||Peeling The Offer
By Nick Corcodilos
You're in demand. The offers are flying. (Well, maybe
you've got a couple.) Your employer is nervous, so it's offering substantial incentives in
the hope that you'll stick around.
But job offers (and counteroffers) are like onions: the more
you peel them, the less you're left with. By the time you evaluate the terms of a few
offers, you realize they can be purposely assembled to confuse you by blurring your vision
with tears and pain. Let's look at some of the terms you might find yourself asking questions about.
- How do you value the stock options being offered by a
closely held start-up that's trying to entice you to make a move? (Heck, how do you value
the options of a public company whose stock is on a roller coaster?)
- How do you figure out how the company's medical plan
really works, and how it compares to your current one?
- How would the change in compensation square with a
relocation to another part of the country?
- Bonuses and incentives seem to be based more on subjective
criteria of performance than on anything concrete -- what will you actually earn in your
So, how do you evaluate your offers and make the best
Well, I'm not here to help you answer any of these
questions. (Sorry.) The analysis varies depending on too many unique factors in each
situation. Besides, you're pretty smart, and your analytical skills should serve you well
in figuring out the numbers. But by the time you're done doing the analysis, you'll have a
question even bigger and more important to answer than the ones above (because money isn't
everything). And that's where I can help you.
Is this the right place for me to
Ultimately, this is the biggest career question you must
face. Consider it intelligence that's hidden deep in the onion. I'll try to help you peel
down to that level by offering you a simple set of criteria on which to judge an employer.
Evaluate an employer on three key factors:
- its people,
- its product, and
- its reputation.
As we explore these factors in detail, you'll see that
some aspects of this approach are a little touchy-feely in nature, and some require
objective research and analysis. In most cases, this approach requires a lot of something
you probably do in your work: talking with people.
1. Make sure you'll be working with
This is not as obvious as it seems. Too often, the
"point man" who hires you is one of only a few people you meet at a company
before you start to work there. But to assess the "goodness" of the people in
the company you have to explore much further.
I'll tell you about an Ask The Headhunter reader
who thought he got this right, only to find the "good people" he went to work
for were unethical bastards. (Sorry about the strong words, but you'll see that they're
Ken got good vibes from the
manager who interviewed him for a management job. They hit it off so well that Ken turned
down another job offer to take this one. First on the agenda was a week of training, which Ken completed enthusiastically. Next, the company "withdrew the offer" (cough!
maybe legally a little too late?) and told Ken he had two choices: take another job at
a $20k cut in salary, or leave.
Ken thought he'd found some good people, but it turns out
the company was ready to undergo a management upheaval. A new vice president decided there was no reason for Ken's position to even exist. The nice
manager that Ken had hit it off with was suddenly gone. But no one bothered to tell Ken
anything about this when he was hired. What could Ken have done to avoid what happened?
Explore the depths. Taking a job is a
little like deciding whether to marry someone. The more of his (or her) friends you meet,
the more likely you'll know what you're getting into. Ken should have expanded his
interview to include more people in the company. But Ken's not alone. Few job candidates
insist on exploring a company in enough depth to get a good idea of who they'll be living
with day in, day out.
Never assume a company's personality and character match
that of the manager who's hiring you. Once hired, you will likely spend more time with
people you've never met than with the guy who hired you -- and you'll be impacted by the
decisions these people make.
Chart the players. Draw a picture of
your workday and your work month. Lay out the tasks you'll be doing, and then draw lines
to all the departments and specific people who will be working with you and whose work
will impact your ability to do yours. Ask the manager conducting the interview to help you
create this chart.
Then explain that you'll need to meet some of these
people -- all of them, if possible. The meetings can be brief, but they're critical. If
the employer balks, explain yourself simply: "I work hard and I'm a great producer.
Some people will be significantly affected by my work, and they will affect my ability to
do my work as well. It's in all of our interests to make sure we can work together."
Managers are a special case in your little drawing. If Ken
had met more managers in the company, I'm betting he would have learned there was a change
afoot. Once an interview gets serious, it's reasonable to ask, "Will I be working for
you personally for the next year? If I'm your direct report, will I report to anyone else
on a dotted line?"
Managers set the tone for how the work is done across a
company. Meeting as many "other" managers as you can, in advance, is a great way
to assess how the entire company functions. ("Before I take this sales job, I'd like
to meet the manager of customer service and the marketing manager.") Perhaps best of
all, once you've met these managers in your interviews, you will have established a
rapport that will serve you well later.
Probe for character. Meeting the key
players will quickly help you see what life will be like on a job. Too often, job
candidates see a very appealing job and take it, only to find that the people they have to
work with (not necessarily in their own department) are inept, unmotivated or
unenthusiastic -- or that they have a completely different work ethic.
Try to figure out who will be part of your cross-departmental work team and spend a little time with them before you join
up. Have lunch with them in the company cafeteria (where you can meet even more
employees). Encourage them to talk about how they do their work, and how they'd be
interacting with you. Learn about their expectations and their standards.
