Interview questions to uncover organizational culture

A few weeks ago, I received a newsletter email from Navigos Search, one of the leading recruitment firms in Vietnam. Such newsletter emails usually provide tips for job candidates and that time, it was about “7 interview questions to uncover corporate culture” (the original article is from Scott Ginsberg, which can be found here). However, I myself don’t think that those questions are detailed enough to be actually helpful. As a result, I come up with a set of questions myself, and the number of questions is more than just seven.

Organizational culture

The approach that I have while defining this list of questions is based on the seven key dimensions of organizational culture. Details about the seven key dimensions can be found in session 3 of my first post. Each question in the list will help the candidates to uncover one key dimension of the corporate culture:

Individual Autonomy:
  • Is empowerment strongly encouraged? Does it happen regularly?
  • Is it compulsory for all employees to be self-managed and self-organized?
  • Is decision making centralized or decentralized?
  • Does the company have a lot of rules and policies?
  • Does the company have a flat or a hierarchical organizational structure?
  • How many levels of hierarchy does the organizational structure have?
  • How willing are managers to support their subordinates?
  • Will managers be upset if their staffs seek for assistance from them?
  • Are managers encouraged to assist their subordinates?
  • Are employees proud of being part of the company?
  • Are employees eager to join public events on behalf of the company?
  • Do the employees usually wear company T-shirt to work? Outside the office?
  • Does the company have any CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) program?
Performance Reward:
  • How does the reward system or the evaluation system work?
  • Which factors are rewards (salary raise, bonus, promotion) based on? Performance? Seniority? Loyalty? Relationship?
  • Does the evaluation system compare employees to absolute standards or to each other?
Conflict Tolerance:
  • Does work-related conflict acceptable?
  • Does personal conflict acceptable?
  • Is it acceptable to have work-related conflict with your manager?
  • Is it normal to have a work-related argument with your manager in public?
  • Is aggressiveness acceptable?
  • Are people aggressive when discussing and arguing?
Risk Tolerance:
  • Is it acceptable to take risk?
  • Is the terms “high risk, high value” usually applied?

As you can see, there are a lot of questions and you may not have enough time to ask all of them in the interview. One suggestion is to find the answers for some of the questions by doing some researches or to ask only about the dimensions that are important to you. Usually you will have a chance to ask questions about the company at the end of the interview and by asking questions about organizational culture, you can impress the interviewers. The key point here is to be able to gain more understandings about the organizational culture to make sure that you can fit into it. This is extreme important because you can not perform well in a culture that you do not fit in.

An appropriate organizational culture for a start-up software company

Acting as a follow-up on the previous post, in this post I will discuss about how to use the seven key dimensions model to define an “appropriate” organizational culture for a particular company. A typical start-up software company will be discussed in this case due to the fact that this type of company is quite popular nowadays as well as I am very familiar with it.

Seven key dimensions of organizational culture

The first rule of thumb to remember when defining an organizational culture is that it must be aligned with the company objectives and strategic plan. This acts as the main principle when defining the seven key dimensions of the organizational culture:
  • Individual Autonomy: High. In a start-up company, each individual should have a high degree of responsibility and independence to get as much job done as possible. Empowerment should be encouraged and decision-making should be decentralized. To adapt quickly to the rapid changes of the market, more and more software companies apply agile methodologies such as Extreme Programming or Scrum. Those methodologies required self-managed and self-organized staffs and this can only be achieved with a high level go individual autonomy.
  • Structure: Low. A flat organizational structure is strongly encouraged for a start-up software company. In addition, it should not have a lot of rules and policies, which may have bad impacts on the inspiration and creativity of its employees. In the software industry, creativity and ideas are the key factors to success.
  • Support: High. In my opinion, high degree of assistance and warmth provided by managers to their subordinates is always a good thing in all company, not just a start-up software one.
  • Identification: High. Similarly to the Support dimension, it is always good for an organization when its employees are proud of being part of it. A high level of Identification is also good for company branding.
  • Performance Reward: High. In a start-up company, performance should be the main factor that affect such rewards as salary increase, bonus and promotion, not seniority or loyalty.
  • Conflict Tolerance: High. Conflicts should be encouraged in a start-up software company, as long as they are related to work and they are not personal conflicts. High level of work-related conflicts can increase creativity and help to find the optimal solutions, which are vert important in the software industry.
  • Risk Tolerance: High. Similar to the Conflict Tolerance dimension, a high level of Risk Tolerance provides more advantages than disadvantages to a software company. When taking risk is encouraged, it is more likely to find creative and optimal solutions in the software industry.
Once the key dimensions of the organizational culture have been defined, they can be “implemented” within the following artifacts:
  • Mission statement, logo and  slogan
  • Policies and rules
  • Reward system
  • Organizational structure
  • Physical layout of the office
  • Recruitment process
  • Orientation program for new employees
  • Management and leadership style

Organizational Culture

1. Preface

The reason why I choose to write about organizational culture in my first post is because I think that it is one of the key factors that contributes to the success or failure of an organization. People talk about organizational culture all the time: in casual discussions between co-workers, in formal speeches given by a CEO, in interviews, etc…  but from my experience, not all of us have a clear understanding about it. Such questions as “What is organizational culture? How can we identify it? How can we measure or evaluate it?” are still a myth to some people.

The purpose of this post (and other similar posts after this) is to help the readers to gain more knowledge about organizational structure. What will be presented here is a combination of what I learn, read and experienced.

