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by Jean Chatzky

January 10, 2019

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Some job offers may look great at first glance, but if the cultural fit is off, saying yes could be a big mistake. Here’s what to do before you accept.

What’s most important when it comes to kicking ass in a new job? Experience? Skills? Sure. But according to new research from staffing firm Robert Half, 91 percent of senior managers feel a candidate’s match with a company’s culture is equal to or more important than those things. Amazingly, 35 percent of workers are saying no to seemingly “perfect” jobs if the corporate culture doesn’t seem like a good fit.

They’re onto something. Today, with unemployment at a near-record low of 3.9 percent, candidates have choices — if a company doesn’t feel like the right fit, they know they can keep looking until they find an organization with the attitude and behaviors that they’re looking for. “We hear from candidates every day how important it is that they mesh with an organization, and the people at the organization,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half. “They’ll tell us, ‘You know what, the compensation is great, the benefits are great, but I just don’t see myself fitting in there.’”

If you’re unclear on exactly what a good fit feels like, McDonald says that it usually looks a little something like this:

  • Being part of a team you respect and enjoy working with
  • Being recognized by your employer
  • Knowing that your employer is open to new ideas
  • Getting gratification out of your work
  • Leaving work in an upbeat emotional state that you can carry forward into your personal life.

So how do you know when you should just say, “Thanks, but no thanks?” (Or, if you’ve already got a job where the culture is killing you, that it’s time to look around?)

RECOGNIZE THAT TIMES HAVE CHANGED

Gone are the days when employees have to tolerate a negative culture just to have a job, explains Brenda Stanton, vice president at human resources consultancy Keystone Partners in Burlington, MA. “There are so many places and opportunities in this new economy to share your talent and gifts. If you love what you do but find yourself tolerating an abusive boss — or dealing with sabotaging colleagues — it’s time to take your talent elsewhere. The costs are too high to waste any more time in an environment that may allow you to pay your bills, but is slowly killing you.”

In years past, most people would access job opportunities based on the job description alone. Then, after getting the job, we would mold ourselves to fit that culture. “If you were expected to work late and on weekends, you did it,” Stanton says. But today, organizations that are recognized as the best places to work are happy to provide work-life balance and countless perks in order to attract and retain top talent. In other words, you don’t have to settle.

… AND THAT CONSTANT WORK STRESS IS A HEALTH RISK

Work is where we spend most of our time. “If you’re in an environment that is downright toxic, not only will your days be miserable, but your time at home will suffer too,” Stanton says. “Many evenings and weekends have been ruined due to working in a soul-sucking environment.”

When we work in a negative job, we have a tendency to carry our stress forward with us when we head home at night, McDonald says. According to the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of people say that their job causes stress, and job pressure (including coworker tension, negative bosses and being overworked) is the number one source of stress in America — besting money, relationships and health. If you work for 8 to 10 hours a day in a position that puts your stomach in knots, you’re not going to suddenly be able to switch those feelings off. “That stress is going to show up in other parts of your life and create issues, and you want to avoid that,” he says.

KNOW YOURSELF TO EVALUATE A GOOD FIT

Your greatest tool when assessing if a corporation’s culture is right for you is to know yourself, Stanton says. “It’s critical to know what you must have when it comes to work, and what you can live without,” she explains. Once you’re clear on that, it’s time to start gathering data. Sites like Glassdoor and Kununu.com are great places to read current and past employee reviews. You can also do research on LinkedIn to find people in your network who work (or worked) at the company you are considering, and reach out and see if they’d be willing to chat with you about their experience, Stanton suggests.

PUT ON YOUR INTERVIEWER’S HAT

But far and away your best means of identifying flaws in company culture comes during the interview process — you’re interviewing the company just as much as they are interviewing you, McDonald explains. Go in prepared with good questions, such as:

  • How would you describe your company’s culture?
  • What’s it like working here?
  • What’s one thing you wish you’d known before you started here?
  • How long have you been with company, and why have you stayed?

And these questions should be asked of everyone you meet — not just your main interviewer, McDonald says. Another conversation-starter that can tell someone a lot about company culture is simply, “Tell me what a typical day looks like,” says Cathy Maraist, managing director of client delivery at culture management company CultureIQ. When they answer, you aren’t listening for a list of tasks. Rather, you’re determining if the person is excited about their job. “If they are proud of their work and are energized, then that is a good indicator as to whether or not they’re engaged,” she explains.

Additionally, keep an ear out for anything that hints that the organization’s future direction is in question. If you hear things like “We’re still figuring it all out,” this can show lack of planning and strategy, which can be a major red flag, Maraist says. By the time the interview process draws to a close, you should have a pretty good gauge of whether or not the company might be your new work home.

TAKE A PAUSE

Finally, give yourself some time between receiving the offer and accepting it, says Paul MacCartney, Chief Learning Officer at employee mentoring platform MentorcliQ. “Walk away. Don't think about it — at least overnight, preferably for a day or two. The unconscious mind is an incredibly powerful tool and a good decision-maker.” Remember that the act of not taking a job can also mean not putting yourself on the wrong life path. “If you need a job, you need a job — the bills don't pay themselves,” MacCartney says. “But if you have the luxury of holding out for the right opportunity, saying ‘no’ to the wrong opportunity is an important step in a life well spent,” he says.

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