While you're assessing all these personalities, you can
probe the company's character. Ask each employee about management's reward
practices -- do they acknowledge good performers with raises, promotions, new projects and
Finally, do a search (at the library and online) for the
key players in the organization. See what the professional and business press has to say
Control the onion. Don't base your
decision to take a job strictly on the people the company wants you to meet. An interview
should cut two ways: they get to know you, and you get to know them. Many companies will
be surprised when you make this request prior to accepting an offer. That's why it's
sometimes best to wait until they've made a solid commitment to you. Once you have the
offer, you have more control and they're less likely to refuse. The onion is in your
hands; keep peeling.
Now, this is not permission to go overboard and conduct
an inquisition. Be reasonable. But, you want to know whether the people you'll be working
with, especially the managers, are going your way.
2. Make sure the company produces a
good product or service.
This may seem silly. Who would join a company that makes a
Unfortunately, the "hot job market" mentality
leads many people to think short-term and to base job decisions primarily on the size of a
compensation package and on whether the company is in a "hot" field. (The latter
is referred to as "wanting a challenge"). Smart workers think long-term and
recognize that one of the real career challenges today revolves around finding an employer
that knows how to manage its business so it will "survive to play again" next
Take the long view. Don't judge a
company just on the gleam in some manager's eye, or on the hot technology they tell you
they're developing. Judge a company also on what it successfully ships out the door and on
how happy its customers are, because that's what will pay your salary and provide you with
A "hot" product may not be a good product. And
no product stands alone -- it's usually part of a constellation of products that either
combine to make the company successful or that hang apart and turn the company's search
for success into a wild goose chase. Likewise, the hot technology (or service) a company
is touting -- and which you're so eager to work with -- may mask product and business
problems you know nothing about.
Judge and judge some more. You judge a
product or service by comparing it to competing or similar products. You can also try to
benchmark the product against itself.
- What did it look like a year ago? Two? Five?
- How has it evolved to meet the needs of customers?
- Has the product changed on a continuous curve, or has it
made leaps that significantly changed the way its customers benefit from it?
- Is the product driving the market or following it? (Make
an educated guess about which competing product might replace this one in customers' minds
a year or three down the road.)
- Does the organization take risks to drive improvements?
Or, has it been complacent?
- How much does the company spend on R&D and on quality assurance? On training?
- Does the company develop its "people assets" as
aggressively as it develops technology?
- Does it demonstrate that it's a long-term player in its
All these measures will suggest something about the
future, and about how your own ideas/contributions might be met by management. These are
issues to research independently, but you should also discuss them in your interview. If
an offer has already been extended, request an additional meeting to go over these strategic questions.
If the product isn't a good one, neither is the job
3. Make sure the company has a
In Death By Lethal Reputation I described a
company whose reputation led to its demise. What you may have missed in that article was
the fact that over the course of years, people kept interviewing there and kept accepting
jobs in spite of what they knew about the company's reputation. We all like to be
forgiving, but sometimes that leads to wishful thinking.
Separate fact from opinion. Don't gamble
on your first impressions. It may be that a headhunter has told you great things about a
company. Maybe you read the company is about to introduce a promising new product, or
you've heard about its rapid rise in the stock market.
Take careful note: none of these data points are on the
reputation graph; they're measures of opinion. Reputation is more complex; its a tougher
onion to peel. Assessing a company's reputation requires talking to the people who depend
on the company for their own success.
Track down the truth. To really get at a
company's reputation, follow the money.
- Who buys the products?
- Who sells the company the "parts" or contracted
services it needs?
- Who funds it?
- Who competes with the company?
- Who works there?
- Who used to work there?
Track down and talk with the company's customers, its
vendors, its competitors and its employees. Talk to the investment bankers who provide the
cash and the credit. Each of them will give you a different perspective on the business,
but all of them have skin in the game. Their assessments matter because their own futures
hinge on the company's success -- and the company's success hinges on them.
Next, search the professional and business media for
information. Talk to reporters who write about the organization. You'll quickly identify
the trends, and you'll develop questions to ask management.
Most important, talk to the customers and the employees.
When a reputation breaks, these are the people who know it first. Review the questions in
this article with them. (Be diplomatic and discreet, but be firm.) You'll learn a great
Perhaps more than anything else, a good reputation gets a
company through the hard times, past the mistakes, and positions it to survive the
vicissitudes of life in the business world. A company's reputation may vary depending on
who you're talking to. That's why you need lots of data points before you can conclude
that this is a place you'd want to be associated with.
Inside the onion: people, products
You can try to evaluate an offer and guess at the value of
your future in dollars, but ultimately even the dollars depend on the people, the products
and the reputation to which you bind yourself. That's what you must peel the offer down
Perhaps the most important thought I can leave you with
is this: while a job offer spells out the bucks, the three decision factors we've reviewed
here are never laid out for you. You must assess them for yourself, and it's no easy task.
Putting an employer under this kind of scrutiny takes a lot of thought, research and time
spent talking with the people who will impact your future.
But, once you've got the information you need, you'll be
able to put the compensation, the benefits and the learning experience into perspective
when evaluating your offers and counteroffers.
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