2. What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is a set of basic beliefs and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization, showing them what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). To make it more casual, organizational culture is basically “how we do things around here”. The verb “do” in this definition has a very broad meaning, covering all activities that happen at an organization. Such things are all part of the organizational culture:
  • How do people dress? Formal or casual?
  • Is it appropriate to argue with the boss in public?
  • Is it normal to work overtime?
  • Is it important to check email regularly during weekend?
  • Is it normal to take risk?
  • How are people rewarded or promoted?
  • … and many more things

Organizational Culture

So the scope of what define an organizational culture is broad. But where are they “stored”? Where are they “contained” or documented? According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009),  an organizational culture is “contained” at three levels: assumptions, values and artifacts.

Levels of organizational culture

The first two levels, assumptions and values, are below our conscious awareness. They are the shared beliefs, principles, standards, and goals of members within the organization. And at the surface, there are artifacts, the visible aspects of organizational culture. Here are some examples of these artifacts:
  • Logo
  • Slogan
  • Policies, rules and procedures
  • Guidelines
  • Reward system
  • Workflow and process
  • Organizational structure and titles
  • Orientation plan
  • Training programs
  • Physical environment
  • Office layout
  • Employee interaction

3. Key dimension of organizational culture

So now you can identify what make your organizational culture. How can you analyze and evaluate it? There are many approaches for this but the one that I prefer is to use the key dimensions. In this approach, organizational culture will be analyzed and evaluated basing on the seven key dimensions:
  • Individual autonomy: the level of responsibility, independence and empowerment that an individual has in the organization.
  • Structure: the number of rules and regulations, the number of hierarchical levels in the  organizational structure.
  • Support: the degree of assistance provided by managers to their subordinates.
  • Identification: the level of proudness that members have to be part of the organization.
  • Performance reward: the degree to which reward allocations (promotions, salary increases, bonus…) are based on performance criteria.
  • Conflict tolerance: the level of conflict exists in the relationships between members of the organization.
  • Risk tolerance: the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

4. Primary characteristics of organizational culture

Another approach to characterize an organizational culture is to use the OCP (Organizational Culture Profile) framework.

Organizational Culture Profile

According to the OCP framework, an organizational culture can have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Innovative: companies that have innovative cultures are flexible, adaptable, and experiment with new ideas. They usually have flat structure in which titles and other status distinctions tend to be downplayed. Examples for this are startup software companies.
  • Aggressive: companies with aggressive cultures encourage competitiveness and outperforming competitors. Such companies as Microsoft or Apple are good example of this type of culture.
  • Outcome-oriented: cultures that focus on achievement, results, and actions. In such cultures, rewards are tied to performance indicators, not to seniority or loyalty. Best Buy is a good example in this case.
  • Stable: cultures that are predictable, rule-oriented, and bureaucratic. Examples of this type of culture can be found in most of the public sector institutions.
  • People-oriented: cultures that value fairness, supportiveness, and respect for individual rights. Company with this type of culture believe that people are their greatest asset and create an atmosphere where work is fun.
  • Team-oriented: cultures that emphasize collaboration and cooperation among employees. In team-oriented organizations, members tend to have more positive relationships with their coworkers as well as their managers. Southwest Airlines can be a good example for this type of culture.
  • Detail-oriented: cultures that focus on precision and paying attention to details. Examples for this are big hotels or McDonald’s Corporation.

5. Strong versus weak organizational culture

A strong organizational culture is the one that is aligned with the strategic plan of the company. In strong organizational cultures, all members have a consensus on the values that drive the organization. Researches have shown that strong organizational  culture usually has positive impacts on performance of the organizations.

On the contrary, a weak organizational culture will have negative impacts on the performance of the organization because it fails to align with the strategic plan. Here are some signs of a weak organizational culture (Deal and Kennedy, 2000):
  • Organizational members have no clear values or beliefs about how to succeed in their business.
  • Organizational members have many beliefs as to how to succeed but cannot agree on which are most important.
  • Different parts of the organization have fundamentally different beliefs about how to succeed.
  • Those who personify the culture are destructive or disruptive and don’t build on any common understanding about what is important.
  • The rituals of day-to-day organizational life are disorganized or working at cross-purposes.

6. Sources of organizational culture

So where do organizational cultures come from? Here are the three main sources of organizational culture:
  • Founders and CEO: an organizational cultures are usually tied to the personality, background, and values of its founder or upper managers, especially during it early years.
  • Industry determinants: industry characteristics and demands act as a force to create similarities among organizational cultures. For example, IT companies usually have innovative culture whereas companies in the insurance and banking industries are stable and rule-oriented.
  • National or regional culture: the culture of the country or the area where the company is located also has significant influence on its organizational culture, mainly via its staffs. A US company and a Vietnamese company, despite the fact that they are in the same industry, will have some certain differences in their organizational cultures.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the following important points:
  • Companies need to select people who fit into its organizational culture (and fire people who do not). People usually don’t change how they do things.
  • 30% of company merging is failed due to collapse of culture.
  • Organizational culture must be aligned with the strategic plan.
  • Leaders (founder, CEO, Executive team…) are very important factors that drive the organizational culture. People always look up to see what their leaders are doing. As a result, leaders need to walk the talk.

8. References

Bess, D., 2012. Organization Culture, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished.

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Deal, T. and Kennedy, A., 2000. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. 1st ed. Basic Books.