Expert advice for finding the perfect fit — or avoiding the worst boss ever
Wanted: Enthusiastic self-starter to support overbearing megalomaniac. Must enjoy 18-hour workdays, fluorescent lighting and profanity-laced tirades. Does not require respect, recognition or sleep. Zero growth potential.
…said no job listing, ever.
While it’s “enter at your own risk” at some headline-making organizations, warning signs that a prime opportunity may actually be a giant dumpster fire usually don’t line the office walls. But there red flags you can see before signing your offer — if you know where to look. Here’s how to spot them.
Read between the lines in a job posting
Savvy house-hunters know that “charming” apartments are often just glorified closets. Like real estate listings, job descriptions may also be written in code. Experts say that a “demanding work environment” might warn of an unforgiving, workaholic boss; an “involved” or “hands-on” supervisor” could be a micromanaging control-freak. And the question, “are you ‘courageous’ and ‘diplomatic?” might signal that you’re walking into a situation as dramatic as an episode of House of Cards.
The biggest buzzword at the moment, says Noah Schwarz, senior partner at executive search and recruiting firm, Korn Ferry International, is “entrepreneurial.”
“It’s a great word, but it’s being abused in job descriptions because people know it’s attractive to younger workers,” he says. “Sometimes, it can be code for ‘no structure, you’re on your own, fend for yourself.’ It’s a wonderful thing for a lot of people, but you need an infrastructure for learning, especially when you’re just starting out.”
Get the interviewers talking
“One of the things people don’t do enough is say: ‘tell me more,’” says Ellen Walpert, chief talent officer at Boston-based investment management firm, Highfields Capital. “They ask something like, ‘What’s this person like to work with?’ But they stop when they get an answer and miss a huge opportunity to learn more.”
Walpert suggests asking for specific examples of a boss’s management style—a detailed description of a typical project, or an example of how he or she delivered feedback.
Another missed opportunity? Awkward silence. Use it to your advantage, says Walpert. “People are so afraid of empty space in conversation and move on quickly to fill it. If you just give it a minute, they often continue to share, perhaps more than they’d intended.”
Dig deeper into the company
Research doesn’t start and end with a company’s website, says Lisa, a communications manager in Northern Virginia, who once found herself in a toxic job at an insolvent tech startup.
“If I’d looked at their financial statements before I started, I would’ve seen that the CEOs salary was a third of the company’s operating budget—pretty messed up,” she says. “Publicly-traded companies and non-profits have to file financials. Find them.”
Annual reports may not make for great beach-reading, but important clues are often buried in them—about the organization’s profitability and plans for growth, the value it places on diversity and even its commitment to the environment. Many companies feature financial statements on their websites if you dig deep enough, but quick database searches of publicly-traded companies on the SEC’s site and non-profit organizations on GuideStar’s site can also tell you a lot about an employer’s culture.
Ask to see the employee handbook; policies (or the lack thereof) can be a window into culture and leadership. Does the company offer maternity leave or parental leave, for example?“If it’s pure maternity, ok, maybe it’s just outdated. But maybe it’s an indicator that they aren’t as family-friendly as they’d have you believe,” says Margaret, a Massachusetts attorney whose first paralegal gig found her working for a “bloviating bullshitter” who paid his staff in cash and rarely on-time.
Other policies can also be culture signals: How does the company measure and reward performance? How do employees track their time? How rigid or flexible is the company’s vacation policy? Some companies, like Netflix, are known for having unlimited vacation, putting responsibility for good judgment squarely in employees’ hands.
These days, even the style, tone and design of a handbook—like Zappos’ and Valve’s conversational, visual guides—can speak volumes about a potential workplace.
Everybody knows the power of networking, but few actually do it thoroughly enough, experts agree. Work your networks, through social media and IRL. Don’t just ask about the inside scoop on a particular company or boss, but try to really understand their reputations in the industry.
Margaret knows from firsthand regret. “If I could do it again, I’d use my college connections, LinkedIn, anything at my disposal, to find people two or three years ahead of me in the industry who could say, ‘Look: I just passed through that subway station of life. Here’s where all the trash is scattered that you want to avoid.’”
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