How can you figure out whether a company is a Mickey Mouse operation before you start working there? A reader wants to know, in the November 17, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


Mickey Mouse operationOnce I determine that I can “do the work” for the prospective employer, and that I really do want the job, how do I find out if it is a Mickey Mouse operation? In my experience, it requires being an insider and six months’ time to determine that. Are there any ways to figure it out in advance? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it!” So it is with job offers — you might get one without knowing the truth about the company until it’s too late.

What is a Mickey Mouse operation?

“Mickey Mouse” means different things to different people. To me, it describes any poorly organized and managed company. To you, it might mean something very specific. For example, a company that’s successful but makes mediocre products, or one that has high employee turnover.

Whatever the problem is, it’s not unusual for job hunters to suddenly find themselves with an offer in hand, wondering why the heck they went after a questionable company. We sometimes pursue opportunities for no other reason than because they’re there, or because we are invited and we are too flattered to refuse.

Judge first, then apply

This is why I advise doing all the tough research before you apply to a company. This is why — contrary to conventional wisdom — it’s imprudent to pursue dozens of companies at a time. It’s also why I advise pursuing companies, not jobs. You need to know in advance whether the company is worth working for, and exactly why you’re talking to them about a particular job. That takes considerable effort and it requires making prudent choices about where to invest your time.

Don’t wait until an offer is made. Judge a company before you even apply for a job. I think you will find that a surprising number of employers will not withstand simple scrutiny. If they do, keep judging through the interview process.

Use the interview to vet the company

For more tips on how to judge an employer before and after a job interview, please see “How to pick worthy companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention. This PDF guide includes an expanded version of this Q&A column.

Can’t find information about a company because it’s not public? The guide also includes “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies.”

Of course, you can’t learn all you need to know through advance research. You must continue to ask the tough questions during the interview. Make sure the answers sit comfortably with you. While I agree that there are things you will learn only after months on the job, there’s a lot you can do to vet a company in advance.

Before the interview, cover these bases:

  • Start at the top. Research the industry the company is in. Is it sound? Are its prospects good?
  • Study the industry press and watchdog organizations. Do they demonstrate respect for this company? How do they portray the company’s status in the industry?

In the interview, don’t miss these points:

  • What does the company need to do to meet its goals? How does your job fit?
  • Who are the people in other departments who will affect your ability to do your job successfully? Meet them. Look for facilitators and debilitators.

After you have an offer, schedule a follow-up meeting before you accept:

  • Confirm the authority you’ll have in your job. People often confuse authority and responsibility. Some companies demand results without giving employees enough control and discretion over their work.
  • Get a close look at the entire written benefits package, company policies and employee handbook. Some companies are funny about divulging these critical documents, but you have a right to see them before you accept a job. The quality of a company is usually revealed in how it treats employees.

Avoid Mickey Mouse operations

Good companies comprise good people. The managers and employees you meet should be above board, honest and willing to candidly discuss issues that are important to a new recruit. Don’t be unreasonable or rude, but don’t settle for less than full disclosure.

If anyone is put off by your diplomatic inquiries about the company, the people, and the job, then look elsewhere because you probably won’t be happy working for Mickey Mouse.

What does “Mickey Mouse operation” mean to you? What do you look for when judging an employer? If you’ve made a mistake about a company you joined, what do you wish you had asked or looked for before you accepted the job?

: :

  1. You can get a very good idea of a company’s culture during the recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding process. If they’re timely, respectful, and reliable, it’s a good indicator. If they’re hard-to-reach, flakey, and unorganized, it’s likely the culture reflects these traits also. I’ve seen both types of examples early in the process and the foreshadowing is very real. They’re telling you a lot if you pay close attention.

    • @Bob: My most difficult chore is convincing job candidates to not discount those signals. When we really, really want something (like a job offer and approval) we tend to ignore incoming information that conflicts with our desires.

  2. One thing I’ve learned over the years is to pay attention to how well the people interviewing you are themselves prepared for the interview.

