Discussion: April 27, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

When I’m in a job interview I figure I get very limited time to figure out whether this is a company I really want to work for. (Even if they decide to make me an offer!) So here’s what I’m trying to figure out how to say. What can I say or ask that will give me the best idea of whether a company is going to be a good place to work?

Hey, I know this one with my eyes closed… And I’ll share my suggestion after the rest of you post your ideas. How do I know this is a good company to work for?

How do you say that?


  1. Sounds to me like the problem is that you haven’t checked out the company ahead of time, and are relying strictly on the interview itself to learn about the company. In my opinion, don’t believe the propaganda that will flow from your interviewer about how good the company is. In most cases, they wouldn’t be interviewing you if they weren’t looking to hire someone, and have no intentions of chasing you off.

    Interesting, but in the last interview I went on, I chased myself off. Or perhaps I should say I chased the company off. It was the classic respond to a job ad, wait six weeks (literally, I’d forgotten I applied) to even get a phone call, interview with the nice HR lady for a technical position, yada yada. I got into the live interview and decided to be honest – that I probably wasn’t going to be the guy who would come in and stay five years. In fact, I went so far as to imply that I might not want the job. Needless to say, I got no call back for a second interview, and I lost no sleep over it.

    Some companies (probably including the one I interviewed with above) seem to act like the job they’re interviewing you for is the prize. Wrong answer. If you’re good at what you do, and the company really is a good place to work, then you’re each others’ prize. And waiting until you’re in the interview with limited time, and only listening to the propaganda you’re fed there, is not the time to figure out whether it’s a good company to work for. Do your research ahead of time. Find people who have quit from there and ask them why. Google the term “X Company sucks” and see what comes up (though use judgment to evaluate claims – some people can never be happy, so would not be a good source). As Nick says about how to really job hunt – talk to vendors, suppliers, etc.

  2. You need to know ahead of time whether it is a company for which you want to work.

  3. Good points. Nevertheless ask the hiring manager the question anyway, to get the propaganda & if he/she even has an answer. Match that to what you’ve research. and as noted above take that research with a grain of salt, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. It may be a snake pit, but if you’ve a thing for snakes and your sources don’t the dots don’t connect.
    When I hired people I did a couple of things to give a person some reality. their time permitting, I offered time with people who worked for me. that could be to chat with them, to shadow them on the job to see what a work day may be like, and/or invite them to sit in on one of our working meetings.
    I knew my inclination to be visionary & I wanted interest in it, but that didn’t tell them what it was really like to work there. So I balanced it with the real world.
    This took awhile, and may not have all happened on one visit unless they flew in, but It always worked out for everyone.
    So in sum: Ask this. Can i talk to some of your folks? Can I sit in on a meeting? And see what the reaction is. That will give you a big clue

  4. @Jim, I was recommened to a job by a friend. We had talked for a long time about the company. I had gone on multiple interviews and during the interviews I learned their business model and was able to convince them I’d help them solve some problems. When I got there I did solve those problems very well.

    It turned out after a few months that I didn’t fit their model and they didn’t fit mine.

  5. First of all, you should have a sense of the answer before agreeing to an interview by seeking out employees, former employees, clients, suppliers and public information about the company.

    The pithy question I have for job seekers to use in an interview is:

    What sort of person excels here? Can you describe the employee that gets noticed, appreciated and promoted at this company?

    The answer tells you a great deal about the company culture and whether you’re a match with it.

    And the pithy question for managers to use when checking references is:

    Is there anything it would be helpful for me to know so I can help excel in this job?

    And I agree, there’s no substitute for spending time with your future peers, assuming you accept an offer.

  6. Here are some ways that might work:

    Find connections on Linkedin (even 2nd or 3rd level)who used to work at the company and ask them why they left. Find connections who work at the company and ask them how they like working at the company.

    Check out the company on glassdoor.com

    During the interview, ask some questions:

    The standard question about why the opening exists. For vacancies, ask why the previous employee left.

    Ask about what the hiring manager feels are the largest challenges and problem areas facing their company and their department.

  7. Thanks, Bob. I couldn’t tell from the question as Nick posted it that you’d checked them out ahead of time.

    In light of the information you provided, it’s quite possible that your position, department and/or the company itself could have gone downhill during your time there. I’ve had a few positions that changed from bad (or horrible) at first to really good (left due to relocation or low pay), or that started really well only to go down the toilet after a while (usually due to management changes). So even if a place is good to work when you interview or start working there, no guarantees it will stay that way.

    On my Facebook account, all of my “friends” are former co-workers at my last company. And every one of us is really, really glad not to be working there anymore. That’s one of the companies that started out going quite well, then due to senior management changes, went downhill in a big hurry. Fortunately I got out on my own terms, some of my friends weren’t so lucky.

