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Pay vs. culture: choosing a future employer

If you’ve just graduated, or if you’re switching careers, you’ll probably be happy to land any job in your industry. But the conditions you work under are important to consider – they could make or break your career, and your wellbeing.

Deakin research assistant, Kim Goodwin, and graduate, Angela Heck, have worked at the top of their game and seen the best and worst of work culture. Both advise that a good work culture is vital to career longevity.

What makes a good culture?

Goodwin has worked for big banks and small not-for-profits, and has just finished a PhD on employment in the creative industries. She says ideal work culture is where the organisation puts its people first. ‘Culture is the most important thing and it’s culture in terms of attitude, not in terms of physical characteristics. It’s not necessarily about having lots of resources and a flashy foosball table. It’s actually about where the company values the intellectual contribution that you can make to the organisation.’

Heck agrees that genuinely positive culture is important. Currently the Marketing Communications Manager at Citysmart Brisbane, Heck’s career has spanned multinational advertising, finance and a global not-for-profit. She says don’t be fooled by token wellbeing benefits.

‘Things that don’t cut it – like a bowl of fruit, or free gym membership – forget all that. Stuff that works is flexibility, understanding, education’. Heck says a good sign is an employer willing to invest in staff. ‘Funding post-grad is a really great benefit, even if it’s 50/50.’

'Culture is the most important thing and it’s culture in terms of attitude, not in terms of physical characteristics.'

Angela Heck,
Alumnus, Deakin University

Is pay plus culture possible?

Do you need to choose between pay and culture, or can you have both? Big corporates are your best chance, as they’re more likely to have the budget and an enterprise agreement with built-in benefits. But as your salary grows, Heck says to expect your work/life balance to take a hit.

‘The top salary of whatever industry you’re in isn’t going to be a walk in the park,’ she warns. She advises to keep in mind that most people can’t maintain the pace demanded by a high salary forever. ‘You have to kind of meet somewhere in the middle before you burn out, or have an exit plan.’

How can you tell what a workplace is really going to be like?

If you’re driven by pay, finding out what your salary will be is straightforward. Most jobs will advertise the pay and you can find out which careers are the highest paid with quick research. It’s a bit trickier to find out what a job’s work culture will be like, but is just as important.

Start by asking about culture in job interviews: Is there flexibility in work hours? Is there a staff wellbeing program? Is training offered? Heck points out that in some cases, your interviewer might not give you the full picture.

‘You know the ones with the really bad reputation because it’s spread in the industry, but that interviewer is never going to tell you that. You have to look for different ways to find out.’ She suggests asking the employer for a chance to have coffee or lunch. ‘Try for more than just the person who’s interviewing you, go with a few of them so you get the vibe.’

Heck also suggests sounding out someone already working in the industry in your city, as they’re likely to know which organisations have a good (or bad!) reputation.

With a bit of research and time spent thinking about your wellbeing on the job, you’ll be better prepared to navigate your career choices.

Looking for a career with good pay and a positive work culture? Check out this handy tool to start exploring your options

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