    If you’re handed a schedule/agenda with a list of names/positions and times, and those people come to the room having at least read your resume, that’s a plus. Look for them to talk about how they interact with the position you’re interviewing for.

    If someone walks in, asks who you are, and seems to be unaware of you or the position, that’s a red flag.

    Also, they’re rare these days, but if there is a receptionist, politely chat with the person if they’re not busy while you wait for the interview. You can learn a ton about the culture from what they say.

    • @Chris: Some great suggestions, especially about how prepared (or not) the interviewer is. Keep in mind — they’re going to recommend or reject you. If they’re not prepared, how will that affect you?

      If you go along with the interviewer who’s faking it, your chances of an offer are almost zero. Or, you can politely call the interviewer on it and reschedule the meeting. I think that boosts your chances if the employer has any integrity at all.

      And I always talk with receptionists when they exist. “What do you like the most about working here?” seems innocuous. It’s not just how they answer but whether they hesitate. Take what you learn with a grain of salt, but it’s one more bit of data.

      • A couple of times I went to an interview and when I arrived I told the receptionist, “I have an interview with John Smith” (not the real name). Both of those times fear crossed the receptionist faces as they made a backing motion out of fear. I didn’t get those jobs, but seeing fear in a receptionist’s face is enough to tell me why I didn’t want the job.

    • And we should also remember that smart companies will also solicit the receptionist’s view of the candidates.

    • I have a litmus test I’ve developed over time. I call it the “receptionist” test. The receptionist is the face of a company, and often the first face you see. If the receptionist is rude, dour, combative, or dismissive that’s now my key to walk out, no questions asked.

  3. “A” firms hire “A” staff. They know what they want and the firm’s reputation precedes them. “B” firms hire “B” and “C” staff. “B” firms are concerned about skills and costs. You will find that “B” firms have staff that are less skilled than the management at their jobs. “C” firms hire on staff cost first, skills second. Management seems confused about what they need and tend to hire too many contractors. Contractors are fine but they should not be doing permanent jobs. “C” firms are the “Mickey Mouse” firms and should be avoided unless you are a contractor. Most people work at “B” firms and sometimes have the misfortune to work at a “C” firm. “C” firms also have high (>10%) employee turnover.

  4. Also don’t overlook the venture funding organizations bankrolling them. Are they mickey mouse? I worked for a well managed firm with 2 successful products that was broken up and product IP sold off as a result of a “capital call” by the venture organization.

  5. I would vet out the degree of Mickey Mouse operations using the conscious / competent model. If you discover in the interview process the people are unconsciously incompetent… thank them and run for the door.

    • @Paul: “unconsciously incompetent” — that’s a good one! Worse: arrogant incompetence. They’re convinced they’re the best.

  6. I worked at a place that taught me all that glitters is not gold. The interviewers were my potential boss and her boss. They both bragged about how many employees had been there for a long time and how much the interviewers loved their jobs and how the employees were all family. One told me she’d been there 16 years, the other said 12 years, and the CEO had been there 25 years as CEO. I thought this meant they treated employees well. By the time I was in this job for a year, I had realized it was a Mickey Mouse operation because so many of the employees got hired on and never moved up or forward and stayed unhappily stuck in their old skills and poor performance. And people hated their jobs and hated the management! The good employees tended to do their time and then move on to a better job. How a company treats the receptionist or front desk people is a huge tip off. Most receptionists won’t tell interviewers the truth of an organization because they don’t want to get fired but you can watch how their job is going. How much stress are they under with phone calls, people coming in, how the other staff talks to them. Does the front desk person seem relaxed or frazzled while putting on a smile because that is what is expected of them?

  7. On my 50th birthday 5 years ago, we went to Disneyland to celebrate. Have any of you ever been to Disneyland on your birthday? I got to wear a special button saying it was my birthday with Disney cast members (as they call their workers in the park) wishing me Happy Birthday. We also got our picture with Mickey Mouse!

    I don’t know what they are like to work for, but I do know that my customer experience shows that this original “Mickey Mouse Operation” is truly at the top of their game.