  8. What makes a place a “good place” to work? This is a key point that I fear may be lost on most people looking at the question. What I may like in a workplace is possibly quite different than what my cubemate wants and that’s OK. Do you want to pour your heart and soul into what the company does and feel you are living a great purpose every day you come into the office? Do you want to put your strengths to use on a regular basis? There are tons of other questions that one can ask to help decide what that good place to work looks like so consider the following few points:

    * Am I going to be working alone or with others most of the time?
    * Am I going to be following detailed instructions or am I expected to discover what I need to do to get the job done?
    * How big is the team I would be joining?
    * How mature are your processes?

    Some of these questions aren’t easy to answer without having someone in the company be able to answer them so it isn’t always a matter of doing tons of research before the interview, but it is useful to know what questions you want to ask to determine what kind of workflow does the company have.

    In my field, it isn’t that hard to ask the question of, “What does the typical developer do in a day here?” and if they want more specific details I can provide that as I have worked in companies where the processes were quite formalized to amazingly informal.

  9. Much of the question is all about “here” and “place” Putting aside implications of working some place your whole career life,not too likely these days; your 1st consideration is THE place inside the company you will be working. Ideally, your networking and research will drill down to the hiring manager or managers manager which may be daunting.
    That is you may find a company that has a reputation as a good place to work, and your research may back that up…that’s the forest. It’s a nice forest. But some of the trees could be blighted or rotten. Finding out about large corporations is helpful but not that helpful. You need to find out if the department you will work in, inside that great company, your playpen is a nice place to work. And you can’t assume that it will be because the company has a good rep..if the manager is toxic or something is changing to the negative. hence the value and importance of the aforementioned advice on networking etc. And keep in mind that the mystery of corporate life offers the converse. You may find a very nice place to work inside a rotten company. Because the manager is so good he/she makes an effort to make it so. It’s their jungle and they know how to work the system for their team’s benefit.
    And as Jim pointed out, things happen things change, good erodes, and bad improves.
    What counts is if you can you gain value from the connection while it lasts even if you have to overcome some character building obstacles.
    You, the prospective new hire, faces the same risk as the hiring manager, you’re both dealing with an unknown, which in spite of exhaustive research, interviewing, assessments, offers no absolute risk free guranantee.

  10. When I was actively interviewing, (and now advise clients to do the same), I always asked for several current employee references that I could talk to regarding their experience with the company. I even had the chance to shadow a sales rep for a few hours when I was in outside sales to get a feel for the position (which I ended up declining).

    I have always found this extremely valuable, and have been amazed at the frankness of the employees. I’ve never had a company resist the request, and this along with all the opportunities to meet prospective coworkers through my various networks gave me a well-rounded view of the prospective employer.

  11. Check out Glassdoor.com. It allows employees to critique their employers and/or post salaries. Glassdoor requires some level of contribution from users (i.e. expect to need to write a review of your past/present employer), but is well worth the time. The information is relatively credible and useful.

  12. I had someone I hired tell me they had 3 offers of which ours was one. I asked why he had chosen our company. He said, “Because when I was walked around the building, I noticed everyone was smiling.” I agree with the suggestion to see if you can attend a meeting, meet co-workers, etc. I wonder how many companies would allow it.

  13. I recently went on an interview for which I had done research. My network, all of whom have lived here for over 30 years (I’ve been here barely 10) said, “Oh! THAT company! They are great, highly regarded…but very private, low key.” And the Director who called me laughed and told me I wouldn’t be able to find out anything about them on the web: challenge! I had a week, so found out TONS of information, from the family history to salaries to how the company was started in 1916 and why it moved in 1951 and that it has ~38 LLCs. Yes, they were surprised. But, because I felt like I knew so much about the company, I didn’t ask the probing questions I usually ask, i.e. the ones mentioned above by others. Who cares about that other stuff, when I did’t use it??? Didn’t tell me anything about where I would be working on a daily basis. I should have used it as basis for those probing questions. And the interviewer went thru my resume line by line until he looked at his watch and stood up: “Please call us tomorrow if you have any questions.” It was the most awkward interview I have ever been on. I blew that interview, ME, because I did not take control, as Nick preaches. And because I did NOT ask the questions, I don’t know if I would have liked working there, research or not. Obvioulsy, I wasn’t a “fit.” NEXT. Gotta keep moving.

    What did Nick say? I didn’t see his response.

  14. @Tina: Thanks for bringing us back around… My suggestion works best if the interview gets to the point where the employer actually seems interested in you. That gives you some leverage. And that’s when you ask to meet some other members of the team, either “today” or on a follow-up meeting. You can even offer to come back just to meet them – not to do another formal interview.

    More important is meeting people upstream and downstream from the job you’re interviewing for. People who will take the work you did and add something to it. And people whose work you pick up and continue. What’s the finance department like? How about manufacturing? Customer service?

    In other words, how will other departments affect the quality of your own work? You might do a great job, but if others are bungling their part, your job winds up dead.

    Ask to meet those folks. Especially after you’ve been given an offer. That’s when you have the most leverage.