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Last Updated December 10, 2003

Beyond the Bucks: Tips for evaluating potential employers

There is more to life (and work) than just money. Despite what people claim, few actually quit their jobs over money alone. The quality of management, working conditions, advancement opportunities, office politics, and corporate culture all become important factors that can outweigh economic issues  For the savvy technical employee who wants to get the most out of their career, it's important to find out as much as you can about a company before you accept a full time position. If you don't have a friend already working in the company you're considering, you'll have a lot of homework to do. Here's where to dig and what to look for.
 
The Basics
This article assumes that you already know how to evaluate the economics of a job offer (position, job requirements, salary, benefits, etc.,), and that you need to make a harder decision about a company's culture. Next time your potential employer talks about the "intangible benefits" of working for the company, keep in mind that this invisible sword cuts both ways. The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, and if you have to make a significant sacrifice to take this new job, it pays to do your homework ahead of time. 

Before the interview:
Before walking into the first interview with a company, there are several crucial items that you'll need to consider. 

  • How large is the company?
    The size of the company is important because it determines salary ranges, training budgets, work environment, travel, etc. Smaller companies may require you to have a wider range of skills, offer more responsibility and authority, and allow you to work closely with top management. Larger companies offer a wider variety of lateral transitions within the company, and allow you to focus on one area of technical expertise. It also provides a larger peer group that can be useful for troubleshooting help.

  • How long has the company been in business?
    Working for a startup can be fun, fast paced, and offer some very lucrative profit sharing potential. It can also be risky in terms of bounced payroll checks, layoffs, or they may just go out of business. Older, more established companies can offer more stability, but may also have a stodgy, out-of-date corporate culture and management style. Ideally, you want to find an established business that invests heavily in new technology and their IT department. Find out how long this company has been around, if it has changed ownership in the last 5 or 10 years, and their financial position. Remember that companies that are going out of business still need to replace outgoing employees that are leaving in the last few months of operations.

  • Is the company public or private?
    Publicly traded companies are easier to research and keep tabs on than smaller private companies. Before accepting a final job offer, research the company carefully to determine their financial health and industry outlook is for the next two years. Many public and private company profiles are available at Hoover's Online, but you should also try to find a company's annual report and check newspapers and business publications for any additional information. This is especially important if the company is offering stock options as part of their payroll package. Also be aware that many companies match 401K contributions in company stock rather than cash - so if their stock tanks, so do your benefits.

  • Is it a family business?
    Although family businesses can be more casual and comfortable than the usual corporate environment, the politics can get very nasty, and there may be very limited room for advancement. Power struggles between family members can ruin even the best companies, and relatives often get promoted into management over more qualified employees. Try to find out how many members of the management team are related to each other, and how many are outsiders. This is especially crucial in companies where the parents started the company, and then passed the reigns to their children. Once the parents pass away, the infighting often begins to escalate as the children battle each other for control of the company. Even if the company survives this turmoil, the triumphant sibling may decide to fire those employees who were loyal to his rivals. 

  • How many offices and locations do they have?
    The larger the company, the more likely it is you'll be called upon to travel between sites or transferred to a new office hundreds of miles away. To test employee loyalty, many companies I've worked for have transferred new employees to distant offices, often requiring an out of state move. Find out if the company has offices in other cities, states, or countries, and how long those offices have been there. Then try to find out how often they transfer employees between locations. If this is an international company, find out if they do business in any third world countries that may be dangerous for American citizens. Be sure to weigh these factors before accepting a job offer - especially if own you a home and have a family.

 

Things to find out during the interview
Don't let an interview be one sided. Employers are impressed by candidates that ask thoughtful questions during the interview, but be careful not to seem adversarial. Ask the questions in a light, friendly tone, and spread them out during the interview. 

  • Travel Requirements
    This can be a sticky issue, depending on the ethics of your company. Many companies don't count your actual travel time as work time, and may expect you to be able to drop your life and fly 1,000 miles away on a 2 day notice. Find out how much travel is involved, who makes the arrangements, how compensation is figured, how much lead time you'll be given, etc. Expect your employer to paint a rosy picture regardless of what the real situation is, but at least you'll be prepared. 

