Go to Menu 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.

Onion skins
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 first year?

So, how do you evaluate your offers and make the best decision?

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 work?
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:

  1. its people,
  2. its product, and
  3. 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 good people.
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 warranted.)

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.

What happened?

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 exciting work?

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 about them.

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 poor product?

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 year.

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 more work.

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 industry?

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 offer.

3. Make sure the company has a good reputation.
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 deal.

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 and reputation
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 to.

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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