How often have you seen it happen? Hotshot exec takes on exciting new challenge, only to flame out in a matter of months. The reason most often cited? "A bad cultural fit."

Just like countries, companies have unique personalities, or cultures. Someone who succeeds in one won't necessarily do well at another."When something isn't working out, it's almost always cultural fit," says executive recruiter Dennis Krieger of Seiden Krieger Associates, New York.

When the acquisition of Conrail by Norfolk Southern and CSX Railroad is completed in August, Conrail employees will either join Norfolk or look for new jobs. Either way, they're likely to find a culture different from the "creative, empowered, risk-taking" one Conrail has nurtured in recent years, says Jack Kane, assistant vice president, training and development, at Conrail. "They're going to be nonplused going into some of these other companies, especially rail companies."

So Conrail hired a team of consultants to teach its employees how to get past the usual platitudes and spin control common in recruiting, when both sides are on their best behavior.

The team suggested questions to ask during interviews. How does the company communicate with employees? Does the company encourage employees to learn more about the business? How do people get feedback? How do executives expect to be addressed? What's the company's dress code? What are typical work schedules? How are decisions made? How are raises and promotions decided? Who are the stars, and how did they reach that exalted state?

The consultants also advised employees to take their research beyond the interview. Michael McGinn, president of Executive Transition Group, an executive coaching and outplacement firm, suggested talking to current and former employees and members of professional trade associations to which the company's employees belong.

There are also clues in the stories told in annual reports and other company literature. Look for tales about company heroes to determine what is valued in an employee. Also, read open letters from the leadership and other self-descriptions.

Virginia Lord, of the Lord Group, a career-management firm, suggested tracking employment opportunities at companies' Web sites for evidence of high turnover or recent management shake-ups.

If there has been a shakeup, she says, get information on the new leader's style. Often, she adds, executives hire people they're comfortable with, usually from previous jobs. "You can see what happened to those organizations and be a step ahead," she suggests.

Executive recruiters are a potentially knowledgeable source of information, although understand that their first loyalty is to the client.