    So what is it like to work for Disney?

    Needless to say, I well remember a fun day where I felt young again, and at 55 I still feel youthful but with enough maturity to appreciate it.

  8. This is dated information, but back in the ’90s I had a friend who worked IT for Disney in Burbank. At the time, even back office people like him were considered cast members, and he had to shave his beard for the job.

    My belief is that working at the park requires a certain temperament (the classic “fit”). The husband of a former coworker worked at one of the shops on Main St., and was happy to be cheerful and get along with everyone.

    I don’t know that Disney would find *me* a good employee though. At my last job, I spent ten years working for a boss whose method was “delegate and then hold accountable for results”. Since I could be described as active and independent, this worked out well. Over the years I took on more responsibility, and he knew how things were being handled without being distracted from what he wanted to focus on. But after he retired, I was working directly for the owner, who in meetings would say things like “So what’s wrong with micromanagement?” It turns out I wasn’t so good an employee for him.

  9. Nick,

    Interesting observations from Kevin and Timothy. Disney is known for their innovation in both art and science, yet they get saddled with “Mickey Mouse operation” as a derogatory label. Strange, yes?

    As far as a Mickey Mouse operation, I define it as one that is poorly managed and populated by employees who either don’t take their jobs seriously or are incapable of performing at the levels needed to excel.

    If the position you are interviewing for includes managing others, you MUST meet them. Definitely as a group, and hopefully individually for at least 15 minutes or so. This obviously applies only to direct reports, not an entire department or unit if you are senior management. If you are to be on a team, you should meet the other members. See if you can have lunch with them – in the company cafeteria if that’s possible.

    I’ve found that once you’ve had a few jobs (somewhere in the 12-15 years of experience range) you can tell a lot about a company by the facilities tour you will invariably be given. Are the employees engaged? Are the various work areas clean and uncluttered? Do people look at you like caged animals? There are plenty of signs if you are observant.

    A couple anecdotes from my decades of interviews. During the facilities tour of one company, the manager (who was showing me around) berated a couple employees right there in front of me. Thank you! Now I know not to accept THIS job. In one interview, I started with the usual HR synopsis of benefits and policies. Then the HR person started asking me detailed questions about the job, which was for an Electrical Engineering position. After being puzzled for a bit, I realized I wasn’t going to meet my manager. Someone without the faintest clue of my profession was going to judge me on my technical abilities. Thank you! Now I know not to accept THIS job. Finally, I was interviewing for a position in Southern California which manufactured their product in Mexico. I was told that I wouldn’t need to go over the border for my daily activities. “What about new product introduction?,” I asked. “Oh well, you’d have to go down a few times a week. But we’d get you a driver, and they would go a different way each time.” Thank you! Now I know not to accept THIS job.

    As always, great advice from Nick and the readers.

    • @Larry B: I find that the same HR managers that warn applicants to “never contact our managers” are the ones that decline requests to meet the team before you have to deal with a job offer. They imply you want too much info. Meanwhile, they want to know your salaries at your last 5 jobs.

  10. I’m a big believer in a point. This may be oversimplified, But I think the best companies I’ve worked for had an effective balance between product(or service) & process. Product/service = What the company does = results, and process = How you do it & why.

    Good balance is where the tipping point lives. I think Mickey Mouse means is when a company puts process over product, Over managing, over analyzing. over communicating which throws so much noise at the “doers” a company bogs down driving people who want to work…nuts & away. Mickey Mouse companies are those who’ve fallen into the bad habits of doing things that not only don’t produce results or hobble the people who do.

    As Nick says, offer time is late to think about this…you should have already targeted companies based on some idea that they aren’t Mickey Mice. Better late than never. so you interview them. And network to
    former employees. I think you’ll find a # of people who left for the simple reason they couldn’t practice their craft as they hoped to.

