It may seem like a nice problem to have right now, but once you start applying for jobs and getting offers from different companies, you could find yourself with some hard choices to make.
While there is often some wiggle room in terms of pay and benefits when you sit down to negotiate with a prospective employer, there is unlikely to be too much difference – especially at entry grade level – between companies operating within any given sector.
So, if it doesn’t come down to money, how do you make up your mind in terms of what the right fit is for you?
For many, the answer to this question can be summed up in the words: company culture. But what is it, and does it really mean anything? What’s more, how do you look out for signs of good company culture before you’ve even stepped through the doorway?
Most of the experts agree with Colm Gorman, head of people and operations at KPMG in Ireland, who says company culture "is everything" from how people are treated, and the value put on ideas, to attitudes and actions on diversity.
“Culture has become a yardstick by which many graduates make career decisions,” he says. “Of course pay and benefits remain fundamental, but we find that many applicants when faced with a choice of close options come down on the side of what just feels right.”
Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland, says company culture is “the foundation of any business”.
“It’s the collective personality of an organisation, and defines who you are and what you aspire to be,” she says. “It’s what sets you apart. A strong culture helps unite a workforce around a shared purpose.
“Culture is important as it’s what attracts great talent, and can determine whether someone will stay or leave. Research we conducted found 70 per cent of professionals would refuse to work for a leading company if it meant having to put up with a bad company culture.”
Orla Moran, general manager of IrishJobs.ie, also agrees. "While some people may dismiss culture as a buzzword, the one you are about to step into is crucial to the success of your career," she says.
According to recent research among 10,043 third-level students by IrishJobs.ie, company culture is the third most important consideration among job-seeking third-level graduates after future earnings and job security.
“When asked about company culture, graduates preferred a friendly work environment, professional development opportunities, respect for staff, high ethical standards and inspiring purpose,” says Moran.
“In some corporate environments, culture is something that evolves organically. In others, a strong and immediately identifiable company culture is seen as strategically important in recruiting and retaining the best talent.
“By extension, from an employee perspective, when an individual is bought into a company’s culture and mission, they are more likely to feel engaged in the job and have a greater vested interest in the company’s long-term success.”
Roisin Fitzpatrick, people and purpose partner in Deloitte's tax and legal practice, says it is important from a culture perspective that people feel listened to and supported in their working environment – but that the Covid-19 pandemic has made this more challenging.
“This is something that’s not always easy to do, especially in a virtual or hybrid working world,” she says. “It’s not just about nice offices or team lunches anymore.”
She says good company culture “is putting people first”, and adds that the concept of “psychological safety” has become particularly important in the past 18 months.
“This refers to the understanding that you’ll be supported when speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes in the workplace,” she says. “Encouraging people to contribute ultimately allows teams to thrive amongst a range of different viewpoints.
“Being able to voice their opinions without fear of feeling silly gives individuals a sense of agency that enables effective decision-making.
“The converse of this is, of course, that teams may be less prone to innovation, and don’t feel comfortable being themselves or being human beings at work.”
Fitzpatrick admits it is “not easy to get the inside scoop” before you start working somewhere yourself, especially because elements of culture can vary according to specific teams.
“Similarly, different people might thrive in different environments depending on personal preference,” she says.
“I’d encourage grads to think about their goals and purpose, then speak to others in their network and reach out to professionals to ask for their input on the culture of various places they might want to work.
“Above all, just get out there and start learning. If you end up in a place where the culture or role is maybe not quite what you had in mind, look at how you can turn it into a learning experience or make the most out of it.
“You’ve likely got a long career ahead of you, so the most important thing is to start observing what you like and don’t like about a role, company or industry – and you can start making positive changes from there.”
Signs to look for
KPMG's Gorman says graduates can get a sense of the signs to look for and the pitfalls to avoid from an early stage.
“From the very start of the recruitment process, graduates have an opportunity to get a sense of the culture,” he says. “Is it empathetic and responsive? Does the business feel ambitious, people oriented and dynamic or does it feel staid and complacent?
“If learning and development are important but you can find no evidence of this online or in the recruitment process this could be a red flag.
“And of course asking friends and relatives can give you a sense of things as someone may have experience of the business as a supplier, customer or employee and can give you their perspectives.
“Ultimately, you have to trust your own judgment. Decide what matters most to you but bear in mind that whilst a typical industry standard salary is important for very obvious reasons – once in the job it’s also really important to feel that the culture is right for you.”
PwC people partner Emma Scott says talking to people at companies you are interested in is a good place to start.
“Some tips that I would give to try and determine if a company’s culture is what they are looking for would be to meet as many people as you can from the company,” she says. “It is the people that will give you a real sense of what working there is like.
“Even if you can’t gain an internship experience in a company, reach out to employees on LinkedIn, talk to them at the careers fairs or at any events that a company of your choice is doing in your university.
“Another helpful way of finding out what a company’s culture is like is by reviewing their social media posts. There are often employee engagement and experience initiatives highlighted on social media, and that can give a good guide as to what the company values.”
Derek Diviney, vice president of sales and client success at Indeed, advises students to look at things another way. "A great way to begin is to flip your current way of thinking," he says.
“Start with the end in mind. Instead of asking if you will fit into this team, ask what can I add to this team?
“Before accepting any role, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The current team is an excellent place to start: how long have they been with the company? What type of office environment do they like? What is the favourite part of their job?
“When you are a new grad there is a great sense of excitement and pride when you are offered a new role. You may also feel a sense of relief – but being offered a job doesn’t mean you have to accept it.”
McCooey of LinkedIn Ireland says her tips for graduates begin with researching the company.
“Search online to see what people are saying about the company,” she says. “It can be as simple as looking for their company page on LinkedIn to see how they describe themselves and getting a window into what a day in the life at the organisation is like.
“You can take it a step further by looking at leaders in that organisation to see if that culture follows through on their own profile. Check if you are connected to anyone that works there so you can have a conversation with them about their experience.
“Understand how companies are approaching the future of work. A test of company culture is the approach different organisations are taking to the future of work in the wake of Covid-19.
“Similarly, you can look at Covid-19 and whether companies stayed true to their values during what was one of the most tumultuous periods of many organisation’s history. A key question for graduates of their potential employers during the interview process is how that organisation has managed to maintain its company culture in a virtual environment.”
Another tip, raised by Moran at IrishJobs.ie, is to "be wary" of companies that have a high level of staff turnover. "This may indicate that there are issues with employee morale and job satisfaction," she says.
However, Moran namechecks a number of companies that are excelling in terms of culture. "For business, economics, and IT students emerging from Irish universities, some of the most sought-after companies in the Irish market include Google, Apple, and KPMG," she says.
“These employers recognise the importance of investing in their company culture and creating workplaces that talented graduates want to be a part of.
"Similarly, engineering students identified Google, Pfizer, and Boston Scientific as the most desirable employers within the Irish market. All three are very much recognised for their commitment to creating innovation-led cultures and friendly work environments.
“While the fundamentals of a positive company culture are largely consistent across the board, within certain sectors, particular cultural values may come to the fore. For example, among health and natural science graduates, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are the two most sought-after employers in the Irish market.
“This is very telling, and it aligns with many third-level students’ desire to be inspired by something bigger. Both companies have emerged from the last 18 months as extremely positive corporate citizens committed to meaningful innovation and solving societal challenges.
“According to recent US research, a team member who believes they are part of something bigger will feel happier and work harder. When individuals are put into a culture that engages them, productivity typically increases by a minimum of 10 per cent.”