Career Center Blog

January 13, 2010

How corporate culture can make or break a job


Although I haven't seen it addressed in the recent rash of job satisfaction surveys, there's no denying that company culture can greatly affect your on-the-job happiness.

If dressing in full goth regalia or otherwise letting your freak flag fly is important to you, you might not be content in an office filled with polos and khakis. If you thrive in an environment where managers trust their employees to make their own hours and set their own deadlines (not all employees do), you may feel suffocated at a firm that monitors your comings, goings, and daily output like a hawk.

Now that we've started a fresh year and the job market is maybe, hopefully starting to loosen up (even if ever so slightly), I'm hearing more people talk about the importance of corporate culture again. And no, not all these people have jobs; some are collecting unemployment and pounding the pavement.

"I need to make enough money and get a decent health insurance package," said Tonia, a friend who's currently job hunting. "But if there's one thing my past two layoffs have taught me, it's that I need to work somewhere that values my ideas and input and won't penalize me for voicing my opinions. I want to work in a collaborative environment, not a tyrannical one."

Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online shoe emporium Zappos, recently gave an interesting interview to the New York Times on how corporate culture can make or break a company. Hsieh says he came to resent the workaholic culture at the first startup he co-founded, to the point where he dreaded going to work every day and eventually sold the company.

When he joined Zappos a decade ago, Hsieh made shaping the company's culture a top priority. Today Zappos goes so far as to conduct two sets of interviews for each candidate it screens. "The hiring manager and his or her team will interview for the standard fit within the team, relevant experience, technical ability, and so on," Hsieh told the New York Times. "But then our HR department does a separate set of interviews purely for culture fit."

A number of tools can help career changers and job seekers investigate the culture of employers they're interested in. Tapping your professional network for insider details and playing detective on informational interviews is of course a great start. But don't overlook the wealth of information on the web. Sites like Glassdoor can give you a glimpse into daily life at that bright shiny company you've been admiring. Same goes for all those Best Places to Work lists that come out each year -- for example, the 2009 People's Picks right here on NWjobs.

Readers, when it comes to career satisfaction, how important is corporate culture to you? Does it trump salary and health benefits? Take a back seat to job title and commute time? How far out of your way have you gone to research whether an employer is the right cultural fit for you?

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide." E-mail Michelle at

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I actually lucked out when it came to corporate culture. Going into my first job out of college, I didn't even know that culture was something I should be considering. I am happy to say that the culture here is a great fit for me and definitely plays a large role in how satisfied I am in my current position.

I work for OneWire (, a job-matching site that connects finance professionals with firms that are hiring based on highly detailed profiles that both candidates and firms create. Knowing what I do now about corporate culture and how important a good fit is, I really appreciate that OneWire accounts for skills, interests, and hobbies in its profile as a preliminary way to ensure that any potential hire would be a good fit within the company. It may at first seem to be a trivial portion of the candidate’s profile, but fit within the corporate culture really does effect one’s overall performance and is an important piece to consider before making any hires.

My take on corporate culture is, unfortunately, similar to your friend Tonia. I've never been in an interview where the HR people didn't say "We value and want to hear your toughts and opinions" but in the last decade, I don't see it in practice. People who speak up are consiered rogue, people who don't are considered team players.

Barbara Ehrenreich talks about this a bit in her latest book, although more on the subject of having to be "positive" all the time.

In a nation built on the first amendment, free speech and hearing all opinions, my corporate experience is that most companies not only don't care what you think, they'd greatly prefer if you kept it to yourself.

I certainly agree that culture is critical for worklife to be enjoyable and productive. A critical piece of that culture is the regard employees show for one another. An appalling waste of potential occurs when people fail to call upon the talents and energy of their colleagues at work. A culture of mutual respect and citizenship allows the people and the company to reach its vision.
All the best

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Former contributors

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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