    For example, invisible to you until you make it visible, HR loves to impose hiring rules…e.g “must have a degree in XXX. That’s process overhead. It shrinks the hiring pool and inhibits a hiring manager’s recruiting & hiring decisions. HR does this in the face of a lot of industrial experience where non-degreed people found very successful companies, and where inside those companies non degreed people produce revenue generating ideas. Nor have I seen any information that proves degrees are the root of revenue. This is a red flag because there will also be rules governing promotions & compensation that can get in your way or even your bosses way.

    For example as others have noted, the interview process. I’ve worked at times in places & heard of others where HR has produced a point by point process for an interview, questions, interview team # and roles, that MUST be followed. If an interview strikes you as Mickey Mouse, consuming time, throwing meaningless noise at you, by uninspired interviewers, that’s Mickey Mouse stuff that adds little value. You have a big clue that what you do for a living likely is awash with policies and procedures & your personal growth may be slow.

    For example spend some time understanding their product line or services and how they rank in same. A big clue is time to market. How frequent are their offerings? Are they a leader or follower?

    What’s their customer support process? Do they handle it themselves or use 3rd parties?

    Slower product release cycles is a red flag. It could mean they shoot themselves in the foot with too much process and it slows down development. Bad quality or service indicates not enough process and hanging out with them will rub off on you.

    Also take note. If you stick with a company for a long term, you’ll end up working for several companies without changing your desk. They change. Startups aren’t Micky Mouse..They don’t need no freakin process. They employ brute force. But if they live, they mature and develop some process for effectiveness and stability…but unfortunately they can Mouseize..and one day you’ll notice yourself hobbled by rules for the sake of having rules.

    Again I’m not against process. A good process helps doers by capturing past successful ways of doing things that eliminate reinventing the wheel, head off time wasting errors, support development or purchase of tools. They save YOU time, and allow you to focus on new things. A good process also contains within an escape option if it’s counterproductive bypass no value stuff that’s Mickey Mouse for a particular project. For example don’t impose 6 weeks of process on developing an app that takes 4 weeks.

    I know of one company that was a barn burner. Founded an industry, Hard charger, that drifted so far into burdening processes, insiders referred to it as infected with analysis paralysis. Slowed things down right at the core ..project approvals with so many multiple fingers and signoffs in the pie, they couldn’t even get started while their competition was moving fast getting product out the door (they got acquired)

    • @Don: Wonderful commentary on what “Mickey Mouse” might mean in a company! Also about how to view and judge a company’s processes before you sign on.

  11. I’m reading Phil Town’s “Rule #1,” about Buffet-style investing, and Ray Dalio’s “Principles.”
    Phil Town talks about only investing in companies where you find that Meaning, Moat, Management, and Margin of Safety are all to your liking. In reading this thread, it has come to the top of my mind again that we should all treat our job hunts exactly like investing. We should perform the same due diligence that a major investor would regarding the company. And why not? You are going to _invest_ nearly everything important about yourself in the job.
    One of the things that Dalio talks about is that he and his colleagues worked out, “how they are going to be with each other.” One of the principles he talks about is that he only wants to work with people who respect each other, but don’t pander, who challenge each other’s ideas with the goal of improving them, not denigrating them. He set up his company in such a way that people who work there soon realize they would never go back to normal corporate America. They do work they care about with people they like to work with. They may not be buds outside of work, but they don’t dread the workday, because they know they have already laid the groundwork to be honest with each other should any kind of conflict come up, and the goal of every work interaction really is to the benefit of the company – the company THEY work for, so it’s really for their own benefit.
    Does it sound idealistic? I guess, but Dalio’s point is – Why settle for less? Even the process of trying to make such relationships come about improves you as a person and gets you closer to finding other people who want the same things.
    Larry B wrote that over time, you will be able to see which companies are not worth working at. The other side of that is true as well: You should be constantly learning from your experiences at work to tell which companies you DO want to work at.

    • @Michael: “we should all treat our job hunts exactly like investing. We should perform the same due diligence that a major investor would regarding the company.”

      This reminds me of investing expert Philip Fisher’s discussion about how to ferret out information about private companies — he calls it “scuttlebutt.”

