Starting a job in Corporatelandia? Work it like an anthropologist

These days, lots of anthropologists (including recent anthropology grads) are finding work in the private sector, oftentimes as researchers, analysts, or strategists at big corporations. My first job out of grad school was at an insurance and financial services company where I worked as a consumer researcher, business consultant, and project manager.

Although I had held lots of “jobs” before this first professional gig, I had never before worked in a corporation or any place like it. Likewise, I never had the opportunity for a corporate internship, and had no knowledge of how a large business actually functioned. All I had were my preconceived notions about corporations based on hearsay, the media, film and television, and the small amount of information I had read in a few books.

Making the transition from academia to the corporate world was challenging. Not only did I have to do my new job and get my work done, but I also had to adjust to this new, fast-paced, business-oriented environment, jumping head first into projects, meetings, and corporate culture all at once. From conference calls to expense reports, everything was a new experience for me as I learned about and navigated the processes, systems, tools, organizational principles, hierarchies, and power dynamics of my new workplace. It was not until after about six months that I felt adjusted to my role, but I continued to adapt and learn new things until my very last day on the job.

If you are in a similar situation, I suggest approaching it like an anthropologist might approach a new research site: with curiosity, purpose, open-mindedness, a balanced combination of observation and participation, a bit of reserve, and the practical application of anthropological training and knowledge.

Although this list of 10 tips is geared toward those with anthropology backgrounds, it might also be useful to anyone that wants to employ an alternative perspective to understanding and navigating the social world of big business. It might even be applicable to other types of workplaces as well.

As always, if you have anything to add to the list, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom.

  1. Think of your new workplace as an exotic locale. Anthropologists are good at making sense of unfamiliar places by observing and understanding the behaviors, practices, languages, worldviews, values, beliefs and traditions (i.e., culture) of the people who inhabit them. As a newcomer, this is a great opportunity to use your participant observation, rapport-building, and analytical and communication skills as you attend meetings, work on teams, meet new people, and figure out how you fit in to the bigger picture. Use this firsthand knowledge based on what you see and what people tell you to come up with some theories of your workplace, and put them to practical use as an employee. Of course, don’t just observe what’s going, but participate in it!
  2. Pick up on the local language. Language is an important component of culture, and it’s crucial to understand and use appropriately if you want to be effective and be taken seriously. It probably won’t be completely foreign, but there will be noticeable differences, and you’ll likely see and hear things that make no sense to you at first. You’ll learn specialized terms for particular jobs, roles, departments, units, business processes, tools, and all kinds of other stuff. Some examples from my last job include terms like “high-level”, “topline findings”, “learnings” (ick), “actionable”, “relationship manager” and “OOO” (out-of-office). Adopt the terms that are useful for communication, but be warned that even the corniest buzzwords will be regularly used and abused. Acronyms fall under this category as well. These corporate vocabulary flashcards might come in handy. Just relax, you’ll be speaking like a pro in no time (and laughing at yourself about it, too)!
  3. Think holistically. A la Durkheim’s theory of the organic solidarity society, organizations are like a big organism with interdependent parts working toward a common goal (at least that’s the idea). You’ll be working in a specific group or department that exists within a larger system (often hierarchical) with all kinds of workers, managers, leaders, teams, units, departments, etc. Each group is defined by its relationships with the others, and everything that happens will have some kind of impact on everything else.
  4. Ask lots of questions. Use context clues to come up with thoughtful questions about what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask what might be a “dumb” question, because people know you’re new. You’ll have a lot to figure out about even the most mundane occurrences.
  5. Understand roles, identities and relationships. The corporate world is a social world. Everyone has ascribed and prescribed identities. People shape their roles and their roles shape them. They have agency, but they are also influenced by social structures and the expectations of peers. An internal org chart helps with explicit relationships (usually based on a hierarchical power structure), and you can make your own notations to it based on observations that describe the implicit, underlying social connections. These often coincide with the org chart, but not always. Each role or association implies a specific amount of clout. Over time, your observations will reveal who really holds the power to influence decisions, not just who reports to whom.
  6. Build relationships and alliances. Organizations are built by people, and people are very political creatures. Take your knowledge of who holds the power and get on their good side, but don’t isolate the others. Establish rapport and gain trust, and use your connections to your advantage, just not maliciously. Take a neutral stance whenever possible, and avoid gossip and cliques. If you feel strongly about something and want people to know about it, do it in the most diplomatic way possible, and be aware of the risks involved. Try not to make enemies no matter how annoying someone is, because you might need something from that person or have to work with them on a project, or they might be next in line for a managerial position – sometimes you will be surprised.
  7. Take field notes! It’s one of the best tools in our toolkit for collecting data. And don’t worry about what everyone else thinks – lots of people have caught onto the trend of carrying notebooks around in addition to laptops. Field notes can include contextual descriptions, maps, personal thoughts and reflections, you name it.
  8. Be prepared to tell people who you are and what you do. Have a few different answers to the question “What is anthropology and what can it do for our organization?” depending on who you’re talking to and how much time you have.
  9. Be adaptable and flexible. Corporations are constantly in flux; sometimes the process of change is smooth, while other times it can be quite rocky due to poor planning. People change jobs, move up, move out, and get laid off. Consultants are hired. Job descriptions change without much notice. Entire departments get absorbed by others, and the transition can be messy. After all, the only thing that’s certain is that things will change. This makes a great personal and professional mantra.
  10. Make a decision about “going native” and stick with it. Do you want to become personally vested in the mission of the company, or simply get some work experience and move on in a couple years? Will you drink from the ever-flowing fountain of proverbial kool-aid or politely pass on it? How important are your personal values, and how do they mesh (or not) with your workplace? This decision may relate whether or not you want to stay with this company for the duration of your career (not a likely scenario these days) or get some good experience and eventually move on. Some companies, like the one I worked at, prefer their employees to acculturate themselves fully into the company culture, mission and philosophy, but this may not jive well with people who have especially independent personalities or personal philosophies.

Update: See this older post from August 2011 that I wrote on this very same topic (right after I started the job I mention here). It’s not as in depth or at all based on my experiences, but summarizes an article written by someone at Yahoo! Finance on how to play the role of anthropologist in a new job/when assessing organizational culture.


  1. So true! Many thanks for posting helpful to dos for people entering into Corporate world. Although I found it helpful practice to drink just enough of the Kool-Aid to be able to become a trusted member of the institution, thereby gaining unique insight into the corporate world.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post! That's a great point about how "drinking the Kool-Aid" can be a strategy for building the rapport and relationships necessary for gaining cultural insight, not to mention getting things done, in any type of organization.

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