The problem with company culture is that one employee’s ideal situation can be another’s personal hell. Maybe you thrive in efficient, no-nonsense environments and prefer to keep your work and personal lives separate, but your colleagues turn every meeting into a chatty catch-up and always invite the office staff to their birthday parties. Maybe you crave camaraderie and fun in an office that’s mostly silent, sterile, and stiff.
You’re not in a toxic environment, necessarily — it’s more that it’s just not a fit. And culture aside, your work is solid. You’re good at what you do. You enjoy doing it. So, should you stick around? How do you know when to bail? Is culture really that important to getting the job done?
This has really only become a thing in the past few decades, as more workplaces have begun to pay attention to company culture. While every office culture is different, some rules apply universally: A good culture is one where employees feel valued and supported; a bad one has bullying and abuse. Research has shown that companies with positive cultures have more productive employees, which leads to higher profit margins. Unhappy employees don’t stick around, and recruiting and training their replacements can cost six to nine months’ worth of the original employee’s salary. Investing in company culture isn’t philanthropy; it’s ROI.
But it can be tricky to determine an organization’s culture short of actually working there. It doesn’t help that many companies and media portrayals conflate perks — foosball tables, beer kegs, dry-cleaning services, doughnut Fridays — with culture. And recruitment officers often lead with perks because they’re easy to communicate and quantify to prospective employees.
The definition of culture, on the other hand, is irritatingly amorphous.
It’s “the way we do things around here,” says culture consultant Marcella Bremer, quoting Hewlett-Packard’s influential 1980 manifesto, considered one of the first major company acknowledgements on the importance of organizational culture.
Others boil culture down to personal interactions. “I define company culture as the way people treat each other at work,” says executive coach Chris Edmonds, founder of The Purposeful Culture Group.
Most experts agree, however, that culture comprises a set of commonly shared values and group behaviors reflected in patterns over time.
There’s no way to know for sure that prospective employees will match with their office culture, but a few simple tools and approaches make the detective work simpler. If you’re considering a new role, start by researching Glassdoor and Yelp for employee reviews. Check to see whether your prospective company has publicly defined its cultural values; if the company is high-profile enough to have been written about, see how articles describe the office and employee interactions. Should you make it to the interview stage, be bold with questions that stretch a recruiter beyond their script. (Consultant and executive coach Margo Fowkes recommends asking about what kinds of behaviors and accomplishments are rewarded, as well as what happens when someone makes a mistake.) And always ask to take a tour of the office.
“I would ask myself: Is this an inconvenience, or is this a problem? Is what I’m encountering affecting my ability to be successful in my job?”
Still, let’s say you’ve already been at the job a while—long enough to be well aware of the culture mismatch. Is it worth it to stay?
To figure out the answer, start by troubleshooting the issues. Say you’re perturbed by all the dishes people leave in the break-room sink and view it as a lack of respect. “I would ask myself: Is this an inconvenience, or is this a problem?” Fowkes says. “Is what I’m encountering affecting my ability to be successful in my job?” If not, you might be able to overlook it.
Also consider your own work setup. Salespeople out in the field, setting their own hours, might have an easier time dealing with an undesirable culture than people who work on internal processes in an office. For the latter, a bad environment might be a deal breaker. “The more independence you have, the more [it] is possible” to cope with a cultural mismatch, says John Kotter, chairman of leadership consulting firm Kotter International and professor emeritus of Harvard Business School. “The less independence, the harder.”
If you do choose to stay, though, know that you’ll face an uphill battle. Fowkes, who coaches teams undergoing dramatic cultural shifts, encourages managers to communicate to their teams that they must make a proactive choice when unhappy: Stay or go. You can’t “stay and quit,” so you’ll need to put in more effort to stay productive and motivated than you might need to elsewhere.
Realistically, you probably can’t do much to change the culture into something more in line with your personality: Many experts insist culture change by one person is virtually impossible if that person isn’t the boss—and even then, it’s difficult. “An employee does not have the ability or power to change the team or company culture. Only senior leaders can change a company culture — and most don’t pay attention to culture, much less know how to refine a bent or broken culture,” Edmonds says.
You could try to take the smaller step of developing a “culture bubble” with your direct co-workers or team, aligning on expectations and values with the people who have the most influence over your day-to-day life, Bremer suggests. “Your team might develop positive support, creativity, and great results. Your team might inspire other teams in the organization to do the same.”
You should also ask yourself, though, if all this extra work is worth it in the long run. It’s possible for a person to be good at their job even if they hate their office’s culture, “but they’ll be exhausted,” Edmonds says. “If they can manage the ‘overhead’ of dealing with difficult players and systems daily, God love them. They can exist. But they won’t thrive.”
It’s up to you to weigh whether or not to stay — but if you truly love the work you’re doing, consider finding a place where you’re set up to give it your all.