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How can I find the truth about a company?

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders if it’s possible to figure out what an employer is really like — before accepting a job offer.

Question

You emphasize the importance of showing how you’d “do the job” in a job interview, and how you’d produce value for the employer. But that is in a perfect world. What about the real world?

How does one ascertain in an interview what the political environment is in a company? Most companies have some kind of political system, defined here as the messy arrangements one goes through to actually get something done.

What questions could one ask to determine the real political environment as opposed to the happy faces they present in the interview? They are all “team players” and they all want team players, but what are the rules of the game in that company? Is there any way to really determine this before taking a position? What questions could one ask that wouldn’t just generate “the company line?”

Nick’s Reply

under-the-rugOuch — please don’t accuse me of giving advice in “a perfect world.” If it were perfect, who would need advice?

Your questions are excellent, and there’s only one way I know to get them answered: Look under the proverbial rug! Meet the people who will affect your life and job at the company. Before you accept an offer, ask to talk with:

  • Others on the team you’ll be joining.
  • People who have jobs in departments that will affect your success at your job.
  • Managers who run teams that will interface with yours.

Don’t ask these people about the politics. Just ask them to tell you how they do their jobs and who they interact with in the company. Then hush and let them air their laundry. You’ll learn a lot. If you talk with enough of them (at minimum, one from each category and preferably three from the team you would join), you will get a very good sense of how the company really operates. (See also It’s the people, Stupid.)

Another good approach is one I try to use whenever I’m meeting with a prospective client. Have lunch in the company cafeteria and ask to be introduced to the people they work with. You will learn a lot while people talk as they are sipping soup or munching sandwiches.

If a company refuses to schedule such meetings for you prior to you accepting an offer, that ought to tell you something. A good, healthy company will be proud to show off its people, and management will be impressed that you’re willing to take the time to meet them before making a commitment. Frankly, I’m surprised all employers don’t insist on such activities before making a job offer. (See Kick the candidate out of your office.)

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, I explain how to expand your due diligence on an employer. This includes tracking down former employees of the company, and talking to its customers and vendors.

Does that sound like a bit much? The employer will check you out in detail — so it’s astonishing how little a job seeker will do to check out an employer! Here’s one specific tip from the book (pp. 12):

Check a company’s references. Talk with people who depend on the company for a living: attorneys, bankers, investors, landlords, and others. This will give you a community-wide perspective and also help keep you out of harm’s way. Explain that you are considering an investment in the company. (Your career is indeed an investment!) Ask for their insight and advice. Is this a good company? Why?

It isn’t a perfect world, so we’ve got to scrutinize jobs and employers closely. In my experience, most people who go job hunting do so because they took the wrong job with the wrong employer to begin with. Don’t make that mistake! Do your due diligence, and look under the rug!


For more about how to judge an employer, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, which includes these sections:

  • Introduction: Don’t walk blind on the job hunt
  • Do I have to “kiss ass” to win a job?
  • How can I make up for lack of required experience?
  • How to pick worthy companies
  • Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Age discrimination or age anxiety?
  • How do I deal with an undeserved nasty reference?
  • Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies

How do you examine a company’s culture and politics before you accept a job offer? Have you ever made the mistake of not looking closely before jumping into a new job?

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19 Comments
  1. Nick, you rock. Some years ago a colleague of mine recommended producing a “survey” of former employees, vendors, consultants, and other stakeholders plus “confirmation in print” resource and resources. Two uses. Dangle in front of employer when appropriate. Have a fresh and better idea than most what the prospective employer’s DNA is. Verdad? Your advocate! sQs Delray Beach FL

  2. Several years ago I interviewed with a small company and had bad vibes about the sales director who was to be my main interface. So I flat out asked him, “How do you handle conflicts in this organization?” Through gritted teeth he said, “We have no conflicts.” At that point, I knew my vibes were correct. All companies have conflicts of one kind or another. Later that week, the hiring manager called to tell me that the position I interviewed for was going to be split into 2 separate positions, obviously that meant this was no longer the same job I interviewed for. There would be less responsibility and less pay. I had already decided not to take the position based on the interview and was happy to tell them I was withdrawing as a candidate. Not sure if the direct approach of asking about handling conflicts would create a negative impression with the interviewer but in my case it confirmed my impressions.

