What You Can Realistically Do When You Realize You’re Not a Good Culture Fit

Back with more from The Muse.  Advice hopefully you don’t need right now, but just in case, here you go! ~UCC

You’ve been at your new job now for a few weeks—or maybe even a few months. You feel more settled with your role and responsibilities, you’ve learned who does what across the organization, and you can even find your way to the bathroom all by yourself.

There’s just one thing you’re struggling with, and it’s a big one: Now that you’re actually in it day in and day out, you aren’t sure that you mesh well with this company’s culture.  Maybe you prefer to thoroughly think things through before speaking up, while your team thrives on a fast pace and off-the-cuff responses. Or, perhaps you like an atmosphere that’s lively and collaborative, but your colleagues are always heads-down in their work with their earbuds in.

Now what? Should you say or do something? Or, should you just bite your tongue and deal with that uneasiness until you hit the one-year mark and are able to run for the exit?  There’s no doubt about it—feeling like you aren’t a good match with your employer’s culture is anxiety-inducing. But, here’s the good news: I connected with some experts to find out exactly what you can do after this terrifying light bulb moment.

1. Identify the Problem

Company culture can be difficult to wrap your head around. While your mind might immediately jump to perks like kegerators and rooftop celebrations, you know by now that culture is way more than that.  It’s the intangible things—like norms, values, and beliefs—that make up the essence of a company’s culture. For example, an organization with a complex hierarchy versus one with a flat structure, or a company that prioritizes continual feedback versus just one rigid performance review.  Let’s face it—it’s pretty tough to get a sense for all of these things until you actually dive in headfirst and become a part of an organization. But before you start breathing heavily into a paper bag, your best first move is to take a step back and figure out exactly what’s making you feel unsure of your new employer.

“Ask yourself how the culture differs from what you were expecting,” says Julie Li, Senior Director of People Operations at Namely. Taking this step will help you determine why you’re saddled with this uneasiness.  Maybe you’ll realize that you just haven’t had a chance to connect with your team members the way you want to quite yet or that the culture is different from what you’re used to—but not necessarily bad.


“Are you uncomfortable because you disagree with the culture or because it’s challenging?” asks Laura Hamill, Chief People Officer and Chief Science Officer at Limeade. “The latter could actually make for an incredible growth opportunity—but it does require you to be open and resilient.”

This self-reflection might also help you confirm that it’s the former—that you really don’t mesh well with this company’s approach and values. For example, it’s a competitive environment and you thrive in a more supportive and collaborative atmosphere.  Figure out where exactly your problem is. Are you unfamiliar? Are you unprepared? Or is it truly not a fit?

2. Do Something About it

Once you have an initial sense of where the disconnect is happening, it’s time to take action.

✔Get to Know Your Colleagues

It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit like an outsider at a new job, socially and culturally, for the first few months. It’s up to you to put yourself out there and try to get assimilated in the office.

“There’s a place for everyone—reach out to groups within the workplace (women’s group, biking group, etc.) to find other social connections and groups that might be more fulfilling,” Hamill says.

This effort will help you feel a little more connected and included in the office. Plus, forming those bonds will increase your comfort level with the people you work with—which means you’ll be a little more self-assured when it comes time to speak up about work-related matters too.  Getting to know your colleagues will help you gain a better understanding of some cultural elements you might feel uneasy about. They have more history with the company and more institutional knowledge than you do, which makes them a great resource to help you figure out why things are the way they are.  As with anything, you should try your best to understand and adapt where you can before charging forward to demand change or walking away. If nothing else, you’ll feel more certain about your decision.

✔Talk to Your Boss

You gave it some time, put yourself out there, formed some bonds, had enlightening conversations with the people you work with, and determined that this really isn’t a symptom of new job jitters.  Perhaps now you understand more about the culture, but you’re still not feeling confident in your ability to adapt and actually work well in it. Or, maybe things are even more serious and you fundamentally disagree with something. For example, your colleagues are proud of the fact that they’re a team of workaholics and you’re unwilling to work endless hours. You know you shouldn’t head straight for the door, but what else can you do?

In either scenario, it’s time to talk to your boss about how you’re feeling. “A good way to start the conversation is to ask your manager for feedback on how you’re doing so far,” says Li. “A more seasoned manager may even sense that you’re not fully comfortable.”  If your supervisor doesn’t pick up on your doubts, be candid (but also respectful!) and detail the things you’ve been struggling with. Explain what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that way, and any ideas you have for how things could improve. Li also mentions that you should be prepared to give as many examples as possible, so that your boss can help you pinpoint the issue and (hopefully) choose a solution.

Hamill advises that this conversation is also a good time to ask some questions, such as:

  • What else should I understand?
  • Are there other things I could be doing?

By using prompts like these, you demonstrate that this isn’t a personal attack on that company’s culture, while also getting added clarity into some of the cultural aspects that you might not be used to or that you don’t agree with.

“Employees should take the time to explore the ‘why’ behind some of the norms they are experiencing,” Hamill adds. “Maybe there’s a reason that connects to the mission that might not be clear on the surface.”

3. Give it Some Time, Then Decide Whether to Stay or Go

Ideally, you’ll end that discussion with your boss with some next steps that both of you can take to improve the situation. What next?

Well, give it a little bit of time—a few weeks at the very least. You can’t change your working style overnight, and culture isn’t something that shifts rapidly. Plus, since the culture involves all employees, there’s really only so much of it you can expect to alter.  If you start to notice some positive changes, that’s great news. I’m willing to bet you’ll continue to feel more confident in your role and established within your company as time moves forward.

But, if not? Well, as tough as it is to say, it might be time for you to start your next job search (while you still have a paycheck!) to find a culture that’s more suited to your desires and working style.

I know what you’re thinking now: I haven’t been here long enough! Won’t this burn a bridge and tarnish my reputation for all of eternity?

Your concerns are valid. But remind yourself that you deserve to work in a culture that’s conducive to your success and happiness, and when the time comes, approach your boss once more to explain that you think it’s best that you move on. “Be honest about your reason for leaving and try to give feedback that will help the company improve,” Hamill says.  Since you had previously approached your manager with your concerns about your cultural alignment, your departure probably won’t blindside them as much as you think it will. Of course, no boss is ever happy to see an employee go—but you can hope that they’ll recognize and appreciate your transparency and self-awareness and wish you well.

4. Now, Make Sure This Doesn’t Happen Again

Needing to leave a company once because you weren’t a culture fit is understandable. However, you don’t want this to happen over and over again.

To avoid this same predicament in the future, make sure that you’re asking the right questions in job interviews with prospective employers.

Again, it’s challenging to grasp the full extent of a company culture in just a short interview. So, Li says, the very best thing you can do is to “ask about the things you care about, whether it’s volunteering, flexibility, or collaboration. If you don’t like the answer, it’s likely not the best fit.”

Having doubts about whether or not you’re a suitable match with your new company’s culture is enough to inspire panic and a feeling of total helplessness. But rest assured, there are steps you can take to improve your situation or, if necessary, move on professionally and respectfully.

“I firmly believe that you will be most successful in an environment where you can be yourself,” Li concludes. “If you can’t be genuine and authentic, it can be exhausting to try to assimilate to an environment you don’t mesh with, and it ultimately prevents you from doing your best work.”

By Lisa Vázquez Vigil
Lisa Vázquez Vigil Senior Career Consultant