How to Make Culture Work for You


I was thinking today about culture. On one hand, it’s a pretty vague word, isn’t it? I mean, it’s one of those words tossed about where you think everyone understands exactly what you mean – and yet they probably don’t. The definition of culture is probably as varied as the people who speak of it.

On the other hand, culture can be so very specific. “Indian culture, Asian culture, cultural awareness” all seem generally understood on the surface. But a question like, “How cultured are you?” is elusive. How do you answer that? Not that anyone would likely ask you specifically least they offend you, unless maybe it was poll in some Millennials’ favorite ezine. And what about culture at work? For that one, it can be elusive yet specific. If you understand the company culture – and can define what that means – it may well make or break your chances of feeling good about the job you do.

So let’s start there. Over the course of what I often call my “crazy, wonderful, wouldn’t change a thing career,” I have had the opportunity to experience several different companies, industries, segments, bosses, environments … and yes, cultures. Before you think that sounds rather schizophrenic, I can legitimately vouch for time spent with corporations, government, nonprofit, startup businesses, agencies and education. I only mention that as validation for having any sort of culturally ingrained right to profess knowing anything at all about workplace culture. I am not a HR expert or a guru of any type that might qualify. I am simply a fast learner and adaptor who has been around a bit.

Early in my career, I don’t think I thought about culture all that much. I just wanted a good job with opportunity to move ahead [yeah, my generation was/is very into climbing]. I did know that I loved working with various cultures, meaning people from different backgrounds. But it would be years before I put those pieces together with the opportunity to work with a global focus.

It took a sharp change of cultures between one job and the next before it hit me. Yes, that means I made a major culture-fit mistake before I even realized what to look for. So I thought I would save you the trouble and offer some little ways to read a culture before you take that next position (or even transfer within a company where there can be nuances between departments). I’m sure there are a gazillion other ways to do this, but these are a few that I find work.

How to Read a Company Culture

  1. Look at the company’s website, annual report and advertising.
    Forget the buzzwords for a moment. What do you see? Is everyone in a suit or any ‘unwritten’ uniform? Even hairstyles among women can be a clue. [Don’t laugh, I have been several places where a certain style was the mainstay for a large majority as if it were passed down from on high!] Do you see diversity in the pictures? Women? Latinos? Asians? Black, white, purple? Do their smiles look natural or forced? Are they more ‘corporate’ or laid back? Could you see yourself working with and for these people? What does it say to you if they only show product in their pictures?
  2. Now read the words.
    Think back to English class. What mood or setting are they trying to portray? Are you similar to their target audience? If you were, could you relate? Would you buy this product or service? What are they not saying? If you read the words and didn’t know it was this company, could it be any other competitor making that claim? And don’t forget to check the company’s social media presence. Does it appear that employees have permission to participate?
  3. Visit the office.
    Glance around. If you have the opportunity, notice the differences between the look of the boss’ office verses everyone else, versus the lobby, versus the employee gathering spot. Most likely there will be differences, but what impression does each setting give you? What do the differences say to you?
  4. People watch.
    Watch the administrative assistants react to and with anyone who comes by. Do they stiffen as the executive enters? Do they have time to be friendly and chat with you or do they seem rushed? You’ll get a good feel from the receptionist, but most companies know they need friendly front office people so it’s not quite the same. Watch every interaction you happen to see in the hallways, even in that fast glance as you walk past a conference room. Your split second impression is your gut instinct hitting your brain. What is it saying to you?

Instinct is huge. Yes, your gut does actually tell you whether to escape fast or relax. I once went on an interview and as soon as I hit the waiting area, I saw something that was so against my comfort level, I couldn’t wait to run out of the place! I knew it would never work before I even talked to the person I was there to see.

But here’s the thing. Reacting on instinct is helpful but the real secret lies in being able to connect the dots. No one aspect of these tips may mean much on their own. But the ability to know what 1 + 2 + 3 actually means to you, now that’s a cultured difference!


About csrtrans

President/Senior Consultant & Global PR professional. CSR Transformations, Ltd. offers a consortium of independent consultants from around the world providing contracted expertise in Communications, Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility.
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