Why Leaders Should Never Back Their Car In

Five unintuitive signs of questionable company culture


The culture of a company is a hard thing to suss out from the outside. When you are thinking about switching jobs it can be hard to know what you are getting yourself into from interviews alone. Initial meetings are biased by employees who paint rosy pictures of the company in hopes of enticing strong candidates. What are some of the non-obvious clues you can look for that might give you a truer look at what the employees are thinking? Here are five things you might not think to notice that might give you hidden insights into companies you are considering joining.

1. Parking Habits
This week I read a post on LinkedIn that tries to make the case that backing your car into a parking spot is a sign of leadership. You can read his essay and decide for yourself, but I have always held the opposite point of view. Here's why…

I propose that one sign of an unhealthy culture is a parking lot filled with cars backed into their parking spots. Why? Backing into your spot is a sign that employees are already thinking about leaving from the moment they arrive. You back your car in because it allows you a fast exit. It is a signal of a punch-the-clock culture.

“Some cars are backed into their spots as if the drivers were plotting their escape before they even started their day.” Art of the Living Dead, Chapter 7

Perhaps more telling that parking direction is reserved parking spots. If you can tell the hierarchy of a company by reading the names on reserved parking spot plaques, that should be a warning sign. A “employee of the month” parking spot on the other hand might be a sign that quality work is rewarded.

2. Break Room Notes
When you get the office tour pay special attention to the break room. If it isn't too awkward, open the fridge and peek inside. Why? The break room is where culture can't hide. Is the kitchen littered with aggressive notes? Do people write their names on their food to protect from hungry poachers? Is the sink full of unclean dishes?

Also pay attention to the coffee and the water. Is there bottled water that is for “guests only.” Low quality coffee could be a signal that leadership doesn't value extra effort. Caffeine is what fuels early arrivals and late hours. When overtime is valued the coffee will be excellent. Likewise, the cream and sugar shouldn't be an afterthought. Beware of over-compensation, however. If the kitchen is stocked with free Red Bull it could be a sign that overtime is mandatory.

3. Toilet Paper
It's the little details that can tell you the most about a company. I once worked at a place where the toilet paper was single-ply. You know what I am talking about, the stuff that comes on huge rolls that you usually only find in fast food restaurants. Taco Bell can get away with it, but if a serious organization is cutting corners with toiletries it could be a warning sign.

If the company is in financial trouble, the bathroom expenses are probably the first thing in the budget that gets cut. In addition to the toilet paper, notice the paper towels and the soap. Finally, assess the overall cleanliness of the facilities. If the trash is overflowing and things are generally disgusting, then something is wrong.

4. Desk Flair
More than a representation of culture, desk flair is also a sign of commitment. Employees with desks covered in personality are admitting their intentions to stay with the company for the long haul. They have moved in. Conversely, lack of personalization means the employee could pack up and leave in minutes should a better offer present itself.

This idea holds up for executive's offices as well. Leaders don't tend to cover their desks with toys because they don't want to give off the vibe of not being serious. But unlike their cubicle comrades, executives usually have walls and bare walls are telling. Perhaps this person's ambition is upward and he/she sees their current room as a temporary space until they get the call upstairs. Why put art on a wall if you plan on vacating it as soon as a better opportunity arises?

5. Do Not Erase
When you are interviewed there is a good chance you will sit in a room with whiteboards. This is a goldmine of information. If you can, take a picture and analyze it later. This is literally a window into the inner-workings of a team.

You probably won't know exactly what the whiteboard represents but that doesn't matter. You are looking for clarity of thought. If the ideas are scattered across the board, you can bet that the meeting ended with confusion.

Watch out for the “Do not erase” message. People write this when they don't trust other teams. It is also a sign of precarious consensus. If a team's direction relies on scribbles on a whiteboard then something is wrong.


There you have it. What are some of the tricks you use to suss out company culture? Tweet them to me @ade3. Thanks for reading. I write every Saturday, so follow me if you don't want to miss the next one. Stay creative.


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