustle culture and poor work-life balance.
Some companies have coded claims of a supportive community that will help you reach your full potential, or they will refer to the company as “one big family.” This can quickly translate to inbred politics, 14-hour days, micro-management, and unachievable numbers.
In the end, company culture takes a bit more investigation than claims and outward appearances.
Two Key Elements of Company Culture
There are two key elements of company culture I tell people to look for when I'm working with them:
1. Alignment between personal and company values
Begin by identifying company values and seeing if there is an alignment with your personal values. You can find these values on the company website or in job postings.
One of the top causes of burnout is a lack of alignment between your work and your own values and needs. This is about more than simply working too many hours and not having enough time for personal pursuits (though these are major factors).
Case in point: I once interviewed for a job at a company that boasted about a work hard, play hard culture. I got to the final round of interviews - which I traveled out of state for on my own dime - and found out it was anything but that. The CEO told me the company required 10-hour days from everyone during the week and “encouraged” weekend work. It was actually work hard, work hard! Oh, let’s not forget - the rare “play hard” time you had was probably going to be with work colleagues since nobody had time for friends outside the office.
When you’re spending the majority of your waking hours with a company that does not align with your core values, this can lead to big issues down the lines, major stress, and mental health breakdowns.
Remember to ask recruiters about company values to give you an idea about the company culture and see if it aligns with your needs.
2. Evidence of values in both policy and practice
Next, you need to investigate these values a little further. If the company values seem to align with your own, seek evidence of these values being put into both policy and practice.
You can’t simply take a recruiter’s word. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to get specific. People love to say that their company culture is amazing without actually telling you what the culture is like. Don’t let them do this.
Here are a few example questions you can ask of people during your interviews to get a clearer picture of culture.
- “I understand from your website that ACME values a diverse workforce. How does that show up in your policies?”
- “I’ve learned that XYZ Corp values accountability, courage, respect, and trust. What is your favorite company value and how does it show up in your day-to-day work?”
I recommend asking one or two values-based questions to each interviewer. Ask them as neutrally as possible and listen carefully to what you hear back. Answers without specificity should be considered suspicious.
Remember that there is no perfect company culture. There will be some that are good and bad for each individual employee. Get your answers so that you can make an informed decision based on your own needs and preferences in the workplace.
Company Culture: Healthy vs. Toxic
While different company values and practices will work for different professionals, some behaviors are just toxic, no matter how you look at them.
Here’s how to identify basic differences between healthy and toxic company cultures:
A positive work environment will uphold clear communication between all team members, with opportunities for feedback and collaboration for all.
Other signs of positive communication include approachable leadership and employee recognition of achievements within the workplace.
On the flip side, toxic environments often have unclear communication, frequent misunderstandings, blame with finger-pointing, and a fear of making mistakes.
Oh, and gaslighting. Let’s not forget the gaslighting. If your boss’s door is always open, but every concern you raise is thrown back in your face as not really being a problem - that’s bad.
Well-rounded workplace cultures will show examples of trust and respect within the company. Employees will feel valued, and confident in their abilities based on successful leadership.
But in toxic company cultures, trust is in short supply while fear? It’s everywhere.
You may feel afraid to bring new ideas to the table for fear of judgment. You may feel a lack of autonomy, stifled under micro-management.
At its worst, this could translate to any form of bullying, harassment, or perpetuating an unsafe environment. This can lead to high stress levels, anxiety, and a lack of interest in the job.
Competition vs collaboration
There’s nothing wrong with a little good-natured competition. But toxic workplaces take this to a whole new level.
You’ll often find great examples of teamwork and collaboration on projects in companies with a positive culture. This is a great way to boost morale in the workplace and create a genuine camaraderie between coworkers.
Other workplaces are more concerned with competition over collaboration. The individualist position is not an uncommon one in career advancement. It does, however, leave professionals vulnerable to undermining, backstabbing, and other actions that have no place in the workplace.
Boundaries and balance
I believe that boundaries are the core of a healthy work-life balance. And while I also believe that it’s mostly our job as people to set and enforce our own boundaries, I find that positive company cultures allow you to leave work at work, letting you find a suitable balance for your personal and professional lives.
You may also benefit from more flexibility in your schedule, giving you increased autonomy over your workload; this comes from a level of trust that is ingrained in the culture.
On the other hand, lots of companies promote a hustle culture tenfold. Obsessed with productivity over effectiveness, “the grind” is a common concept in all sectors.
I won’t say you shouldn’t work hard in your career, and all companies will push productivity on some level. But if your workplace is promoting a culture where you feel guilty for taking time off or not working overtime, you may need to make a move for the sake of your health and relationships.
Growth is a less black-and-white example of company culture. A positive culture doesn’t necessarily provide you with growth opportunities. In fact, sometimes it’s the exact opposite effect.
I will say, however, that taking a look at turnover rates is a good indicator of company culture, especially when you’re first looking at a new position.
If there are low turnover rates within a company, this may indicate satisfied employees with a sustainable workload. High turnover could point to toxic organizations with a high chance of burnout.
This doesn’t always work - after all, some people stay at companies for a long time because the culture is so toxic they’ve become convinced no other company would want them. To sort this out, consider asking everyone you interview with what makes them *stay* at the company.
No BS Career Coach’s Thoughts About How Company Culture Affects You
It doesn’t matter how much you keep your head down – company culture is going to affect you one way or the other.
But with these tips and some courageous curiosity during the interview, you can dig out what the culture of a company really is and save yourself a huge headache down the road.
By seeking a positive company culture that aligns with your personal values and goals, you can achieve better work-life balance, a more fulfilled career, and a level of comfort in your workplace that can’t be undersold.
If you’re ready to get out of a toxic situation and into a company that has a great culture for you, you may be ready for one of my coaching programs. Book an intro session today to learn more about my coaching programs.