When you ask firms about their culture, it’s not uncommon for them to start by saying that they believe in work-life balance, and that they treat their staff like family — and to leave it at that.

Those are certainly elements of culture, but they are far from the only ones, and it’s growing more and more important for firms to get a better handle on just what, exactly, their culture is. Why? Well, to start, a clearly defined culture will make it easier to attract and retain the right kinds of employees. Knowing who you are is also a great guide in making difficult decisions, and is very handy for identifying who might be a good fit for a merger. With that in mind, here are 10 questions to help your clearly understand the shape of your culture.

1. How entrepreneurial is your firm? Do you routinely try out new service lines or client niches, or are you content with strengthening the ones you have? How much risk can you tolerate? Would you allow a partner to miss their goals for billable hours if they were building up a new practice area?

2. Are you happy with one or two people making major firm decisions, or do think more people should be included? This speaks to how hierarchical your firm is, as well as how much say you’re willing to give non-partners, younger staff and others in the running of the firm.

3. How transparent is your firm? Do you routinely share information on profitability, or do you only tell people what they absolutely need to know? Do you keep everyone updated on new developments at the firm, or only those who are directly involved?

4. Who comes first — clients or staff? Who are you more likely to believe in a conflict, for instance? Have you ever fired a client that your employees hated?

5. What’s your take on technology? Some view it as a threat that has to be handled, some merely as critical infrastructure, and still others as an amazing tool that can be leveraged to create enormous opportunity.

6. What factors go into determining compensation? What you pay for says a great deal about what the firm values. Will you sacrifice billable hours for, say, mentoring or community service?

7. Are you one firm, or a collection of individual businesses? Have your audit people ever met any of your tax people? And how much can the separate practice areas rely on support from the others?

8. How client-focused are you? Do you have a firm policy on how quickly staff must respond to client emails? What about weekend inquiries? Do you routinely throw in “extras,” or does every new client request require a change order?

9. How much room is there for individuality? Can people set their own schedules? Can a hard charger move ahead faster than older, more senior people?

10. How does your firm have fun? Some firms have barbecues in a partner’s backyard, others dress up for a fancy dinner; some go mountain climbing, while others rent out a video arcade. What about you?

And remember, there are no right or wrong choices — the only wrong answer is not to answer at all.

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.