When companies look at creating a great culture, they’ll often look at other successful companies to see how it should be done. That’s how we get stocked break rooms and similar perks as the definition of how great the culture must be.

While dangling free food and foosball tables might be enticing for people looking from the outside in, the foundation of a real culture is deeper than that. In the 2015 study called Myths, Exaggerations and Uncomfortable Truths: The Real Story Behind Millennials in the Workplace from tech giant IBM, the top long-term goals for Millennials is to make a positive impact on the organization. It’s not about superficial things like free food.

The problem is that many leaders looking to mimic Google or Facebook stop at the perks. Perks are nice, but they’re not a crucial ingredient in a great culture. You’re probably not going to find a glaring sign of a toxic culture before taking a job, but if you know what to look for you can find the warning flags.

Use All Your Senses

According to studies performed by UCLA’s Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian, only about 7% of communication comes from the actual words spoken. The other 93% comes from body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%). Use this knowledge to look beyond the stuff that’s mean to woo new hires during your initial office tour.

What’s really being said? As you see people interacting with each other, do you hear panic in their voice? Are they rushed? Afraid? Or are they excited to be doing their work?

You can even tell a lot about a culture by the smell of the office. Are people eating at their desks? When people are eating at their desks it can be a warning sign that they’re overworked and don’t have time to take a break.


Check the Bathroom

There’s a reason why restaurant inspectors and reviewers check the bathroom as an indicator of the cleanliness of the kitchen. As crazy as it sounds the bathroom is a great place to look for clues of the company’s culture, too.

Beyond the cleanliness itself, look for clues that the people working there are looking out for each other.

Are there empty toilet paper rolls? If someone doesn’t care enough about the next person to take a few seconds to change the roll, what does that say about how they work together?

Look for Subtle Signs of Mistrust

One day while a friend was showing me around his office, I noticed one of his employees pulling a can of soda out from the cabinet by their desk. When they’d gotten the can, they promptly locked up the cabinet.

That’s a red flag.

Many companies refer to it as a clean desk policy and it’s something you should look for signs of during your initial office tour. In other words, do you see signs of people locking their stuff away that they don’t trust it to be left out around their co-workers?

Another subtle indicator of mistrust can be seen with the placement of security cameras. Where are they pointed and who are they watching?

job offer

Moving Fast and Breaking Things

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company liked to, “Move fast and break things”, it was gobbled up as a mantra by companies around the world—especially by many of the high-growth startups that look up to Facebook as a cultural role model.

This concept is one that is hugely important when it comes to how a company handles hiring.

Try to understand their onboarding process to get a sense for how they handle integrating people into the existing culture. This can help clarify if they’re hiring just to fill a role instead of genuinely looking for people who are a great cultural fit within the company.

Hiring great people that are a cultural fit is tough. Hiring great people fast is even more difficult. While it can be done, when the “move fast” mentality happens in hiring, more often than not the thing that gets broken is the culture.

In the end, there isn’t a surefire sign of a toxic culture. The things I’ve mentioned are indicators and warning flags. When you add them up, you can start to paint a picture of a company’s culture before you start working there.

As you’re looking for a new place to work, keep an eye out beyond the size of the paycheck and the skills to do the job. Some people can endure a toxic work environment. Some might be able to do great work under negative conditions, but they shouldn’t have to. Life is too short to not love your work.



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