Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Fitting In" at Work: Overlook This at Your Own Peril

Currently in the throes of a highly targeted job search, I have focused a great deal of energy and concentration on figuring out a organization's culture and where I might fit into that culture.

Organizational culture has long been overlooked as a vital component in the employment process. From what I have read and personally experienced, employers and potential employees who don't consider "fit" may very well set themselves up for a mutually unsatisfying relationship.

Basically, organizational culture is the personality of the organization. Culture is the assumptions, values, norms and tangible signs ("stuff on the walls") of organization members (employees) and their behaviors. Members of an organization soon come to sense the particular culture of an organization.

Human nature dictates that we over time mold our personalities to fit the culture in which we live and work. Fitting in is always easier than standing out. After all, the lone impala on the plain is very attractive to the hungry lion...

The notion of organizational culture is tough to define, but everyone seems to know it when they've been in the organization long enough. For example, the culture of a large, for-profit corporation is different than that of a hospital which is quite different that that of a university.

There are a few things I observe when I first am exposed to a potential employer's workplace: How furniture is arranged... What people are wearing... Whether or not employees have family photos or "tchotchkes" in their work areas... If office doors are open or closed... If the break room and bathroom is clean or messy... If employees tend to congregate around certain offices or work areas... These details can reveal much about the culture of the organization.

When a potential employee doesn't take you into their "house", you will have a very hard time discerning the organizational culture. For example: I once accepted a senior-level position without walking through the company's workplace. My first time I saw the office was my first day on the job. Had my former employers opted to take me through their offices before offering me the position, I would have noticed certain troubling aspects of the company's organizational culture.

My keen eye for recognizing organizational culture "cues" may have deterred me from accepting their offer... and certainly would have helped me to avoid a relationship that very quickly soured.

Just as there are different types of personality, there are also different types of culture. Researcher Jeffrey Sonnenfeld identified the following four types:

Academy Culture
Employees are highly skilled and tend to stay in the organization as they work their way up the ranks. The organization provides a stable environment in which employees can development and exercise their skills. Examples are universities, hospitals, large corporations, etc.

Baseball Team Culture
Employees are "free agents" with highly prized skills. They know they are in high demand and that they can easily get jobs elsewhere. This type of culture exists in fast-paced, high-risk organizations such as investment banking, advertising, etc.

Club Culture
Fitting into the group is the most important requirement for employees in the club culture. Usually employees start at the bottom and remain with the organization. The organization promotes from within and highly values seniority. Examples are the military, some law firms, etc.

Fortress Culture
In the fortress culture, employees are perpetually under siege. They don't know whether they'll be laid off or not, and hence the culture is hushed, stressed and edgy. While these types of organizations often undergo massive reorganization, there are many opportunities for those with timely, specialized skills. Examples include savings and loans, large car companies, etc.

Like a poker player, every culture has certain "tells". These tells are very difficult to discern based on one or two brief visits (such as those to which potential employees are exposed during brief and structured interviews).

I have found it immensely enlightening to complement these "tells" with rigorous due diligence: I speak to former and current employees, I speak to employees of competing organizations, I conduct research on Google, Lexis, LinkedIn and other online tools. I bring to bear the full range of my investigative journalism expertise to understand the organizational culture because I realize that if the fit isn't right, no amount of hard work, charm or compensation will make me happy in the organization.

That said, I believe employers have a responsibility to give prospective employees a tour of their potential workspace. Prospective employees have a responsibility to pay close attention to certain organizational culture "tells" and determine whether or not their personality type would thrive in that environment.

If you're currently employed, walk around your office and see if you can notice the "tells". What do they reveal about your workplace?

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