How to Evaluate Business Culture During the Interview Process

January 12, 2016

One of the most important yet hardest to measure components of any business is its culture. Above all else, a company’s culture can influence employees’ job experiences, brand reputation and even top line revenue growth. Even with a growing suite of helpful tools on the market today driving employee engagement internally such as CultureAmp, 15Five, Kanjoya and TINYpulse, it can be extremely challenging to gauge culture as an outsider looking in.  It’s crucial that when evaluating any sort of job offer, partnership opportunity or even potential vendor, ample time is spent understanding a company’s culture and its impact on the business.

As investors, it goes without saying that we spend a good chunk of time evaluating businesses. In doing so, assessing culture is a practice we’ve gotten pretty creative with. Here are some tactics I’ve found helpful in navigating the fog of recruitment material and getting an unbiased look at a business’s culture:

Understand Why Key Contributors have Come and Gone

Perhaps one of the easiest and most direct ways to get unbiased feedback on what drives a company’s culture is to speak with folks who have both recently joined and churned out of the organization. If evaluating a job opportunity, reach out to people that have recently left the company. While it may be a bit uncomfortable, this is the best bet for hashing out any organizational hurdles prior to going down a time intensive interview process. See if they are willing to provide insights as to why they moved and what internal dynamics could have been different to keep them there.  Of course be very concise and transparent with the reason for outreach and interpret the feedback cautiously.  Also ask for permission to interact with top performers at the company, see what has led them to excel and measure it against your own capabilities.

Conduct a Multi-layer Dive on All Web Properties

It’s easy enough to do a quick web crawl and identify a company’s various social media accounts with all its marketing approved material.  These will surely be touting recent milestones and good PR. This is helpful context, but in order to really use the web to your benefit, I’d advise taking a deeper dive into these resources. If publicly available, check out the key contributors’ personal social media accounts and see what they’re saying. You should hope to see folks buying into the organizational mission/vision, touting personal achievements and proud of what they’re helping to build.

Gauge Employee Sentiment During In-person Meetings

Be extremely observant of the general mood and environment of the office if you get a chance to visit for an on-site. This is a rare glimpse into the heart of the business without actually being employed there, and something I think is often underappreciated as an evaluation opportunity. Use the time to read body language, demonstrable collaboration between department and energy of employees that have been working there beyond the “honeymoon” stage.

Evaluate Messaging and Undertones from Employees

Spend some time evaluating your interactions with the primary contact from the target company.   Whether it is a hiring manager, potential business partner or sales rep, you can learn a lot from the manner in which they communicate their background, what they do there and the company’s core value proposition. You should hope to pick up senses of optimism, enthusiasm and assurance when they discuss the business. Be very mindful of contrite or negative statements even if they’re masked in a generally positive theme. It’s likely only the tip of the iceberg and something to drill into.

Use Next Generation Recruitment Marketing Tools to Your Benefit

While there are great tools out there today geared for managers to measure employee engagement, these are primarily focused on reducing churn and increasing productivity for people already employed at the company.  There is a new breed of software providers on the market today focused on providing unique company profiles inclusive of employee video testimonials, office tours, and current job reqs. I’ve found these serve as valuable and intuitive substitutes for outdated job boards that provide mostly reviews and not much other else.  Some of these tools to check out include The Muse, LifeGuides and FirmPlay, all of which have great UI and interesting content.

Identify the Key Influencer and Drivers of the Business

It’s important to recognize the key influencers internally as they will usually dictates policy, long-term goals and more general business processes.  For instance, is the company a more tech/engineering focused organization or is it more rooted in sales and go to market execution?  Understand the goals of the business from top down and what is driving that.  If evaluating a job offer, this can help determine if your background aligns with the way the company is run and you’ll mesh well with colleagues.

Partner Manager

Matt is a Partner Manager at <a href="">Datadog</a>. He was previously an Analyst on OpenView's investment team.