      I’ve often recommended it as a way for job seekers to get info they need when assessing an employer. It really is all about investing!

      “Why settle for less?”

      Indeed! Life is short! That’s not just a job — it’s how you’ll be spending most of your time!

      My editor at Penguin takes another view: Job hunting is like dating when your goal is to find the right mate. Both are correct.

  12. My un-researched theory as to why “Mickey Mouse” is perjorative when applied to something that’s supposed to operate reliably:

    Maybe it dates back to the Mickey Mouse watch, as distinct from more established brands, being cheap and common, not necessarily the highest precision, favored by children rather than adults, and with a facade that has nothing to do with function.

    • I did have that watch as a seven-year-old in a different school environment where it was a bit scary for me at that time. The cost might have been low-priced for a child who can quickly lose an item in school sports or whatever event happened. Smart parents know this.

      I look at Mickey Mouse as being an over-animated character who talked in an excitable voice. Like millions of children, I watched the Mickey and Minnie acts on TV; unlike other children, I had difficulty understanding their lips (animated?!), although I did hear the voice at times, but not the words. That said, I tend to judge a company on how well it handles a crisis or veers off the process, where behaviors are so Mickeyish, which makes me shake my head at the management.

    • My limited research on what “Mickey Mouse” refers to suggests it originally had something to do with the cheap, cheesy music in the cartoons. FWIW.

  13. All these responses seem to only touch on the surface and depends on intuitive reads…

    Check with:

    Supplier Quality: How often are they experiencing product returns?

    Customer Service: How often are they getting complaints by phone?

    Shipping: How often do they have to reship product?

    Check with Regulatory: How often are they experiencing product recall?

    …and so on.

    Oh, right- you will need someone experienced in social engineering to get this information.


  14. While I agree that talking to current employees proves insightful, I also like reading online reviews to get a sense if a company is Mickey Mouse-ish or not. I know these reviews aren’t always reliable and may be skewed, but they have proven to be invaluable when changing jobs or careers. I look particularly at glowing shills done within days of each other, as well as 1’s and 2’s urging candidates to run away. I have been in the workforce for 27 years and have worked in five industries in different capacities. Some companies have been great, some mediocre, and others plain clusters. I have gained a lot of insight through the years, but sometimes everything is impressive during the interview, tour, and even meeting fellow team members, then only manifests itself later after “signing on the dotted line”.

    At one company where I interviewed for a job that I was only semi-interested in doing, the hiring manager described the company as wonderfully odd. I had previously worked in more structured companies that were more-or-less well-run, so this comment struck me as rather strange. After starting, it turns out my manager who seemed nice, was in actuality quite flaky, a poor communicator, unorganized, did little to develop my career, and listened to the wrong people in how things should be done. He was also a huge procrastinator and often scheduled meetings with only a few minutes warning. It was very frustrating, especially since I am someone who likes things to be resolved and he was constantly in process mode for creative “ideas” he had. Also, one younger coworker who I had the misfortune to work with, had the department director’s ear and whatever she said was taken at face value. She was the most challenging coworker I’ve ever been stuck with and almost everyone on the team didn’t like her. I was utterly miserable. The company is pretty cool to work for, but my experience not so much. I eventually found another job within my career ambitions and resigned. The next job was a non-profit that paid a similar amount, was closer to home, and had 75% less stress and drama.

    • Larry, your words resonate with me. I read reviews on employers all the time, and give them more credence than some. I’ve been in industry for 41 years now. My current employer of 8 years is probably the most blatant Mickey Mouse place I’ve worked for. It’s run by a 32 year old kid, and his Billy Bob buddy manager.
      So how does a guy break into non-profit work like you did?

      • Why would you spend 8 years at an employer with such bad working conditions? You seem like someone who knows what he’s talking about – you don’t mince words in your comments. Why don’t you start your own business or non profit? OK, easier said than done – I am currently working on founding a business albeit very slowly – and I have a mentor.

