Five O’Clock Club

Job hunting? How to spot the right (or wrong) cultural 'fit'

August 31, 2012: 10:27 AM ET

It's not always easy to get a clear picture of a company's culture in a job interview, but thoughtful preparation can help you ask the right questions.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm unhappy in my current position for a number of reasons, none of which seems likely to change anytime soon, so I've been looking around for a new job for the past couple of months. All the career advice I've heard (and read) mentions that a good "fit" is essential. But nobody ever tells you how to determine whether the "fit" is there or not. I've had a couple of interviews lately where it seemed to me that both the interviewer and I were putting our best feet forward and saying what the other side wanted to hear, which is natural enough, but I haven't felt I've gotten a clear idea of what it would really be like to work for these companies. They all say they value their people, reward individual initiative, offer opportunities for advancement, blah, blah, blah, but how can I tell if it's all just part of the script or if they really walk the talk? Any suggestions? — Seattle Skeptic

Dear Skeptic: You're right, this is tricky. The culture of any organization -- that ineffable mix of traditions, habits, assumptions, and unwritten rules that add up to "how we do things around here" -- is so complex, and so subtle, that it's hard (if not impossible) to sum up in a few simple phrases. So, even with the best of intentions, many job interviewers tend to fall back on the clichés you've been hearing.

At the same time, though, you owe it to both yourself and the company to peer past the happy talk. Especially since you're already working, "you don't want to end up in just any new job," says Jim Hinthorn. "You want one where you're going to thrive -- and that means finding the best 'fit' possible."

MORE: America's workers: A year of ups and downs

As a veteran human resources executive who is now a coach for the national career-counseling network Five O'Clock Club, Hinthorne has spent decades pondering the "fit" question from both sides of the interviewer's desk. In his view, getting it right requires you to do a fair amount of sleuthing to learn as much as you can about a prospective employer before you meet with anyone there. More

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