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How to Understand a Company's Culture from the Outside

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According to MIT culture scholar Edgar Schein, there are three ways to understand culture: 

1) Artifacts—which are visible things like what people wear to work; 2) Beliefs and values—which are more invisible, like valuing consensus when making decisions; and 3) Basic underlying assumptions, which are usually unconscious, like a belief that you should hire people like yourself. So how can you find these out?

First, I recommend putting aside the letter and description. Start doing some Harriett-the-Spy style research and get curious! First, think back to your visit to the office during your last interview. (Even better, see if you can come back to the office for an informal visit or a lunch before you have to make a decision on your offer.) Within the office, scan for the following: what are people wearing? When do they arrive in the morning? Do people normally ask questions and interact with co-workers by sending an email or by walking to each other’s desks? What is considered hero behavior within the organization? Just as important, what is considered sinner behavior? Imagine you’re a detective trying to describe the organization in your spy notebook.

What you’re looking for are the norms of the organization. Just a few years ago, you’d never find norms actually written down anywhere. They remained unsaid and intangible. But as organizations have started becoming smart about sharing their cultures, some organizations have started writing down their cultural norms. This is helpful for your next step: searching for norms.

Second, ask your contacts in the organization to send you anything the organization has published about its culture. Additionally, dig around online and see what you can find. In 2009, Netflix published its seminal culture deck on By publishing this deck, Netflix went down in the culture hall of fame. Ostensibly this deck was meant for internal use only, but the public eagerly browsed through the company’s culture philosophy. Suddenly, anyone on the Internet could read about how Netflix employees communicated, requested vacation time, and got promoted. It satisfied our curiosity about what it’s really like to work there.

Since 2009, many more companies have followed Netflix’s lead, and are publishing culture decks, codes, manifestos, and handbooks. For example, Big Spaceship, a Brooklyn-based digital creative agency, created a different kind of employee manual: one that “will help you begin to understand our values and the way we make decisions as a team and as a company. Our manual belongs to you. Read it. Share it. Change it.” Facebook published its Little Red Book, a manifesto about the company’s culture. The only way to see all of Facebook’s Little Red Book is to work at Facebook (and legend has it that it appeared overnight on all employees’ desks across all offices), but the book’s designer shared a sneak peek on his website. IDEO published its values in the Little Book of IDEO. You can read the digital book online, and all employees get a physical copy of the illustrated book.

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky says: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”

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