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Tooling Up: Employment Due Diligence

Are you familiar with the term "due diligence?" Working with many start-up companies, I hear it a lot. It comes from the financial world, where investors probe a start-up and its people until they assure themselves that the fundamentals are sound and the new company is worth the risk. Ever since the start-up-crazed Internet bubble, the phrase has crept into modern business-speak. Who wants to do boring research or analysis when they could do something as cool-sounding as "due diligence?"

One place you don't hear it all that much--but where the concept is more apt than it is in other areas of business--is in the job search. For the job seeker, due diligence on an employment offer is critical--but so often overlooked! I've never understood why scientists who handle such complicated and detailed projects at the bench suddenly switch gears and make decisions about a job based entirely on emotion.

In the recruiting business, we earn our living connecting people with employers. I've learned that it is much easier to appeal to emotion than to provide all the details someone would need to make a careful, studied decision about whether, and on what terms, to accept a job offer. Maybe I shouldn't rock the boat; I'm only making my job as a recruiter harder. But I'm wearing my advice-columnist hat right now, so it's my job to look out for young job-seeking scientists. I think scientists need to stick to their inner natures and investigate job offers more aggressively.

Here's why: The cost of accepting a dead-end job, or working for a bad boss or an employer that isn't going anywhere, can be enormous. All those opportunities that lie ahead of you can vanish if you make a poor choice.

Analyzing the fit: The four categories of due diligence

In this month's Tooling Up column and its conclusion next month, I will make some suggestions for due diligence in four areas: the job itself, the fit with the prospective boss, the company culture, and the company's business position. Each one of these issues will affect your chances of success in the job. The idea of due diligence is that you want to check these factors out in order to maximize the chances that things will work to your long-term career advantage.

Each of the sections below has some general comments about the category and the best ways to seek the information you need, as well as a short list of questions you can ask to shine more light on the topic.

The job itself

At one of my seminars many years ago, Richard Nelson Bolles joined me as a co-speaker. Bolles is the author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the best-selling career-advice book of all time. After the seminar, Bolles let me pick his brain concerning what he thought scientists should look for when they consider a new job opportunity.

"Making a list of all your highest expectations isn't the way to go," he cautioned. "Most of the time, you won't find those in your job offers, and it can be frustrating." So, according to Bolles, due diligence isn't about finding a position that provides all your "must-haves." Bolles suggests instead that you know yourself: what stimulates you and what drives you right up the wall. Seek out the former and avoid the latter. "Think about what you absolutely hated about your recent work experience," he advises, "and look for the opposite of that in the new job."

For this piece of your due diligence, your answers will come from inside yourself. Although you'll certainly need to have all the facts about the job at hand, asking yourself these questions can be very revealing:

  • Does the job offer the opportunity to utilize your areas of mastery and pick up new skills at the same time? People generally need a mix of both: the chance to use established expertise as well as opportunities to develop new skills. (See an earlier Tooling Up article on this topic, "Finding Bliss in Your Daily Tasks."

  • Will your new job be in a prime area of the company's interests? Or is it a side area for the company, a project that would be peeled off at the first sign of an economic downturn? In today's world of outsourced jobs and "rightsizing," you need to be situated in a part of the company that isn't likely to be cast off.

  • Look around for clues about what would make you happy on the job. Do they have the kind of equipment you need to do your work? Is the space assigned to you sufficient? Does it provide the kind of environment in which you can do your best work? This is the time to think about the minutia of job satisfaction, from natural lighting in the lab and office to the travel support you'll need to attend important meetings.

And, as Bolles suggested, think about what you hate most about your present job, and see if the exact opposite elements are present in the new opportunity.

The new boss

The most dangerous time of your career is your first 6 months working under a new boss. It doesn't matter whether you've just accepted a new job or a new boss has been assigned to your part of the organization. It's a time of unclear expectations, communication preferences, and management styles. It's the number-one time when people get fired or leave because they're unhappy.

This is the most difficult piece of due diligence for most people. It's uncomfortable to ask your new boss about his or her working style, personality, and so on--but it's important. The best place to start is by talking about these subjects during your meeting with him or her. Here are some questions you can ask that prospective future boss to help you figure out whether it's a good fit. Please remember that these questions should be asked only after the company has expressed a firm desire to hire you and you are engaged in what will end up being an offer discussion (in other words, don't blurt out these questions in your first interview):

  • Please tell me about your management style and how you relate to those who work for you? Don't be nervous about asking this question; it is very common for managers to be asked about their management style, and they will have an answer at hand, just as a candidate has an answer ready for "Tell me about yourself." Keep in mind, however, that the manager may have one view while her employees have a different one.

  • How do you set expectations for the work assigned to your staff? Some managers like to give out an assignment and then hear back only when it is completed. Others want a daily or weekly meeting to discuss your progress. And then there are micromanagers, who are all over the project, offering advice and getting in the way. It is a rare manager who admits to this fault, however, so you'll need to learn this from other contacts at the company.

  • Is there someone I can talk with who can tell me what it is like to be a part of your team? Yes, ask the potential boss for a name or two of people in his or her group whom you can talk to. It is always nice to get the name of someone who is at your level, and perhaps even one of the support staff.

Questions to ask the other team members:

  • How would you describe the boss's management style? Listen for differences between the style described by the boss and the style described by the other employees. Sure, the people handpicked by your possible future boss are likely to say nice things, but by perceiving variances and probing further you can gain some useful information. Always be upbeat when talking to someone whose name was given to you by your prospective boss; they're evaluating you, too.

  • What kind of turnover do you have in the department? Have there been many staff departures over the time you have been there? A company with a 10% to 15% annual turnover rate is about the norm these days; any department with a lower rate would probably be a great place to work.

  • Would you provide the name of someone I can call who left your group? You have to be a bit careful with this one, because you don't want to sound like some kind of private detective working on a case. If the question fits into your discussion, ask it. Sometimes just listening for the names of people who have left, and then asking what company they ended up in (while taking good notes) can provide you with the information you need. Later, you can call those who have left the firm and who have absolutely no horse in this race; they can afford to be very open about what it is like to work for Boss X.

It's very costly to make a mistake

I bought a car the other day during the hour or two my old one was in for service. It didn't take long. I got what I felt was an acceptable deal on a car I love and got rid of the problem I had been driving around. I bought my last home in the same manner. And, now that I think about it, I proposed to my wife after knowing her for 2 weeks. That was 30 years ago. I guess you'd say that I'm a person who relies on instinct. But twice in my life, instinct and emotion have burned me when selecting a job.

I'll argue that you don't need to hire someone to do due diligence on a prospective life partner. Your heart knows best, I'm sure. Perhaps with a car, a smart purchase would involve more analysis than I put into it, but hey ... it's just a fancy gadget. Now, a job on the other hand--that's a serious mistake when you screw up. Even in tumultuous young industries such as biotechnology, hiring managers eye résumés closely and screen out anyone who hasn't been in their present job for at least 2 or 3 years. A short stay or a poor reference from a bad boss will haunt you for a decade, as it did for me early in my career when I had two short stays in a row.

In next month's Tooling Up column, we'll dissect the last two issues of due diligence: company culture and the company's business position.