  3. I’ve mentioned this before here, but ask about how the team prioritizes workloads. One time I asked this, a potential coworker had a full breakdown/meltdown (red-faced ranting) in front of her colleagues. They had horrified looks in their faces when she responded like this. They out they were cracking the whip very, very hard at her level of the team. The grapevine confirmed this..

  4. I was in what I thought was a technical interview, and reviewing the several trouble ticket programs I was familiar with.

    The interviewer (20-something V.P. and owner’s daughter) cut me off with “I don’t like trouble tickets. When my computer has a problem, IT drops everything and fixes it!” I heard snickering from the accountants direction, which seemed to confirm this. I closed my portfolio, physically this time, got up and wished her good luck with that.

    They seem to always be hiring for office staff, IT, etc. over there. How they remain in business would make a good case study for some bright young MBA candidate.

  5. Using technology to find inside information on company reviews, interview methods, pay scale for positions etc could be http://www.glassdoor.com but here’s the catch. You have to go in weighing the remarks that are “sourgrapes” to companies that have employees post positive stuff. You read between the lines as well as try to discern legitimate candid comments & then you can get a feel for a company.

  6. A few “bad signs” I’ve experienced that are real tip-offs:

    The interviewer walked me to his office, and not one worker looked up, or so much as moved, in the open work area we crossed to get there. Then he left me in the office, alone, for 20 minutes before coming back to start the interview.

    The interviewer wouldn’t show me the work area, because “it would disturb people,” so, no, I couldn’t meet the team.

    The team interviewers out-and-out fought with each other during the interview, including making snide comments and accusations to each other. One person got so mad he left the interview room.

    The team refused to let the manager participate in the interview and they told me so. They were wonderful, but the manager was a nightmare. He only lasted a month after I took the job before he was (thankfully) removed from any supervisory role at all.

    Interviewers as a team don’t say a word–only the manager talks. He asks if they have any questions for me? Nodding “no” they all get up and leave. The manager later tells me she won’t hire me “because you are after my job.”

    ————-

    You don’t have to wait to the interview stage, as Nick says. Before you get there, you can often find information right out in the open….

    Recently, I found a job listing that interested me. I started my research with Glassdoor.com, then reviewed the info on the company web site: so far so good, nice balance of folks, women in management, etc. Then I moved on to the blogs. As an illustration of “good marketing” one of the higher-ups described how she spent $12,000 on shoes in one year, and attributed that expense to “good marketing” by the shoe company.

    I am not applying for that job. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

    Diana O.

  7. One trick that sometimes give insight is when appropriate, Maybe just right prior the end of the visit, or when the opportunity is right when nature calls, visit the latrine, and you may (or may not) get the opportunity to read the writing in walls in the stalls and see how the organization vents. I have seen places with the paint scrubbed to the primer, some pristine and clean, some vent to a particular person, the paper holder labeled as the stock option dispenser etc. This can give clues.

  8. This topic is a perfect example of the saying “looking for a job, is a full time job”. This all is time consuming, but time well spent. Moving beyond tire kicking for a job and finding out the context of the job can save you a lot of pain, and/or strengthen your hand.
    You’re not looking to find perfection..you’re looking to find a place where you can add a lot of value and develop your career in the process. And quite likely the right place to do that is in a company that’s not perfect, but knows it’s not perfect and is looking for someone like you to make it better.
    But not in a toxic environment, and that’s the playground for politics and red tape.
    Nick’s hit the nail on the head. If a company has confidence and pride in itself, it has no problem opening it’s kimono. That means aside from proprietary or insurance reasons, letting you see what you need to see to make a decision, and talk to who you’d like to talk to likewise.
    To add to Nick’s example of finding the right people and asking questions, go past that, and ask this question…”Can I shadow a peer doing a similar job? Can I shadow someone who works for you? You want to find out what a day in the life of someone working for that potential boss is like and how the organization really works..warts and all.
    When I had a team, if someone I was interested in had an interview on the day I had a status meeting with my team, I’d invite them to sit in. I’d invite them to sit with someone on my team. If you want a new hire to really succeed they must know what they are getting into warts and all, and that includes working for me.
    In the company I work for we’ve developed a step in the process I call a preview meeting. We invite interested parties in for a group meeting. I give them an overview of the company, the hiring manager gives them a plant tour, if applicable a department tour. They have full access to the hiring manager and can ask questions, grill him/her. It’s not an interview. No time for one on ones. If we establish interest & they come back for an interview, they aren’t coming in cold and talking with a manager based on words…a job description, a website discourse. They’ve seen the place, they’d met the manager. This approach has been mutually beneficial and candidates have told me they like it. On our end frankly it speeds things up. 75% of the content is what I say to everyone, the mfg manager likes to tour everyone, so we do a group and do it once. On their end. and I tell them this, you shouldn’t be looking for jobs, you should be looking for companies and the purpose of this meeting is to give you enough info to answer this question “Do I want to work for this company? For this Manager? You’ll know right away yes or no. And save you a lot of time and uncertainty.

