The One Thing Job Seekers Should Be Looking For: A Safe, Just, and Caring Culture


What should job seekers -- particularly new college graduates -- be looking for in a job?

According to Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, it all comes down to this: Culture.

As Prof. Grant writes in The New York Times,

The culture of a workplace — an organization’s values, norms and practices — has a huge impact on our happiness and success... When people find it productive and enjoyable, that’s a good sign.

Four stories about organizational culture

He says that when job seekers are checking out a potential employer, they should seek out stories from people about the company that reflect, "something that happened at their organization but wouldn’t elsewhere." A study of workplace cultures Prof. Grant focuses on shows that certain stories are told across a great spectrum of companies -- positive stories about organizations -- and are repeated so frequently that they clearly identify cultures that are highly positive.

Here are cultural stories about organizations that Prof. Grant felt stood out:

  • Is the "Big Boss" human? This revolves around stories that shed light on whether company authority figures believe they are better than everyone else, or not. One example is about the insurance company president who takes his turn fielding calls on the company’s switchboard throughout the year, and another is about the executive who doesn’t let anyone use his parking spot — even when he’s on vacation. In other words, are high level executives -- including the CEO -- showing you that they are better than everyone else, or are they willing to pitch in and do whatever to help even if it is a job that is well beneath their title and station?
  • Can the little guy rise to the top? Is there a way for talented people to make their way up through the ranks no matter how lowly they started in the company hierarchy? For instance, Colleen Barrett at Southwest Airlines career began her career as a secretary and ended up as president. Or, is it a place where a low-status employee achieves great things but is denied promotions?
  • Will I get fired? How does the organization handle the tough stuff -- like layoffs? What does the leader do? Two examples: Former Walmart chief executive Michael Duke, who slashed more than 13,000 jobs while raking in $19.2 million, or Charles Schwab executives’ who took pay cuts to avoid downsizing — and giving employees who lost their jobs a bonus when they were rehired.
  • How does the boss react to mistakes? This is a great one, because it tells you a huge amount about the culture you'll be in. Frequently, employees get fired for errors, but as Prof. Grant notes, "some stories point to a different culture, like the famous one at IBM in the 1960s. After an employee made a mistake that cost the company $10 million, he walked into the office of Tom Watson, the C.E.O., expecting to get fired. “Fire you?” Mr. Watson asked. “I just spent $10 million educating you.”

Successful leader

"Just, safe, and controllable"

My take: These stories all reflect organizational values, and those are incredibly important for job candidates to focus on when they are deciding where they want to work. Rather than focusing on the usual things like job title, or salary, or benefits, focusing instead on culture and values can help you make sure you align yourself with a culture that better fits you.

As Prof. Grant points out, these cultural stories deal with three fundamental issues that important keys to your happiness in the workplace.

  1. First is justice: Is this a fair place?
  2. Second is security: Is it safe to work here?
  3. Third is control: Can I shape my destiny and have influence in this organization?

As Prof. Grant notes:

When the big boss is human, the little guy makes it to the top, and leaders try to protect employees even when times are tough and mistakes are made, we judge the culture as just, safe and controllable.

And, a safe and comfortable culture is good for both job seekers and longtime employees too -- and simply makes for a better working environment and a more profitable bottom line.

Editor’s Note: Talent Insider is fueled by Checkster, and Checkster has several products — like theReference Checkup and Interview Checkup — that can help to make sure you make smarter hires.