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How To Gauge Cultural Fit Before You Sign a Contract

Cultural fit is the golden key to happiness at your workplace

It’s easy to get nervous before a job interview and forget that interviews should be a double-sided operation—a chance for both parties to test out fit and see if this horse is going to ride.

Along with matching your skills and interests to the job description, there’s another equally important set of variables that fall under the blanket term “work culture.” This is the social, political, and ethical side of what’s happening at an organization and covers everything from dress code and staff socialization, to schedule flexibility, work-life balance, and power distribution.

Nonprofits have a cultural edge over most for-profits since they are generally founded on an ethics-grounded vision (i.e. a mission to preserve or promote the good, as they see it). This can be a huge draw for job seekers intent on finding meaningful work in a values-centered environment. It also means an nonprofit's culture is under extra scrutiny from within and without. This is why it's crucial that an org’s internal and external values align, that work-life balance is valued, and that staff have the freedom to follow passion projects, actively innovate, and problem solve.

While you can never see all of the dynamics in play from afar at a new workplace, you can gather more information than you think. Taking a couple of hours to do these four things before and during a job interview will greatly increase your chances of finding the right place to land.

1) Reflect on your ideal work environment in advance

As in anything in life, the more attuned you are to what does and doesn’t work for you, the more likely you are to cultivate a healthy environment for yourself. Analyze your past work experience. Do you prefer solo work to collaboration? What did you find oppressive in past jobs? What did you find energizing? What are your desires for workload, flexible hours, remote work? Are you okay taking work home with you? Which bosses did you thrive under and why? Think about what didn’t work for you in the past, so you can look for red flags in new situations. Likewise think about what worked and why. If you need a little more guidance in your self assessment, Mac’s List has published a great article on exploring your work personality

2) Investigate the organization online

Yes, google the beejezus out of any prospective employers. Scour their website, scan their social media posts, read their blog (if they have one), and look at their photos, particularly ones of staff events and the office. Do you like what they’re saying and how they’re saying it? What sense do you get from their staff and office pictures? Is there any evidence of widespread and enthusiastic staff engagement? For an even better investigative edge, ask any connections you may have at the org about their experience and where they see the organization going in the next few years.

3) Look around during the interview

Once you’re actually in the office, get a lay of the land. Can you spend most of your waking hours here? Can you be productive here? Can you fulfill your social interaction preferences here? How are staff dressed? Do you get a sense of office mood? You are gathering all of this information already—making rapid-fire micro-assessments is what humans do--this is merely a reminder to trust those impressions and your gut feeling, and to not let your nerves get in the way of your observational powers.

4) Ask pointed questions in your interview

Some people go into job interviews armed only with questions about the job description or questions formulated to show interest in the org's work. These are important, but don’t forget to design questions that expose organizational culture as well. Here are some of our favorite culturally-pointed questions cherry-picked from The Muse, Monster, and Fast Company:

  • What’s the best part of working here?
  • What happens at your staff meetings? How often do they happen, and what kind of conversations do you have?
  • How do you view and support professional development?
  • What happens over lunch break?
  • How do staff receive feedback for their work?
  • Do you keep traditional 9-5 work hours, or is there built-in flexibility for other schedules, remote work, etc.?
  • What experiences did you see in my application that suggest I will fit in here? 
  • What causes conflict and how is conflict resolved?
  • How does this position support your organization’s mission? 

As The Muse points out, you should save the more personalized requests and negotiations (remote work, schedule particulars) until the final interview.  

At this point, if you've done your legwork and asked the right questions in the interview, you should have a good sense of whether or not the company culture is down your alley or up some other boulevard that you just don't want to go. The right match for your talents and work style is out there. Remember that patience and self-trust will significantly better your odds at finding it. 


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