What Does "Company Culture" Actually Mean?

Photographed by Ingalls.
Job seekers and job givers are generally looking for the same things during the hiring process: alignment on important points, including job requirements, the position's title, and the salary and benefits.
Another, much more nebulous aspect of the job search and interview process, however, is company culture. Employees and hirers want to match up when it comes to "culture," but determining what makes you a fit can be pretty difficult.
For one thing, defining how a culture is created and what it means is kind of hard. For another, you can't really know a place until you're there. Culture exists, of course — it's that feeling you get when you spend time in a place, about what people do, and how they and others behave. But figuring out who sets that tone in the first place can be hard.
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Is it the people at the very top? Or, are the culture-setters everyday employees who are involved in the daily goings-on? As John Traphagan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin wrote in Harvard Business Review two years ago, "the boundaries of any organization are permeable and usually not particularly clearly defined."
If you're in the interview process and want to figure that out for yourself, ask some of those questions outright.

What Is The Company Culture?

The ways that company culture comes to be differs by job, but the overwhelming sense that most people have is that it either governs the rules — or is the rules — that set the standards and expectations of behavior at a workplace. It's hard to see it, explain it, or even say what it comes from, but you know it's there — especially when things go wrong.
"The most common definitions I've heard and tend to align with are: Culture is the unwritten and unspoken rules that govern behaviors and actions at work," says Bill Thomas, the managing principal at Centric Performance in Pittsburgh, PA, and a disciplines special expertise panelist at SHRM. "Culture is the accumulative effect of how people collectively think and behave. Culture is how your employees think and act when management's not in the room."
He suggests that job seekers talk to as many people as possible — other than the hiring manager or recruiter — to get the real story. That is often other employees, whether people you know personally or those who might be in your network. (Try looking through LinkedIn to see if you share any friends or acquaintances, and then using that mutual connection for an introduction, email is fine, after which you ask questions about their experience.)
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"Culture is not what the company's senior leaders proclaim, or want, it to be. It's what customers, suppliers, investors, and employees – both current, former, and prospective — view it to be," Thomas adds.
Honestly speaking, is the job you're considering highly disorganized or run like a well-oiled machine? Do people stop to talk, or is it heads down 99% of the time? And which environment would you really prefer to be in? The work of investigating that both inside and outside of the interview process is on you. As is determining whether you'd be willing to work in whatever environment there appears to be, or not.

How Does Company Culture Play Out?

The person who sets the tone for culture can change, depending on where you work and whom you ask. Karla Y. Epperson, a human resources business partner at NPL Construction in Eastvale, CA, says that culture is "supplied" to employees by HR practitioners and leaders of organizations. By contrast, Vivian Rank, a leadership development coach at Be Coached LLC in Minneapolis, MN, explains that culture is just as much a matter of the individual choices that employees make (which are reinforced or rejected at large), as it is the unspoken rules from bigger decision makers.
In her past experiences working for three different Fortune-100 retail companies over 18 years, Rank says that each workplace defined culture differently. One was wholly determined by the history of the company — "the founder, his values and beliefs, his work ethic," she says. So much so, that new employees were "indoctrinated" with that information and many kept a photo of the founder in their cube as a reminder, and to "demonstrate adherence to the culture."
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"Don't want to work on Saturday? Sorry, you won't fit in with the culture," Rank says of that workplace.
Another company she worked at adhered to a more philosophy in which not wanting to sign up to bring donuts in on a Friday would constitute a bad culture fit. The third didn't demonstrate culture in a way that was as explicit as the other two companies, but she says it was still observable through people's habits.
"Work hard, don't waste time, eat lunch at your desk," she says. "Want to go back to school for a master's degree? Will it interfere with how many hours you can work? If so, not a culture match."

How Are Hiring Decisions Made Based On Perceived Culture Fit?

For many workplaces, finding the right fit happens at the outset, since if someone isn't a fit, it's a much bigger lift to try to change individual people, or overhaul the workplace's culture itself.
Epperson says that some companies try to automate the process by administering personality tests to candidates when screening. Then they use data analysis to select their ideal hires. Rank says that other people will hire a specific person to suss out candidates that are the right fit. That employee is often a person with a "Culture" title of some sort ("Director of Corporate Culture," for example), and they come up with guidelines. Still, "other companies leave it to the communications department or the HR department to define culture," she adds, while, "Some leaders will set the parameters for the type of culture that they want to develop within their own organizations. For example, the EVP of Logistics many have a several cultural behaviors that he/she would like to cultivate."
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What If I'm Not A Culture Fit?

If you really want (and need) a certain job, you might be tempted to present yourself in a way that is inauthentic to who you actually are. You wouldn't be lying per se, but simply embellishing parts of your personality that may or may not exist to look like the person they want to hire.
Consider how you'll feel once you settle in, though. It's somewhat of a luxury to pick and choose jobs that live up to your life's passion, but it isn't a luxury to want to get through the day. To use Rank's earlier example, if you're a come in, get it done, punch out kind of person, it won't feel great to be side-eyed for skipping the office donut run, every time the issue comes up.
You might also want to just trust your instincts. If you get a sense that a workplace is antithetical to your beliefs or way of life in any key respects, consider it a blessing that you found out early, and take those lessons with you as you continue your search.
"When you find your right 'fit', you will most certainly be more engaged on the job, which so many studies have shown [leads] to increased productivity," Rank says. "We all want to feel part of something bigger than we are, and that our work matters. A strong company culture can be the thing that makes us want to come to work every day. When you find it, you know it."
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