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How to sniff out a company's culture

(MoneyWatch)  What are your priorities when looking for a job -- career advancement, higher salary, better balance of work and life? No matter how you rank such attributes, it's important to understand a company's culture before accepting a job offer. No other single characteristic will affect your day-to-day work life than this.

Trouble is, culture is often a tricky thing to suss out, and often you don't get a real feel for an organization's real culture until you've been on the job for weeks or even months -- by which point it may be too late. Still, there are strong signals you can pick up by doing a little research, both before the face-to-face interview and on the day of the interview itself:

Does the company understand its own culture? Before the interview, check out the company's Website. Does it dedicate any space to discussing corporate culture? (As an example of an organization that has thought carefully about its culture, check out Internet design "community" Modern Tribe.)

What does the company believe in? If you like getting business advice from bizarre cartoons featuring robot dinosaurs, then you might be familiar with FakeGrimlock. In FakeGrimlock's address to the Harvard Business School, the dinosaur lists three questions you can ask to decipher your company's personality. Pose these same questions to your interviewer to see how she thinks about the company. That should tell you a lot about the culture.

Forbes also recently addressed what job applicants should look for when they visit a prospective employer. Here are some of their recommendations:

What does the office look like? Is it a cube farm, or does everyone have their own office? Do people personalize their workspaces? Are there posters on the wall, or is the environment sterile?

How do people interact with each other? This can mean the difference between taking a job in a place that's vibrant, energetic, and fun, or working in a virtual prison where there's little collaboration or camaraderie.

How do people dress? Your tastes may vary -- do you prefer formal or casual?

Are folks busy? Look for the overall vibe in the office, not just a couple of people. Do employees look engaged in what they're doing? Try to assess if business looks slow or if folks are actively busy. At the same time, look for signs that everyone is overworked, exhausted and understaffed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Piontek

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