person thinking
Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

Fact: You can’t really know what it’s like to work somewhere until you experience it. But, job searches take up a lot of time for both you and the company, and that’s why everyone involved wants to make sure it’ll be a good match.

Which is why it’s not helpful that, at the same time, everyone’s a salesman. What I mean is: You’re both trying to put your very best foot forward, and as a result, some things can get lost in translation.

So, you might say, “I’m a fast learner,” as code for “I don’t actually know that skill, but I could pick it up.” Similarly, the hiring manager might say you’ll have the opportunity to direct your own work, which could translate two ways. Maybe it means you’ll have plenty of autonomy and a supportive boss. Or maybe it means she has no idea what you’ll actually be doing.

Thankfully, there are common buzzwords people use to describe work environments that can be pretty telling. Just like a “cozy” apartment is going to be small, you can be on the lookout for the four buzzwords below—and based on your work style, have a sense whether this environment will be a good fit for you.


1. Fast-paced

As you’d imagine this means there’s a lot happening at once. Beyond that it suggests you’ll be going from one project to the next without a lot of time to sit back and reflect. So, it’s a good fit for someone who’s easily bored or task-driven.

On the other hand, a focus on speed (a.k.a., “done is better than perfect”) could be stressful for perfectionists. It could also be hard on people who dislike multitasking. If you want time to ideate and reflect without the pressure to hit close deadlines, look for a work environment that’s described as relaxed.


2. Egalitarian

This is the word you’re looking for if you’re a big thinker who wants to be able to contribute ideas across the spectrum. It suggests that everyone’s given a chance, and you’ll have more access and opportunities based on ideas, rather than seniority.

But, a company with this kind of environment could drive you crazy if you thrive on having a clear, top-down structure (one boss who gives you assignments) or if you’re a mid or senior-level professional who doesn’t really enjoy working with people with less experience. Then, you prefer a hierarchical system.


3. Social

Do you want to make friends at work? If so, say if you’re new in town—or just appreciate being able to hang out with your colleagues inside and outside the office—a social workplace could be just what you’re looking for.

On the other hand, you won’t be happy there if you’re the kind of person who’s 100% focused on work. This environment could be challenging if it seems like people who socialize after hours move ahead, and that’s not you. Not to mention, if you don’t like whatever activity everyone partakes in (playing sports, drinking alcohol, or participating in a religious practice), you could be uncomfortable. Look for a place with an emphasis on individual work—and people who want to leave at quitting time.

4. Rapidly-Growing

In a rapidly-growing department, it’s easier for you to evolve your position and boost your resume quickly. If you see words like “startup,” “inaugural,” or “changing,” you’ll probably get to stretch and take on new things. You’ll want to be someone who’s excited by the prospect of working without a roadmap, and OK with a little uncertainty.

It’s less for you if you want the comfort and security that come with a well-established role. If you want to follow the systems a predecessor put in place and have your responsibilities match up exactly with what you signed on for, look for company that’s described as stable.



Company culture varies from organization to organization, and that’s not something you want to discount. Along with paying attention to the words used to describe work environment, dig in deeper and make a point to learn more during your interview.

Ask about what it’s really like to work there (we have 22 different questions right here), but keep in mind that there’s no such thing as the ideal workplace. That’ll look different to everyone, based on their work styles and values.

So, be honest with yourself about what you’re truly looking for. That way, you can put your research to good use and end up somewhere that’s a good fit for you.