man peeking over a cubicle wall to learn about company culture

Ask an HR Pro: What are the Best Ways to Get a Feel for a Company’s Culture?

Lisa Shuster, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP​ and iHire's Chief People Officer answers your tough job search and hiring questions.

ask an hr pro lisa shuster

We spend most of our waking hours at work. While the nature of the job, salary, bonuses, benefits, etc. are important factors to consider when seeking new employment, culture is perhaps the most impactful to your success and happiness on the job.

So, what is culture? It’s the personality of the company and “how things are done around here.” It consists of things such as the company’s core values, how people interact with one another, dress code, physical layout of the office, work hours, flexibility, how performance is rewarded (or punished), and dozens of other factors. In fact, until you’re working at a company for a month or two, you cannot fully grasp the culture.

Given its importance, however, be sure to make a concerted effort to uncover a potential employer’s culture. This can be accomplished through research, observation, and asking the right questions.


Once you’ve been invited to interview, start researching. Good places to start are the company’s annual report, the company’s website, and employment sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor. Consistently negative reviews on these sites are a red flag. Furthermore, if the company has a reputation for treating its customers poorly, you likely won’t be treated any better as an employee.


Actions speak louder than words. Arrive at the interview early to observe how employees interact with one another, how they are dressed, and their level of professionalism. Are there pictures of the company softball team on the wall? Has the company received “best place to work” awards? Do employees look happy? Does the environment feel upbeat? Note the way you are treated by any team member you interact with, and remember: people are on their best behavior during the interview process. If you are not treated well then, it’s a sign you won’t be treated well as an employee.

Ask the Right Questions

Unless you know someone working at the company, your interviewer is going to be your key source of information, so ask questions that will give you a good sense of what working there will really be like. Simply asking, “What is the culture like here?” will likely not yield very useful or illustrative information. Instead, consider asking some of the following questions:

  • Does the company have a stated set of values? The most progressive companies understand their culture’s influence on their employees and are deliberate about the values they wish to promote.
  • How are decisions made around here? What types of decisions would I make? See if the company has a participative management style, or if decisions are made at the highest levels and handed down to employees.
  • What is the career path for this position? You are looking for a company that values growth and learning, and recognizes the fact that most employees desire it.
  • How is performance evaluated? Is there a cursory annual performance appraisal? Are there regular performance discussions and coaching? Are there developmental discussions? Are employees evaluated on core values?
  • How is risk-taking encouraged? What happens when people fail? Employees live in fear when companies punish them for taking risks. Look for a company where failure is rewarded.
  • What is the turnover rate? Why do employees leave the company? If most employees leave the company for “better opportunities,” it’s likely that there is not a focus on employee advancement and promotion from within.
  • What types of achievements are recognized by the company? The response to this question will reflect what the company values and rewards.
  • Can you describe the environment here? Listen to the adjectives the interviewer uses and what aspects of working at the company s/he chooses to discuss – the teamwork among employees, career development, or free snacks?
  • Can I speak with some of your employees/my potential coworkers? If there is hesitancy to allow you to talk to employees, this is not a good sign and can be illustrative of a lack of trust or desire to hide information.

Getting a handle on a company’s culture is not always easy, but with some research, keen observation, and good questions, you should be able to get a sense of whether or not you could picture yourself working there. And at that point, go with your gut!

Check out more great tips on researching potential employers and our collection of interview advice.

By Natalie Winzer, iHire | August 22, 2016
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