Dear Sam: I always hear ‘company culture’ this and ‘company culture’ that. What does ‘company culture’ even mean? What determines if it’s a good or a bad culture? -Dennis

Dear Dennis: I love this question because as a business owner, this is something that I’m constantly thinking about. Company culture is made up of many different components. Some of those components might include ethics, work environment, flexibility, mission, expectations, etc.

As you stated, company culture has become quite a big deal. After one week of training, Zappos offers $2,000 to their new hires to quit if they don’t feel like the position is a good fit. Why? Their hiring process is highly based on cultural fit, and they want to ensure every person on their team wants to be there. Some cultural elements at Zappos include an open office plan, a nap room with massage chairs situated beneath an overhead aquarium (check out the episode of Tanked to see it being built!), team happy hours, and the allowance to provide the highest of care for customers meaning no time limit for customer service calls—the longest of which was clocked at 10 hours and 32 minutes!

Google is another company well known for its culture. Google heavily focuses on professional development by bringing in lecturers and scheduling each employee personal project time. Google also emphasizes employee wellbeing by having a dog-friendly office policy, nap pods, and free massages. Google knows it pays off to invest in their employees and, as a result, 86% of Google employees report being extremely or fairly satisfied with their job. Considering about 50% of Americans are unhappy in their current employment, this is quite impressive. These different elements of Zappos and Google contribute to the overall genetic makeup of the company and help to define their company culture.

To address your second question, I think what determines a good company culture can differ depending on individuals and their working styles. Do you value structure and a consistent schedule or do you work better with flexibility and change? Take a look at the personalities of the employees in the company for which you desire to work. Do you have similar or complementary personalities? Do your values align? What sort of environment allows you to work best? Certainly, there are red flags to avoid when examining a culture like toxic communication, gossip, and overall low morale, but a lot about a “good culture” will determine what fits you as an individual. Let’s run through different ways you can learn about a company’s culture.

What does the company’s online presence say about it? Usually, you will be able to find information about the company’s culture on their website under “About Us” or “Our Story.” Additionally, you can take a peek behind the curtain on websites—such as Glassdoor—where employees can leave reviews about their company. Or you could check out the company’s social media accounts, how they interact with others online, and what other people say about them on social media.

Ask an employee! Utilize your networking skills and connect with someone from the company. Then take some time—over coffee or a phone call—to discuss workplace culture. Prepare for the meeting to make the most of your time together. Some of your questions might include What did your onboarding look like? How is change approached? How is conflict handled? What makes you proud to work there?

When interviewing with a potential employer, collect intel on the culture. Ask each person you speak with how long he or she has been with the company, ask about schedules and the flexibility or formality expected, ask about the dress code, and perhaps ask about Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or other culture-shaping employee opportunities. While these questions won’t necessarily all tie back to company culture, they can provide some insight for you during your interview.

Also, pay attention to the way the interview was set up, what the process was like, and how it ended. Were you greeted and offered water? Was your time respected? Were clear deadlines set for the next steps? These can all be clear indicators of the company culture as well.

Lastly, recognize that a culture might be in flux as we establish our new ‘normals’ in the workplace. Ask an employer about that, question if employee engagement has increased or decreased during the pandemic, and inquire as to how culture is cultivated in virtual, hybrid, and in-person working environments.

I hope this was a helpful dive into what good company culture is, what it can look like, and how you can identify it. I wish you all the best on your professional journey!