"It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."
   — Ursela K. LeGuin

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Cultural Fit: Failure to Read the Signs Can Be Dangerous to Your Career

This evening’s panel discussion at the MPN May Soiree on cultural fit promises to be a fascinating one. How you figure out what a company’s culture is is hard enough, let alone whether you’ll fit in well there. For most recruiters and candidates it’s instinct: Does it feel right? Are there others in the company already like you? Does the dress code and the daily routine and style of off-site events seem like a match? Yet cultural fit is a lot more complex: values, beliefs, decision-making habits, and whether a company truly puts its stated values to work everyday…or tosses them out the window when a tough decision needs to be made. There are already companies out there, like Taleo, that offer cultural fit assessments among a suite of staffing management screenings. Whether they really work remains to be seen. As one expert noted, “Defining the culture of an organization is like nailing jelly to the wall.” For a candidate though, it’s essential to be able to get a quick take on a potential company. That means evaluating everyone from the receptionist to the staffers to the CEO…and everything from the parking lot to the signage to the office set-up— a light-filled office or a windowless basement dungeon—to the organizational chain of command. If you start your day with a double latte and the office is filled with herbal tea drinkers (or vice versa), perhaps it’s a sign that it’s not right for you. More fundamentally, if you are reporting into a top-heavy tier of executives and you cherish your autonomy, this too is a negative indicator. Or, if the sight of the company foosball table, instead of confirming your ascent into high tech nirvana, is a dsypeptic reminder of all the money you lost in the dot.com depression, then you have another sign that it’s a nice to place to visit…for the day. Come to think of it, culture is a lot about semiotics: symbols and undefined signs of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Learn to read the signs right (and what the people mean when they use certain language) and you’ll be on easy street. Read them wrong, and you may end up going down a one-way highway the wrong way—with a lot of angry traffic coming at you the other way followed by an HR heavy. In other words, it pays to pay attention to the cultural signs!

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