Do You Understand Corporate Culture? Find Out


When I was first considering moving to Toronto from New York, I went on an informational interview with a human resources professional from a prominent company the industry.

It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. The associate had a large phone next to her, which she would glance at every once in a while to check that she hadn’t missed a phone call. She said she had to pick up the CEO’s call no matter where she was or what she was doing.

It was the way she said it, letting out a nervous laugh afterward that instantly made me feel uncomfortable. As I walked out the door, I knew I would not be working there. Not even for a six-figure salary.

I’ve always heard that the people you work with make or break a position. Most jobs within a particular field or category at a particular level have the same basic description. There may be slight variations in semantics and responsibilities, but overall they will be similar. Where they vary is in their corporate culture and it is advisable to figure out what type or company you want to work for.

So what exactly is corporate culture? defines corporate culture as “a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time.” It is not unlike the culture of a country, region or ethnic group, just smaller in scale.

It can even impact the language that is used. At a summer internship, we “downloaded” (explained) design packages to other people. At Winners ,whenever we had to make a difficult decision, we “partnered” with a manager. We also “shift-F-twelved” (allocated product, moving through our systems using the keys shift + F12 simultaneously). It was all part of the culture.

As Deborah Knox, president/owner of Life Transitions and co-author of LifeWork Putting Your Spirit to Work, says, “The culture is the environment. It’s how people are treated and how they’re communicated with, it’s that sense of belonging within an organization.”

What is your ideal corporate culture?

To determine your corporate culture best fit, “write down what are the positive and negative characteristics of the different environments you’ve been in and come up with a profile,” says Knox.

Even if it’s a summer job or internship, or something in retail, every experience can teach you a little bit more about what you want or don’t want.

How can you assess a company’s corporate culture?

It is often quite challenging to pick up the dynamics of corporate culture until you actually work for a company, but there are several things you can do to make an educated guess.

Informational interviews are a great way to find out about working for a particular organization. If this is not available to you the actual job interview is an opportunity to ask questions related to culture. Even though nobody will ever tell you anything negative, you can usually pick up on cues from how they deliver their answers.

Your questions about the culture, they show that you’ve done your homework,” says Knox. But she warns that as in anything during an interview, delivery is key. “People need to be careful they don’t come across as if they expect the world,” she adds. Instead it should be: “I’ve really thought about the kind of environment I do my best work in.”

The ambience of the workspace is another great place to look for clues to what a company is like. For example, I arrived at an interview to be greeted by an adorable large dog belonging to the receptionist, which taught me something about the environment.

On the other hand, there was a company in Montreal who used to interview people outside their offices, allegedly for fear of scaring them away.

Many things about the workplace environment trickle from the top down, so a CEO’s attitude is another good way to assess the culture. “Where is the CEO in terms of his or her mindset?” says Knox.

You cannot thrive in an environment in which you are not comfortable. “You’re trying to get a feel for what might be a red flag, and the red flag might be the environment. You can’t see it on a piece of paper,” adds Knox.

So next time you go on an interview, is there anything that makes you feel uncomfortable? Uneasy? No matter how great an organization’s reputation is, always trust your assessment of it, and go for a place where you feel you can thrive.

About the author

Mira Saraf studied psychology and English at McGill University. When she graduated, she wanted to pursue journalism but somehow ended up working in Montreal's garment industry. From there, she moved to New York to attend FIT. She worked there for a year before moving back to Toronto to work for Winners. Two and a half years in she took over a year off to pursue writing education and a career in freelance writing. She has since returned to the industry and now works for Loblaw/Joe Fresh. She continues to write on a part time basis.