Assessing Organizational Culture

Whether you’re a current student or alum considering involvement with an organization through an internship or job, volunteering or service, or graduate program, you’ll want to determine whether or not it is a good fit for you. To do so, you’ll need to take into account your own values, beliefs, and goals, as well as those of the organization – that is, the organizational culture

What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is complex and develops over time based on an organization’s history, employees, and their own characteristics, leaders, and even day-to-day decisions. Harvard Business Review identifies six factors of culture, each of which you may want to explore prior to applying to, interviewing with, or accepting an offer from an organization: 

  1. Vision. An organization’s vision is a statement focusing on the future aspirations of an organization and the ways in which it hopes to make an impact on the industry or community as a whole. This vision is closely linked to a mission statement, which outlines what the organization is currently doing and planning to do; it drives the goals and showcases the values of an organization.
  2. Values. Values are what help support the vision and mission. They may tell you about the organization’s ethics or professional standards that are followed. Values contribute to the tone of an organization’s culture and play an important role in daily decision-making processes.
  3. People. From interactions with current employees, students, or organization leaders, you can get a sense of what features are valued within the hiring or applicant selection process. This can also be assessed by doing some research using the organization’s website, social media pages, and advertising or marketing campaigns. Consider asking questions during an interview about the general feel of the organization.
  4. Narrative. An organization’s narrative refers to the story of its history and how the culture, mission, and values developed. The narrative gives you a sense of how deeply rooted values and beliefs are and allows interested applicants to establish a connection with the organization based on its development over time. A strong narrative should also tell you what the organization plans to do to continue to grow and develop and demonstrate integrity to foundational values.
  5. Practices. Researching an organization’s daily practices allows you to see how they put their mission, vision, and values into action. In looking at their digital presence, reviewing recent news, or from visiting a physical space, ask yourself whether they are doing what they claim to do. Amidst the pandemic, for example, you may look to see how organizations have adjusted their day to day functions to see whether they appeal to your personal values and beliefs.
  6. Place. The ways in which an organization uses its physical and digital space can be reflective of its culture as well; this might be the artwork on the walls, the images that are used on its website, or the set-up and accessibility of the physical environment. Certain layouts can encourage collaboration and conversation. Physical accommodations to look for may include wheelchair access, ergonomically-friendly equipment, spaces for prayer, and digital accommodations, like captioning. 

Why does organizational culture matter?

Your perception of an organization’s culture will play an important role in deciding whether or not it is the right place for you. Positive organizational culture has been shown to impact productivity, satisfaction, engagement, and commitment. A match between your values and those of the organization influences your overall satisfaction, performance, and happiness in professional pursuits; this is important for your well-being and work-life balance.

Whether working or pursuing higher education, we spend the majority of our time in our professional environments. You will want to ensure that yours is comfortable and enjoyable; otherwise, you may be more likely to experience stress and burnout. When working for or studying at an organization, you are a representative of that organization; it is important that you feel comfortable being associated with its values! 

There is no standard of what constitutes a “good” culture – the definition may be unique to every individual. Ask yourself, “What does good organizational culture look like to me? What would it look like, or how would I measure it?

How do I assess the culture of an organization?

At first glance, it may seem challenging to assess an organization’s culture without actually being there on a day-to-day basis. Here are some strategies you can use in your next application process:

  1. Search the organization’s website for mentions of their mission statement and core values; these are often found on “About Us” pages. 
  2. See if there is a page on the organization’s website that lists their leadership. Check out their profiles on LinkedIn to evaluate their projects and posts.
  3. Review social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), advertising, and recent news about the organization. 
    1. What is the organization sharing? How do they interact with followers?
    2. Consider whether what you see aligns with their stated mission, values, or goals.
  4. Read employee reviews online on sites such as Indeed or Glassdoor.
  5. During an interview, consider asking, “If you were asked to describe the culture of [organization] using only three words, what would you choose?” or, “What do you like best about [working for this organization/attending this program] that I wouldn’t know from my interview?”

For individualized help with assessing organizational culture, schedule a career coaching appointment.


People vector created by stories –

By Alexandra Pierce
Alexandra Pierce Graduate Assistant, College to Career Transitions & Alumni Services