        • I have several irons in the fire for retirement, but that’s 3-1/2 years. I’ve taught part-time for five years and love it, but with a state wide $180 million budget cut for CCs, full-time teaching that I want is in the can. Right now I need out of this clown show yesterday , and for something to hold me over. Hanging out a shingle isn’t for me.

      • Antonio,

        I always hate when management is clueless! I have had a wide array of managers, anywhere from extremely competent and honorable, to mediocre to micromanager/poor leadership. At the job I mentioned above, my two leaders were like “Keystone cops” running around, but accomplishing little. Both were of above average intelligence, but both were not true leaders. Meetings were useless and begat more meetings where items were “tabled” and never resolved. Such a waste of time and very frustrating. But to answer your question, my last job was in healthcare and ended due to Covid budget cuts. I am now in the ranks of the unemployed. As to how I joined a non-profit, I applied and to my surprise, was invited to interview. I don’t know if all non-profit employers are that easy to get into, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

        • Larry, you’re describing my toxic work culture to a tee. I tested positive for the Covid on Friday, November 13, so I’m flat on my back and sicker than a dog. Despite my precautions, a colleague infected me. What’s strange is that my millennial colleagues suddenly become “inept” when I’m out quarantined and nearly on my deathbed, and they can’t seem or want to do their jobs because I’m gone. I’ve been dragged into phone meetings on matters they can handle. I can’t even talk without hacking and gasping for oxygen, and have told them they must put on their big kid pants and do it (I’m not their boss either) because I’m sick with Covid! But it doesn’t phase them that I’m a sick 63 year old man with Covid. I don’t get it, Man. I will start investigating and pursuing some alternatives in the non-profit sector when I get well. I think, as you indicate, just start applying. I have some good years of customer service experience, be they industrial related, but hopefully transferable.

          • Antonio…hang in there! kick Covid’s butt

            • I will, Don Harkness, and when I’m well I’m going to find a new job with a manager like you. Life is too short to be working for bad managers and employers.

          • Antonio,

            I’m sorry to hear that and wish you better health! I’m sure your expertise could be better used elsewhere. If you don’t already have a Linkedin profile, I highly encourage you to set one up. BTW, I like your receptionist litmus test and will remember it the next time I interview. At the job I mentioned before, the front desk receptionist was very nice and later put in a good work for me with the manager.

            At every job I have worked, I like to keep track of all the unusual “firsts” I encounter. Most lists are 1/4 to 1/3 of one page. That particular job was 1.5 pages long with oddities. I never had that happen before.

            • @Antonio
              One of my many lives and/or tasks was to run a facility among a lot of other stuff. The receptionists worked for (plural because after 1st shift a contracted security guard also served as a receptionist)
              so many companies under value them. They are client, customer, applicant, visitor, traveling roadshow executive facing. They ARE the company to many of those.
              Antonio, not only did you run a receptionist test, but it works in reverse. Smart hiring managers check with them to see how they were treated, attitude checks, and general feedback. They aren’t spies but you’d have to be unconscious to not see or hear what comes out of people’s mouths sometimes…
              More than one seemingly good candidates derailed themselves by copping an attitude with receptionists, and/or escorts who picked them up from the lobby

          • @Antonio: Very sorry to hear you’ve got the virus. Take care of yourself and get well.

    • @Larry: We covered fake reviews generated by HR departments on Glassdoor last year:

      Caveat emptor.

      • Thanks Nick! I’m new to ATH, so I appreciate the heads-up!

  15. This is where “knowing the client” becomes useful. I’ve not even bothered to apply at many places because their employee reviews or information about the company painted such a negative picture. In my experience, hiding the client from the person being approached means one of two things:
    1) There is no position and the recruiter is simply trying to phish you for information. There are many things they could be phishing for.
    2) The client has such a terrible history, whether that’s due to regulatory screwups, bad business practices, a reputation as a “meat grinder”, etc. that they know that’s going to scare people off.

    • Darron,

      Very true! I am very wary when I see a position posted several times within 6-9 months. The company might be very picky and/or a horrible place to work for. The candidates probably didn’t do their homework and simply quit in disgust. Thus the cycle continued.