Determine “best fit” through an organizational culture assessment during the interview

Determine “best fit” through an organizational culture assessment during the interview

Connelly, Liane

Whether it is due to downsizing, relocation, or for personal career advancement, you may be searching for a new position. One stressful aspect of searching for a new position is deciding whether or not the new organization will meet your expectation of providing a work environment that supports personal values and beliefs. Many seasoned nurses have experienced the situation during an interview when things do not “feel” right for them to accept a given position. Although qualifications may match the job requirements, the uneasiness they perceive is unsettling. This sense of dissonance makes it difficult to decide whether or not to accept the position. How do you determine if the organization will live up to your expectations of quality professional practice? An assessment of the culture, performed during the interview, can provide valuable information to determine correct “fit” of personal values to organizational values. Following a brief description of organizational culture, this article will discuss how to assess the culture of an organization during an interview.

Oranizational Culture

As nurses we are very used to the concept of culture. However, the term organizational culture refers to an organization’s preferred ways of accomplishing goals, determining priorities, and making decisions. Bolman & Deal (1991) define organizational culture as a set of assumptions; ways or patterns in work life that evolve over time, of which many are taken for granted and unconscious to us. They further define organizational culture in terms of four frames or perspectives. The human resource perspective is a culture that strives to make a good fit between person and organization. When conflicts arise, the solution is to consider the needs of the individual or group, and the needs of the organization. For example, an organization that exhibits the human resource culture will try to make a change in the start of shift time when a nurse has a personal scheduling conflict. The political perspective, is the title Bolman & Deal (1991) use to describe those cultures that emphasize power, politics, and the acquisition of “turf”. A problem is resolved through vying for power. Acceptable behavior includes developing networks to increase power base. Given the above schedule conflict, the nurse in a political organization may negotiate a change in the start of shift through networking with people in powerful positions. The third culture, the structural perspective, is a culture that focuses on following rules or protocols. When in a perplexing situation, this culture relies on its policies and procedures for resolution of the conflict. Again, using the example of start of shift conflicts, the structural culture will rely on policy to determine the correct manner in which to handle the problem. Fourth, the symbolic perspective is a culture that relies on myth, rituals, and ceremony as a way of behaving. The start of shift dilemma may not be recognized as significant unless it conflicts with a known ritual in the organization. More than one culture may exist in an organization. For example, a particular organization may be guided by both a structural and human resource perspective.

Although the interview is a time when the potential employer examines your capabilities for the job, it is also a time to assess whether you will fit into the culture of the workplace. Given three equally qualified candidates, the individual with the personality that appears to be the best “fit” in the culture will be offered the position. However, keep in mind that the interview process is reciprocal. The interview process, a time when you have the greatest leverage in determining your work environment, should not be regarded as insignificant. Attention to cultural assessment of the organization can help you determine if it fits your expectations for quality care in an appropriate work environment. It will also help to determine if your goals and preferred ways of practicing professional nursing will fit within the larger organization’s priorities. Assessment of the organization’s culture can be conducted before and during the interview.

Assessing Culture Before the Interview

During the application process, the application papers and resume should be delivered by hand if possible. Distance may make this first step unreasonable, however, this initial contact can provide a valuable source of information. Observe how well the facility is organized physically, and how well communication flows from the organization to the public. How does the entry-way present the culture of the organization to the public? Is there a warm and inviting entrance, or do you feel at a loss of knowing where to go for information? Are amenities available to the public which make the visit to the organization more pleasant? Imagine yourself as a client in this organization, entering for the first time. What is the message the organization is sending through the physical surroundings?

Secondly, as you enter the personnel management office, observe how you are treated as a potential applicant for a position, and the communication among others in the area. Are office doors open or closed? Do people greet you and each other formally or informally? Is the receptionist approachable? Does he or she take the time to explain the application process to you? Is the application process clear, or does there seem to be some confusion? Observe the amount of traffic and general flow of congestion through the work area. Is there a sense of urgency, turbulence (high traffic flow and general activity level), or calmness? The amount of turbulence, a new term to organizational behavior, provides a foundation upon which to understand work relationships, work expectations, and culture. A highly turbulent workplace may indicate the organization is undergoing major change. Throughout the initial contact for a new position, the organization communicates it culture. The organization that has a strong structural culture will have clearly defined procedures for most every routine event, such as the application process. A clearly defined approach in this area may indicate a workplace that is highly structured and rigid (although not necessarily efficient). A human resource culture may also have clearly defined rules regarding the application process, although they may be modified according to the needs of the applicant. Instead of being required to adhere to specific interview timetables, the human resource culture may be more accommodating to the needs of others. If time allows, listen for the existence of political allies or adversaries, which is a key element in a political culture. How does the receptionist refer to others in the department, or other managers who you will meet? Is there reference to networking with others to achieve a goal? Assessing the culture in the personnel office must be considered only one piece of data, when combined with other observations may signify the existence of a particular culture. In addition, multiple cultures may exist in one organization; a structural culture in the personnel office does not necessarily signify a structural culture throughout the organization.

