Organizational Culture: Finding the Right Fit
In the social sector, organizational culture can make or break an employee’s ability to succeed at and be satisfied in a role. However, organizational culture is often difficult to assess because its definition relies on many aspects of an organization, some of which are not always easily accessible to prospective employees. This article aims to demystify organizational culture, and suggest some ways that jobseekers can evaluate cultural fit throughout the application and interview process.
What Factors Define Organizational Culture?
Organization culture is characterized by the attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values of an entire organization. In the nonprofit world, an organization’s culture is closely tied to its mission and programs. The attributes of an organization’s culture can be tangible, such as dress code or physical work environments, or intangible, such as shared values and definitions of success. Some factors that define organizational culture are:
- Mission connect – This involves the level of importance of staff commitment to the organization’s mission. Additionally, it includes how individual staff members contribute to the advancement of the mission.
- Leadership/management styles – The way that staff is managed and the emphasis on leadership in that organization. This also includes the ways decisions are made and problems are solved, whether collaboratively, individually, or with some combination.
- Reporting structure – The way the organization is arranged in terms of hierarchy. This could mean a tiered or flat system of reporting.
- Language and communication - The internal language or terms used and understood by staff. Also, specific terms or key messages the organization uses in external communication, as well as general communication style.
- Physical work environment – The space that the organization occupies, such as offices, cubicles, or open workspaces, and common areas like reception, a kitchen, or a lunch room.
- Staff diversity – The level of importance of diversity of backgrounds, experiences, or beliefs the organization values. Also, the level of importance that staff share racial, ethnic, or economic backgrounds with the communities the organization serves.
- Interpersonal dynamics – The way staff interact. Whether the environment is highly structured, intense, impersonal, or collegial, for example.
- Titles – The importance of staff titles and how titles affect how staff perceive their own role and the roles of others.
- Traditions and celebrations – This includes how the organization acknowledges personal successes and other milestones. This can be a range of social rituals institutionalized across the organization.
- Work pace – Whether work is done at a fast, moderate, or leisurely speed. This also relates to the work/life balance for staff.
Each of these factors plays an important role in shaping the culture of an organization. Not one of them alone can define an organization’s culture, but instead it is a combination of these factors that make its culture unique.
Prioritizing Your Cultural Preferences
It is a good idea for jobseekers to prioritize aspects of the ideal organizational culture from the outset of their job search. This will make assessing your compatibility with a specific organization easier. Not all organizations will have all of the most-desired factors, but many can have a combination of high and mid-priority cultural factors that make it a cultural fit.
One of the most important steps in assessing cultural fit is to consider what your ideal culture is, suggests Katie Pakenham, Service Manager and Director of Candidate Experience at Commongood Careers. “When you’re thinking about your dream position, figure out what attracts to you a particular work environment, “ she said, “And really be honest about what your answer is when you’re interviewing. This way, both the organization’s and the individual’s expectations are clear.”
A good way to start prioritizing what’s important to you in terms of organizational culture is to make a list of the factors of an ideal job. Using the list above, write down the best possible situation for each factor. Take into account organizational values, your ideal work-life balance, how you like to interact with your co-workers, and other aspects of an organization. Consider what you know has and has not worked for you in the past and list the ideal characteristics from there.
A willingness to take the time to explore cultural factors, as well as an emphasis on flexibility when prioritizing these factors, can help jobseekers target what they want most from a work experience. For example, while an organization-wide emphasis on volunteering, available telecommuting options, and opportunities for advancement may be somewhat important to a specific nonprofit jobseeker, collaboration with co-workers may be the primary cultural factor that determines the jobseeker’s continued interest in an organization. Knowing this from the start can significantly help the jobseeking process in the long run.
Early Keys to Determining an Organization’s Culture
As is evident from the list of factors above, some aspects of organizational culture are difficult to assess without a good deal of exposure to the organization. However, there are some methods that can help jobseekers evaluating an organization’s culture before they even set foot in the door.
One of the best and simplest ways to determine an organization’s culture is to “look at the work required, the size and scope of the organization that requires it, and the responsibilities included in the job you’re applying for,” said Pakenham. Understanding all of the facets of a specific job can help jobseekers get an idea of the cultural expectations and definitions of successful work.
Another simple place to start researching an organization’s culture is its web site. Consider how it is built and organized, how recently it was last updated, and what programs or projects it is promoting. The web site is also useful in providing informational materials. Look for the organization’s mission statement. Think about not only what the statement says, but the words and tone it uses in saying it.
In addition, see if the web site has any employee biographies. These can help determine the attitude the organization has toward its employees. Note not only the past experiences and accomplishments of those working at the organization, but assess the formality (or informality) of any photos that accompany the biographies. The web site may also have a copy of the organization’s annual report which provides valuable facts and statistics about the organization.
Offline, try to find examples of how cultural aspects are demonstrated in an organization’s materials, such as grants and marketing collateral. If possible, speak with someone with experience with the organization, whether as an employee or in some other capacity. Ask their opinions about their experiences, always keeping in mind that while one person’s experience is not universal, it can be a valuable piece of information.
Evaluating Culture at the Interview
While the interview is a chance for an organization to find out about the jobseeker, it also provides the jobseeker with an opportunity to learn about the organization. This can be the best time to assess organizational culture, especially armed with a set of ideal cultural assets and prior research about the organization.
One of the easiest things to gauge at an interview is the office space. On entering the organization’s space, look at the way it is set up, whether the space is open or doors are closed, the décor of the work space and other aesthetic choices. Interviewees should also keep in mind the way the staff interacts with them and each other.
During the interview, there are some strategic questions jobseekers can ask to help them assess the culture of the organization. For example, asking about how decisions are made in the organization can give some valuable insight into the structure and management values of that organization.
The final word, though, has to be the jobseeker’s overall opinion of the culture encountered. Just as the definition of organizational culture is broad and wide-spanning, so too must be the jobseeker’s assessment of that culture. An astute and thorough analysis of an organization’s culture can help any jobseeker determine which organization is the right one for a happy and productive employment.
This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org