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For job satisfaction, culture fit matters

Companies are as different as the people who run them. You’ve no doubt felt super comfortable upon meeting certain people and quite uncomfortable when meeting others. You don’t want to join a company only to find out that the organization belongs in the latter category.

Culture may seem like a minor consideration next to factors such as the science you’ll be conducting, the resources you’ll have at your disposal, and how much you’ll be getting paid. But your happiness and job satisfaction over the years will hinge on whether you’ve been comfortable in your employer’s culture. Comfort makes you more productive, and productivity always lies behind success, no matter the career. That’s why considering culture, a company’s living and breathing personality, is so critical when you’re looking for a job.

Find the right fit

When you first hit the job market and begin to interview, you might be tempted to accept an offer from the first organization that will have you. But ignoring culture is a mistake!

I got burned by this early in my career. A company offered me an impressive title and I jumped to take it, disregarding the culture red flags that I saw all around me. I’m a Type A workaholic; my new employer was a laid back, quiet place, where you’d get locked in—literally—if you stayed past 5:30 p.m. About 6 months into my new job, the CEO pulled me aside and told me, “This isn’t working out.” It was actually a huge relief.

Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t get caught up in the frenzy of receiving a job offer. Hey, those are great, no doubt about it. But for your long-term success, you need to at least consider culture fit. Don’t let clues fall on deaf ears. Don’t be like me. Be like Rajiv.

Rajiv spent 9 hours interviewing at the R&D center of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. He was impressed—but something seemed to be amiss.

He began jotting down the positives and negatives, as the recruiter had asked him to, listing what he liked about the potential job on one side of a yellow pad and things he was less comfortable with on the other. In doing so, a trend became evident: All those areas that he liked had to do with the organization’s R&D capabilities, not its people.

The huge core laboratory he’d have access to, the equipment and reagents budget he’d be working with, the lab space—wow! But he felt that his potential co-workers lacked the passion he was looking for. In other words, it was a bad culture fit.

Initially, Rajiv struggled to turn aside an opportunity where the resources seemed so good only because of what could have been read as a superficial feeling. But it was the right decision. A few months later, he interviewed at a company with great resources and passionate scientists. He had found his future employer. 

If you’re an early-career job seeker, you may not quite know what sort of culture you’re looking for yet. But it will start to become clear as you go to interviews and listen to your gut feelings about whether you feel comfortable there.

In the meantime, you can ask your networking contacts about their views on the subject. Everyone has different priorities and preferences, of course. Some people will tell you they made their job decision based on the pace of the work or the company’s attitudes about work-life balance. Others may tell you about more unusual considerations. For my friend Dick Woodward, an adviser for the Science Careers discussion forum who was a microbiologist at a brewery in his early career, the fresh beer in the break room—and the culture of managers using that resource to build morale and have fun—helped make it a good fit. But regardless of the specifics, I bet that most, if not all, of the people you talk to will agree that culture is a crucial factor for any job hunter to consider.

Culture indicators

So, how do you find out about a company’s culture before you work there? Sometimes a company’s advertising will aim to communicate something about its personality. But be careful of putting too much stock in these branding campaigns. They’re nowhere near as reliable a barometer of culture as your own intuition on interview day.

  • Notice people—not the ones you are interviewing with, but others you see in hallways and labs. Do they seem happy? How much stress do you see in their faces? How are they dressed?
  • Office space says something about the culture. Do people have pictures and personal items on display at their lab bench or desk, or is the scene stark and cold?
  • What are the facilities like? Is there an employee workout room or a really nice break area? What about other resources that are important to you?
  • You can learn a lot from the company break room. Are there notices about the company softball team, a bowling league, yoga classes, or other activities that appeal to you?
  • Does the company have family-friendly policies, such as in-house day care and good maternity and paternal leave (sometimes called family leave)? Does anyone even talk about subjects like these?
  • Some companies offer perks such as snack bars and gym memberships, which seem great—but can come with tradeoffs. Is the employer using these benefits as incentives to keep workers on the job from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.?

There aren’t strictly “good” cultures or “bad” cultures. It’s all about what works for you. Companies with a range of personalities can be equally successful. At one company I know well it seems to be “casual day” every day, and people meet in nooks and crannies off hallways or in the large, open library. Another company has a formal, buttoned-up look, with meetings held only in swanky executive offices. It’s like the difference between Birkenstock sandals and a Brooks Brothers suit. Each company is great at what they do. But depending on your personality, you’d probably be more comfortable at one or the other.

That’s OK. The crucial thing is to figure out what your prospective employer’s culture is and consider whether it will be a good fit for you. Never ignore visible signs that you may not be happy there.

I like the warning that Dick passes along when asked about culture: “Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can overcome the obstacles posed by some glaring cultural issue. If it smells funny and it looks funny, try to avoid stepping in it.”

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