Identifying and Managing Workplace Culture
Historically, workplace culture has been an excuse to invalidate applicants based on implicit biases because it was both incorrectly prioritized and evaluated. The evaluation of applicants for their culture fit can be such a threat to underrepresented groups that they may “edit their CVs to take out their culture, anything that resembles it, so that they are more likely to get some interviews.”
Workplace culture is the compilation of behaviors that reflect the underlying values of employees, including their attitudes toward work, communication and interaction habits, values, and commitments. Cultural fit describes the concept of screening an applicant’s values, beliefs, and behaviors to evaluate whether they match that of the workplace. While workplace culture and cultural fit have been misused as scapegoats for implicit biases, they are helpful concepts in principle.
Based on those definitions, here are some tips to evaluate workplace cultures for compatibility and learn how to manage workplaces that aren’t compatible.
Evaluating Workplace Culture During Interviews
Ideally, the culture of the physical workplace should match the values and beliefs described in their job posting and recruiting materials. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Beforehand, decide what you care about most and what your values are. For example, what is your ideal working environment? How do you prefer to communicate? Do you work better independently or collaboratively?
During the interview, the best-case scenario is to see the workplace in real-time, preferably at mid-day and either early morning or late evening to see if long work hours are a part of the culture. After you’ve had a chance to observe, ask yourself what your initial thoughts were. Were your initial thoughts negative or positive? Did the workplace feel comfortable, aseptic, or chaotic?
There are also a lot of questions that you can ask of your potential employer during the interview. Along with asking questions to evaluate the needs and values you previously identified, some of the best interview questions for cultural fit include:
- how the company engages and supports employees,
- how the company deals with conflict and politics, and
- what the day-to-day work environment is like.
Leadership development expert Mikaela Kiner encourages you to keep in mind that every organization and/or department has “a unique value system, approach to conflicts and internal politics, and working environment. If someone tells you otherwise, be suspicious!”
In the event you find a workplace where the culture seems to fit but you suspect that implicit biases are at play and/or it isn’t obvious that you’ll be a good fit, it may be possible to preempt the potential employer’s conclusion. When Gustavo Razzetti felt he was in this situation, “he would pitch himself as a wildcard, [saying] ‘If you’re looking for someone to keep steering the ship in this direction, that’s not me. I’ll shake things up and make a change.’”
Managing an Incompatible Workplace Culture
Workplace culture can be difficult to assess on the fly. Ideally, your values and beliefs match those of your employer, but those can be easily distorted by apathetic or overly zealous co-workers. If you’ve found yourself in a situation where the workplace culture doesn’t seem compatible, Laura Hamill, Chief People Officer and Chief Science Officer at Limeade encourages you to ask yourself if you’re “uncomfortable because you disagree with the culture or because it’s challenging? The latter could actually make for an incredible growth opportunity—but it does require you to be open and resilient.”
If that isn’t the case, then you’re likely to consider finding a new employer ASAP. Because that takes time, or you may not have that option, there are ways to try mitigating the effects of a negative work environment. If you feel lonely and/or lack a connection with your co-workers, try reaching out to employer-sponsored groups (e.g., women’s, biking, or music groups). Forming a connection with co-workers and/or taking some space from the office by improving your work-life balance can help you cope with a less than ideal workplace culture and its consequent dynamics.
About the Author: Dr. Ada Hagan is a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. In 2019, Dr. Hagan founded Alliance SciComm & Consulting, LLC as a means to use her strong background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds. Her writing and research have been featured by BBC Radio 4, Science Careers, The Scientist, Massive Science, and the American Society for Microbiology.