Strategies for Assessing Startup Culture Before Joining

pexels-photo-380768Before working for a startup it is essential to understand company culture and values to ensure you align with them. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the questions I think are worth exploring before joining any startup.

1. How is bias handled? 

All humans have biases. “We need to out our biases to ourselves and each other and not be afraid to say, ‘I’m biased,’” says ServiceRocket COO Erin Rand. “We need to constantly remember and take action to correct our biases. We can’t feel ashamed of our biases and let that shame prevent us from doing the right thing.”

Given that bias is universal, how does the startup you’re considering joining handle bias? Do they acknowledge bias openly, working to ensure that it isn’t playing a role in key decisions like hiring, promotions and firing?

Startups that acknowledge bias take steps to mitigate it. Those that sweep it under the rug just end up reenforcing bias.

Consider asking an interviewer to give you an example of how bias is addressed at the company. Their answer may be lip service, but you are more likely to find a place that genuinely takes bias seriously if you ask about it and they give you an open, direct answer. Beware when anyone skirts the issue or says it “isn’t an issue”; it’s always an issue.

2. How do departures look?

It can be just as important how employees exit (or “retire”) as when they arrive. If employees leave and then sometimes come back, that’s a good sign. If departing employees leave behind a trail of awful Glassdoor reviews, take notice. In fact, the first thing you should do is head to a peer-review site like Glassdoor and find out how employees find the exit process. It’s also worth it to find out if your company has a decent severance package for employees who are laid off or fired.

Some startups advertise their severance packages. Netflix, for instance, has a outstanding severance package for employees. They do this to reduce the risk that anyone sticks around who isn’t a great fit and to make it easier for managers to fire underperformers or bad fits. The thinking is if that you’re firing someone who you know is going to have a great parting experience, you’re more likely to do so rather than hanging on to people who aren’t a fit, thus improving the quality of the team.

Unexpected or unwanted departures can happen for all kinds of reasons at startups — sometimes a startup hired too quickly, or a pivot means no longer needing a person or department. Your role as an employee is to make yourself as versatile and adaptable as possible, but you may, nonetheless, depart either willingly or unwillingly, and you want to make sure that it will be as positive an experience as possible.

3. What is the dress code? 

Dressing for success at a startup could mean anything from jeans and a logo t-shirt to khakis and a button-down shirt. Ask ahead before an interview — nothing looks worse than being over- or under-dressed. The key consideration: Will you, in all of your uniqueness, feel comfortable bringing your whole self to work? If you have multiple piercings and hair dyed a color that does not naturally grow on human heads, will you feel out of place? Is there a policy that you can’t live with? Do you prefer to dress up and want to work somewhere that this is the environment? Find out ahead of time by talking to HR, looking on the company’s social media and website and sussing out the office for yourself.

4. Does the company champion inclusivity? 

Tech still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity. The latest reports show that startups are overwhelmingly white male-dominated. This is a big can of worms; many companies purport to champion inclusivity but what does this mean?

How To Answer These Questions

It’s worth asking outright, but there are more subtle ways to assess startup culture as well.

Do your online research

If a startup’s career video proudly displayed on their homepage showcases men hitting each other with nerf guns after downing sake bombs celebrating a release of code, well, there you have it. Does the company have “Best Place to Work” awards, or is their Glassdoor is rife with one-star reviews highlighting the terrible leadership team from disgruntled former employees? (Note: Ex-employee reviews may not be all true. Look for patterns vs. individual data points)

In addition to the company website and sites like Glassdoor, don’t miss company social media accounts (especially if they have an Instagram; that tends to be the least formal platform with posts most indicative of culture), as well as social accounts of company employees — especially those who will be on your team. Related: Be sure that how you personally show up on social media aligns with your values; startups can and will research you, too!

Talk to people

The best way to figure out what a company is really like is to talk to people who are currently working there. You can also talk to former employees. Try to engage people who aren’t directly involved in your hiring decision. When you go for the interview, observe. Hang out. And…

Go to the kitchen

Pretend you’re an anthropologist on a mission to observe the startup culture through its kitchen. Go get a glass of water and listen to what is being said. Sample the startup’s snacks and see if they’re organic/gluten-free/free-range enough for your taste. Overhear how employees are feeling about their work and lives. Do they clean up after themselves? Analiese Brown, Director of Talent and Culture at CampMinder, wrote a great blog on the link between employee engagement and kitchen cleanliness. You will invariably learn something if you spend time in the canteen.

Observe leaders — and lower-level employees

Even if you’re considering an executive position — or perhaps especially — pay close attention to how the company treats those who aren’t in management. This includes those fresh out of college or those in lower-level positions.

Respect for everyone should be a foundation of any company culture, and if it’s not, you can anticipate other problems.

Be a consultant

Some startups will allow you to join as a consultant on a project basis before you join full-time. This can be a great opportunity to truly understand the work environment, as well as how likely you are to enjoy the experience.

Being a consultant is a great way to de-risk your involvement with a startup.

You can engage in an initial project with a company in order to assess fit with the team with whom you’ll be working, assess whether the values are truly lived by the company, and overall whether you and the company/role are a great match. Some companies have employees do an unpaid test or assignment before joining. This is not the same thing as being a consultant! It’s one-sided and doesn’t quite give you the chance to dive in with a team, whereas with consulting, you’ll be contributing something tangible, be paid for your work, and get a much better insider’s view of the business. Not every company will allow you to do this, but it’s worth asking if it may be possible to do an initial engagement prior to working together.

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