Before the interview, ascertain whether the agency is for profit or not for profit, and whether it is an acute/chronic/step-down or ambulatory unit. This helps to understand the needs of the typical client, and the expectations you will be required to fulfill. Ask to have a copy of the governing body and organizational chart sent to you as it explains the formal decision making process, power, and control in the organization. A highly structured culture follows the organizational chart, whereas a human resource culture may “bend the rules” based on the needs of the employee. Although the political and symbolic cultures will frequently have formal organizational charts, later discussion during the interview may provide insight as to whether it is actually followed. In these cultures decisions are often made based on what message is being sent by the decision (symbolic) or who had the most political power in a particular issue (political culture).

Cultural Assessment During the Interview

During the interview, a number of items can be assessed to help you determine which perspective, or combination of cultural perspectives is at home in this organization. Be sure to take a tour of the facility in order to talk to a number of nurses and secretaries. If the individual conducting the interview is reluctant to allow you to speak to other employees, this information should be noted as an important piece of data. Is the refusal due to the turbulent work place, or is the interviewer trying to prevent certain types of information from being passed along during an interview? Using table one as a guide, informally observe and interview others during the tour in order to assess the culture. Ask individuals what style of communication and leadership is commonly used. When talking with other nurses, ask them what they like most about the workplace, and what type of nurse “fits in” the best. If they comment on helping each other out, and compromising between individual and organizational needs, it is likely to be a human resource culture. Instead, if these questions lead to a discussion about “knowing exactly what the job is” and “knowing how to use the chain of command”, a structural culture is likely to exist. Discussion regarding power bases and political causes may indicate a political culture. As you continue the tour, consider how needs and thinking processes are managed in the organization. People in organizations address needs based on perception, which is culturally determined as significant or not. In a structural culture, the need to develop a new documentation form may be ignored if the new form is contrary to policy. A human resource culture views personal needs significant, and will attempt to make a compromise in organizational practices to meet the need of an individual to obtain certain data through a new documentation form. Asking questions about how problems are resolved (needs) can help to determine culture. One aspect of thinking processes, the ability to use creative thinking or rules based thinking, may be encouraged or frowned upon based on the culture. A political culture may be more likely to accept creative thinking when it has been “approved” through political savvy and networking. The structural frame will probably frown on creative thinking, especially when a particular action is against policy (see table).

Another source of information which communicates culture is the medical record. If possible, ask to review an open (concurrent) and a closed medical record. Many organizations have switched to online documentation; has the organization been innovative in its effort to automate this process when possible? Does the chart seem to be reflective of current practice, or do you see traces of documentation processes that are out of date? Is documentation systematic and easy to follow, or is there a wide variance between an open and closed chart? A highly structured culture will likely have clear guidelines regarding documentation, which all employees are expected to follow. A culture that is not as rigid may have pieces of documentation on made-up forms, based on the needs of the professional to gather essential information.

A second piece of archival data is the mission statement. Although many organizations do not actively live their mission statement, it may provide a sense of priorities that guide goal development. This information may help to determine if you and the organization are professionally congruent. Because managers do not always follow the mission statement, it is imperative that a discussion regarding specific departmental goals is completed with the manager.

Analysis of Findings

Once the interview is complete, the final step in cultural assessment is to determine if the culture fits what you perceive to be a good working environment. This requires critical reflection of personal basic values and beliefs as a nurse. Do you desire a workplace that has clear guidelines, one in which you know your limits and expectations while at work? Or do you perceive creativity in practice to be most essential? Are you a person who wants to work as a team member, or would you rather work on your own? Does the culture of the organization foster individualism, or does it value collaborative thinking, and how does this fit with personal ideas regarding innovation at work? These are just a few of the personal questions that need to be addressed; each professional nurse will have her/his own list of personal values that are considered essential.

As this stage of the assessment process nears completion, one final question must be addressed. What must you change as an individual to fit into the culture of this organization? This question is particularly relevant for nurses in rural Kansas, who may have fewer opportunities for relocation. If the culture is a human resource frame, can you make the necessary changes to be a team player? Can you learn to develop networks and political allies in order to fit into a political culture? Every new position requires change on the part of the individual. Is the culture one you cannot support, or is it possible to learn how to practice nursing in a new culture? After careful consideration, a new work culture may prove to provide incentive for you to grow personally and professionally. What was once considered an undesirable work culture may appear to be a refreshing change after careful assessment and analysis of personal values and beliefs.

Career moves can be risky. Taking the time to assess and critically evaluate the organization’s culture and what you want in a new position can make the transition less risky. When one considers the amount of time spent atwork, successful organizational culture assessment can make a major difference in how you feel about yourself for a number of years on the job. Conducting an cultural assessment is critical to successful career management.


Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (1991). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Abou the Author Liane Connelly, PhD, RN, CNAA is an Associate Professor at Fort Hays State University, coordinating the gerontology minor as well as teaching classes in gerontology, nursing research, nursing management as well as nursing administration and nursing informatics. She is a member of the Editorial Board and a member of KSNA District 16.

Copyright Kansas State Nurses Association May 1999

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