After all the effort you've already put into your job search, it's tough to consider doing more work when a job offer lands in your lap. The search process is no piece of cake, and when, after months of labor, you finally have a live one on the line, what you really want to do is celebrate. Taking a step back and saying "Hey, wait another minute here" just isn't something you're likely to feel like doing.
But there are some very good reasons why you may want to do just that.
Last month, I covered due-diligence issues related to your fit into the job and the match with your new manager. That relationship--between you and the prospective boss--requires more than casual introspection. You may want to put on your PI hat (that's private, not principal, investigator) and use your research skills to hypothesize whether that relationship is likely to flourish--or crash and burn.
Just as important as the fit with your boss are issues of company culture--specifically, whether the company culture fits you. And in addition to knowing something about your cultural fit, you need to feel comfortable that the business aligns with your goals.
Company culture--The personality of an employer
When I use the term "company culture," I am referring to something like a corporate personality. A company is not a person of course, but it's a helpful metaphor. Because taking a job is a marriage of sorts, the question you'll need to ask is "Can I see myself married to this kind of environment?" You certainly wouldn't want to ask someone to marry you if you weren't already certain of his or her personality. Same with a company! These days, very few people spend their whole careers with the same company, but the relationship goes on a lot longer than the job does, as you'll see below.
I have been burned by this myself. Early in my career, I had two short stays due to lousy cultural fit. Interviewers continued to ask me why I left those jobs for 8 or 10 years afterward. Companies think your poor choice of employers says something about your decision-making and analysis skills. They may be right; my career-related decision-making skills improved as a result of my experience, but I had to learn the hard way.
Here's what happened. I joined a company right out of college that took me promptly up the career ladder to the senior-manager level, but my progress stopped at that point. The company seemed to practice "reverse age discrimination." The CEO believed that a director or VP in his organization should be someone "with a few gray hairs in the business," as he would often say. Partly to spite that CEO, I took the first job I was offered with a VP title. And, wow, was it a disaster.
Except for that issue with the age discrimination, the culture of the company I left was just right for me. It was a dynamic, fast-moving division of a hot Japanese firm with a great reputation. The emphasis was on action, getting it done, and speeding new products to market. It was a place where you'd go in early in the morning, and perhaps even eat dinner at your desk, because you loved the company and wanted to be there and not, as often happens, to impress someone with your diligence. The company I joined, however, was a laid-back, quiet place, where you'd get locked in--literally--if you stayed past 5:30, and where you'd hear Mozart and Beethoven in the hallways instead of the local rock station we listened to at my first employer. I stayed about 6 months before the CEO pulled me aside and told me "This isn't working out."
I consider myself a very insightful guy on a job interview. I usually have my eyes and ears open. But, although there were signs that the new workplace wasn't my kind of place, they didn't make it past the filter I had thrown up around the VP-level job offer I wanted so much.
What to look for in a company's personality
Oddly, most people take more time considering the personality of a prospective pet than they do evaluating a potential employer. Every company has a different kind of environment. No two are the same.
"The first company I worked in had a very tough work ethic, but that wasn't a problem for me. What they offered in other ways more than made up for it," says one VP of business development who started his career in the brewery business. "Because it was a brewery, they actually had fresh, cold draft beer in the break room, and a manager could take his or her team in for a little attitude adjustment any time they wanted. In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't the most healthy environment, but it was fun and we worked hard." Like my first employer, the culture encouraged this sense of fun, which was what was right for him--and for me--at the time.
There's very little you'll be able to discover about company culture by searching the Internet. Instead, you need to use your eyes and ears--especially during your on-site interview, when spotting clues is easiest.
Here are some visible examples of company culture you can detect during a company visit:
Notice the faces of people you see--not the ones you are interviewing with but others you find in hallways and labs. Do they seem happy? You know what a happy lab looks like from your grad school or postdoc experience. How much stress do you perceive in the faces of those you see?
Office space says something about the culture. Do people have pictures and personal items on display at their lab bench or desk? Or, is the scene rather stark and cold?
What did the HR department show you on your tour of the company? Do they have an employee workout room or a really nice break area? How about child-care facilities? On-site childcare is a nice perk, and you'd think that a company that offers something like this is really focused on the needs of its employees. But sometimes it's a token benefit, a recruiting tool, so take time to confirm your initial impressions.
You can learn a lot from the company break room. Are there notices about the company softball team, bowling league, yoga classes, or anything that seems to indicate that these employees have a life as well as work? Don't expect draft beer, however. That's rare.
How are people dressed? Would you feel comfortable in that environment?
Successful companies can have entirely different personalities. At one company I know well, it seems to be "casual day" every day, and people there strike up meetings in nooks and crannies off hallways or in the large, open library. Another company has a formal, buttoned-down look, with meetings held only in wood-paneled executive offices. It's like the difference between Birkenstock sandals and a Brooks Brothers suit.
The company's business--and how you fit in (or don't!)
Another key aspect of due diligence--one that needs close inspection on interview day--is whether the company's business fits your goals. Dick Woodward, a frequent poster on the AAAS Science Careers Discussion Forum and an industry executive with more than 3 decades of experience, told me in a recent interview that in order to know how you feel about this one you'll really need to do some introspection. "That old axiom, 'Know thyself,' really applies here," said Woodward, who advises job candidates to think through the question of where the company is going and whether the job is important to the company's central theme.
A mentor of mine once put it to me this way: "Companies play favorites. You're either one of the favored few, or you're an orphan stepchild, all depending upon where in the company you work." Your job at the interview is to find out where it is that your job fits into this pecking order, which is usually determined by the percentage of company profits that comes from that business unit.
To learn about your business unit's role in the organization and its plans, you need to ask questions you may not be comfortable asking. But, says Woodward, this isn't as hard as it sounds.
"Whether the company is large or small, they are going to know where they are headed in the next few years, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking them to talk to you or even provide some concrete evidence about the future," says Woodward. So it isn't just you who gets that old interview standard "Where do you want to be in 5 years?" Ask them the same question.
If you are interviewing at a major corporation, asking about the business unit you'll be in makes a lot of sense--but not to the point of requesting a business plan. On the other hand, if you are being asked to join a start-up company, to be one of those first dozen-or-so employees, walk away if they refuse to share specifics. Although you won't always get a full business plan, sometimes a five- or six-page "executive brief" is a workable alternative.
The art of asking questions
Your tour of the facility will tell you a lot about the company, but if you play your cards right, you can learn even more from the interview and other personal interactions. The key is to have a list of penetrating questions and to ask them in a probing way.
Talk to as many people as you can find who work at or who have left the organization. Is the environment ultracompetitive? Too political? Are employees focused on getting the job done or on getting ahead in the organization? Is there a well-defined sense of common purpose? Use every reasonable, nonoffensive means to locate these individuals. (By "reasonable, nonoffensive" I mean call friends, and friends of friends, but don't break into the human resources office after hours to steal a list of people who recently quit.)
Make your questions palatable. "Is this really a good place to work?" sounds too negative. "Would you recommend that your best friend apply for a job here?" might work a little better.
Ask the "difficult" question after you've asked your interviewer a string of very positive, upbeat questions.
Rule #1 of due diligence
If there is any best point upon which to close my "due diligence" series, it's this: Don't delude yourself. In my own situation, I ignored signs that, if I had acknowledged them, would have saved me a lot of professional pain.
Dick Woodward says the same thing has happened to him. "Don't delude yourself into thinking that you can overcome the obstacles posed by some glaring cultural issue, or that you can make a difference in a business plan that just doesn't sound all that doable. If it smells funny, and it looks funny, try to avoid stepping in it."