Reputation and outward appearance isn’t always a true indication of a firm’s workplace culture. Happy, productive employees require clear honest communication, respect, support and potential for career development. An anonymous writer tells her story.

culture – noun: the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society

The stereotypical view of an architectural practice culture is of creative people, passionate about their purpose, strongly committed to their work, and working long hours in the pursuit of perfection within their deadline-driven world.

Different practices have different cultures, and I’ve experienced a number in my career. There are the often intense and silent serious practices, and then there are the more informal ones, with more frequent bursts of collective banter. And in between the day-to-day work ambience, there are the other aspects that add to office culture – Christmas parties, cultural celebrations such as Chinese New Year, office lunches, morning teas, Friday drinks. The flavour and feel of these events contribute to the general sense of the places we work in.

In my experience, practice ambience is either consciously or sub-consciously established and steered through the leadership of the practice, usually the owners, and perhaps also senior or long-term staff. And undoubtedly, the social practice of different staff members who come together as part of the practice complement this to create the overall ambience of a place to work.

But office culture isn’t just about throwing parties and having a fun public persona. It’s also the social nuances around how people communicate and connect on a one-to-one, and employer-employee basis. And this can be a much harder thing to judge from the outside. Because from the outside, you’ll only be told about how great the tangible aspects of a workplace culture are, namely the social customs and events. But there’s a whole underplayed and non-discussed aspect of workplace culture that’s inherent in positive employer-employee relationships. How do they treat their staff members on a personal level? What is their position around gender equity? Promoting and rewarding great work? Supporting staff development? Encouraging initiative? Is there a glass ceiling? And, again, more than likely if you ask these things, you’ll be given positive responses that make this practice seem like a dream to join.

The tough thing is that unless you know the practice very well from someone on the inside who knows it well, and is willing to be honest with you, you won’t know if this place is genuine – that they walk the talk.

Sometimes a firm’s reputation is affected much more by what they say out loud in the public arena than what they do behind closed office doors. I worked for a very successful firm for several years, and outward appearances suggested that all was well. But it was a mirage. Work overload was prevalent and very stressful for all. Conversations over workplace conditions and career progression were avoided by management at all costs. When pressed, verbal promises were given but not kept. Employees often had to get to crisis point and threaten to leave before senior management would have a serious conversation with them. The potential loss of an employee tended to mobilise the Directors. Promises were made. In my case, a pay rise, a title change, support for further education … Suddenly, a future within the firm looked rosier. The pay rise came through, but the other promises were harder to pin down. After months of seeking an answer, I was told to be patient. Everything was on track. But it wasn’t. In a large round of promotions, I was overlooked. I realised that these had been empty promises.

Over the last few years, colleagues and friends from a variety of firms have told different (but similar) stories. An employee was promised an exciting role on that enticing new project, but when it came online, the role no longer existed. Another unfortunate friend was sacked while on holiday. Another was told that they couldn’t move two steps in the hierarchy of practice, only to find another employee had done exactly that. A friend complained that her boss didn’t recognise contributions or reward good work, that they expected employees to be autonomous and have initiative, but they weren’t willing to assist in upskilling. Another unhappy colleague resigned, so was abruptly removed from all good projects and ignored for the rest of her notice period – until she was down to her last days, when she was offered a pay rise, unlimited mentorship, overseas conferences and future promotional prospects.

These stories are all too common, but there is an upside. I know many women who have left unhappy, high-pressure workplaces with little support or future prospects. The good news is that they are all in a much better job now, where they’re recognised and valued. When you’re grappling with the decision about whether to stay and put up with a negative workplace culture or leave for the unknown, it’s good to have people who will tell you that you’ll be better off elsewhere. It wasn’t until a former client/now mentor alerted me to this fact that I started investigating other options, and now I’m in a much better place.

So, if and when you find at some point in your career that you’re at a firm that isn’t doing what they say they do, isn’t able to talk to you about your future, or promises you things about your future but never delivers, then maybe it’s time to move on.

Because the great news is that there are places out there that value you for who you are and what you bring. These are the practices that realise that at the heart of office culture is respect and trust, and this is critical in developing and maintaining a successful, sustainable and vibrant practice.