Testing The Waters

When Tina Johnson interviewed at The Richards Group in January 2003, she saw conference rooms named for employees with the longest tenure and pods where media, account and creative teams are mixed together.

The takeaway: that Richards was a friendly, team-oriented agency that values loyalty and equality—just what Johnson was looking for. And when she joined the Dallas shop as a copywriter, it didn’t take her long to fit in.

Getting a sense of an agency’s culture before you take a job is essential. When you interview, look for physical clues and ask questions that will reveal whether you’re in the kind of corporate environment that’s right for you.

There are several “big buckets” that corporate cultures fall into, says Richard Hagberg, chairman of Hagberg Consulting Group in San Mateo, Calif., which advises companies how to align culture and leadership. Cultures can be open and inclusive, encouraging teamwork, or top-down and controlled. Some are value-driven and idealistic; others are focused only on the bottom line. Businesses can be entrepreneurial, or they can discourage innovation. And where some put a premium on quality, others take a “good enough is good enough” approach, Hagberg says.

The initial tipoff may be the receptionist, says Rena Lewis at Lee Hecht Harrison, a career-management firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. “How are you handled when you walk into the door?” she asks. “If that receptionist is warm and inviting, that tells you a lot.” If not, you may be getting your first view of a stressful environment.

Once inside, take a good look around. Hagberg suggests taking note of the bulletin boards: Are they filled with financial numbers and charts or signs that show employees have fun?

To get an idea whether the culture is a nurturing one, look for company awards on people’s desks, says Valerie Freeman, CEO of Dallas-based staffing firm Art Squad. Is the agency family- and community-oriented? Look for plaques marking participation in local events or, say, charity golf tournaments, she advises.

Notice, too, clues that employees can express themselves. Before Denis Budniewski joined McKinney + Silver in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2003, he saw work spaces filled with different furniture and decor. “It’s not a bunch of big offices with oak desks,” says the group account director. “You want diversity; you don’t want clones.”

After scoping out the setting, ask questions that address culture indirectly. Why? “If they’ve been there more than three years,” Hagberg says, “they’ve become part of the culture, and you don’t ask a fish to describe water.”

Instead, Hagberg says, get a sense of what kind of people get derailed at the firm, what styles of work are taboo and how employees are rewarded. Ask how the agency is different from others where the interviewer has worked. Who doesn’t fit in and why? How easy is it to get new ideas adopted, how important are titles and how often do staffers socialize with each other? Ask the interviewer to sum up the agency in 10 words.

Freeman advises candidates to ask potential colleagues why they stay at the shop, what they like most about it and what they would change.

“As I talked with people, I could feel a tension,” says Debbie Jordan of one shop she met with before joining archer>malmo as director of media last August. “It was more of an autocratic and punitive environment.” At archer>malmo in Memphis, Tenn., however, executives talked readily about their mistakes, as well as their successes. “They shared their human-ness,” Jordan says. “There was not a lot of shame, and you could tell that making mistakes was not overblown.”

If you hear negative comments, that can be a good thing: It’s a sign the culture isn’t driven by fear, Hagberg says. Conversely, a “prepackaged, diplomatic” speech may indicate that “people do not feel comfortable being who they are.”

How comfortable are you? “If a shop makes you feel like you can’t be yourself in the interview, it’s probably not a good fit,” says Scott Kaplan, who arrived at BBDO in June as acd.

As for Johnson, she loves being a “grouper.” Where some may prefer privacy, she likes The Richards Group’s emphasis on face-to-face contact and its open environment (even founder Stan Richards has an office with no door). “You can’t help but get to know the guy telling a joke three cubes down,” she says.