  9. In an engineering context, I like to ask a few questions to try to suss out how the company actually functions:

    – Where does work come from/who generates feature requests — engineers? users? management?
    – Who decides the priority of work? What role does engineering play in that process? Who else participates?
    – When it comes to engineering tradeoffs (say, between CPU and memory) who makes that call? How do they know in retrospect whether their decision was the right one?
    – How do you handle it when a piece of work touches two teams’ areas?

    The most interesting part is asking the same questions of different people. You often get very different answers, which really helps draw a picture of an organization.

  10. I like Annie’s approach.

    I have a saying that if you ask 5 people how things work, you will get 6 different answers.

  11. I agree with Philip that the glassdoor website gives a job interviewer some insight into the companies culture and work ethics/politics. Take the good and the bad and ask questions. I have found most companies I have interviewed with in the past to be dishonest about culture and what is expected. I have had some hiring managers tell me half truths.

    I once asked how many female executives there were at a large company and was told “just one” and she is married to the COO. I knew I would never be promoted from a VP job I was interviewing for (if in fact I was even offered the job) as there were no woman in VP roles at this company. It came down to me and a man and guess who they chose? Him over me. A few months later I looked him up on LinkedIn and saw he did not have the education or experience I have.

  12. Former study mates are a good source of intelligence. I have former study mates from two universities spread around in the Norwegian oil industry, and would always ask the about the inner life of their company. Sure, they may nopt always spill all the beans, but you get a feeling.

  13. I started my journey to go off on my own in 2003.

    I cut the corporate cords in 2008. Since then, I spend about 10 % of my time making those calls to employees and bosses and clearing information to candidates in my industry. I do it because it’s the “right thing” but it pays forward hugely too.

  14. Great new suggestions about where under the rug to look for useful information! Thanks to all for adding them! Eddie, your suggestion about checking the bathroom graffiti takes the prize!

    @Philip: I agree. Relying on company gossip sites like Glassdoor is very risky. See http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/7453/can-i-trust-glassdoor-reviews

    @Annie: Great interview questions for candidates to ask! My favorite is, “How do they know in retrospect whether their decision was the right one?” I find that very few organizations do any kind of outcomes analysis – and fewer even know what that means! Translation: “We don’t know how to learn from our successes and mistakes in any systematic way.”

  15. @Donna: Agree w/the lack of honesty. It’s naive to believe questions asked will get “honest” answers.

  16. @marilyn I agree. I have more success by asking “around” a question. As a lady engineer, I definitely want to know whether there are other women on the team, because (depending on the size of the company) that is a great indicator of what life in that role would be like… but you can’t ask that question directly without tarring yourself. Same, I think, for other minorities who want to find out if there’s anybody else “like them” in a company.

    That’s one of the reasons why Nick’s advice to get onto the floor and meet the people you’re going to be working with is so good. Sadly, a lot of places don’t like to cooperate until you’ve jumped through all of their interview hoops — at which point you’ve already sunk a lot of time in the process. Wish there were a reliable way to feel out those sensitive questions in advance.

  17. I did take a job many years ago by reading the bathroom walls. The comment I made was well advised about the toilet paper holder being the stock certificate dispenser was taken. I worked there for 14 years, good people, never exercised my options. Best investment that I didn’t take was all for the better. Company closed it’s doors.

  18. I really like the idea of going to the bathroom to check out the stalls!

    Another idea, if you have time: attend trade-related networking groups and ask about the company. One place I know, when I mentioned their name, had a derisive “Oh, that sweatshop?” comment come back at me.

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