  • Pager Duty/Rotation
    Being at your employer's beck and call is not fair if it's not compensated. Find out if pagers are required, and what the expected response time is. How is coverage divided? Is pager duty rotated, or is everyone on call all of the time? If you're in a critical position, having a pager is expected. Getting out of bed 3 to 4 times a week every time a server hiccups is not. Excessive calls in the middle of the night and weekends will certainly affect your family.

  • Mandatory Overtime and "Flex Time"
    Don't really expect them to tell you the truth about this one either. However, if the person doing the interview is your future boss, it can be an effective negotiating tool when you eventually get hired. Ask about policies towards mandatory overtime, and how overtime is handled in their department. Many companies have instituted a "comp time" arrangement for salary employees. For example, if you worked 4 hours overtime last week, you can take off 4 hours this week. This doesn't always work out in a busy environment, and it may lead to disputes over how much time you are owed. If you make too much noise about it, or accumulate too much comp time, your boss will be happy to show you the door. Despite your employer's claims, being a salaried employee does not automatically exempt you from overtime. Check with your attorney if you have any doubts.

  • Availability and quality of training and education
    Some companies have excellent training opportunities and really invest in their employees. Others have found out that after they pay for training, employees expect raises for their new skills and if they don't get them they leave for greener pastures. So the vast majority will tell you they offer training, but may not make good on their promises. Try to determine if training is outsourced or done in-house. Are all of the training sessions instructor led, or are they computer/video based? Are there bonuses for receiving industry certifications?

  • What is the work environment like?
    For many companies, this simply means corporate culture and dress code. If you have to buy a whole new wardrobe just to work there, be sure to figure that into your salary estimate. Also consider dry cleaning costs, and other expenses. If you work for a company that does any kind of manufacturing, find out if your position will require you to work near dangerous machinery, chemicals, fire hazards, etc., Large manufacturing and chemical companies have large industrial facilities that can be very dangerous for IT personnel who may need to run cabling, or repair workstations on a factory floor. 

  • How current is their technology
    Older companies often run antiquated computer systems, and may be using custom software. Supporting legacy systems and proprietary applications will do little for your career outside of the company, and may impact your future prospects. The best pay and advancement opportunities belong to the people who keep up with the latest technology.

  • How important is this job in the company
    Being just another cog in the wheel vs. being part of a technology solution that can save the company millions of dollars may mean a lot to your future. Consider the possibilities of promotion,  job stress, free time, etc. Find out how your position contributes to the overall well being of the company, and think about how comfortable you'll be in that role. 

While you are visiting...
Interviewing at a company's office gives you an excellent opportunity to look for the subtle clues that speak volumes about a company's commitments to their employees.  As an IT consultant, I've spent the better part of my career working short term contracts at a variety of companies. This allowed me to stay just long enough to find out the truth about their work environment. Here's what to look for:

  • Meet your boss
    As a general rule, people don't quit companies, they quit their bosses. A good boss is a leader that motivates employees, not a paper pushing task master who abuses their authority for the sake of ego. Meet your boss face to face and try to assess what he/she will be like to work for. Does he/she look organized and professional, or is the office cluttered and disorganized? How many pagers are on his/her belt? Does your boss look like someone you'll get along with and be able to work with? Or is your boss just biding time until retirement? How well does your boss understand the technology you'll be working with? Does your boss appear trustworthy? 

  • Visit your actual work area
    You can't always get the corner office, but you should always make sure to visit the general work area where you'll be assigned. How old is the building? Is it well maintained? How big are the work areas? Is your work area large enough for you and properly equipped? Is there room for a whiteboard? Will you be assigned a cubicle or an office? Do you actually have any privacy (which will affect your productivity)? How quiet is the work environment? Beware of offices that are next to copier/fax machines, break rooms, conference rooms and elevators where people will tend to congregate and talk at all hours of the day. 

  • Check out your co-workers work spaces
    While you're visiting, check out other employees works spaces. How comfortable are the chairs and desks? How old are the workstations? Are employees allowed to bring in personal items from home? Does the atmosphere seem fun and creative, or stiff and oppressive? Do people look like they enjoy working there? 

  • Check for "The Dilbert Factor"
    Where does Scott Adams get so many ideas for his infamous comic strip? When he started writing his strip, he was working for a phone company, which often has its own special brand of mismanagement. Now, he now gets a large part of his material via e-mail from employees who work for other dysfunctional companies. I don't think he'll ever run out of material. When walking around a company, look for the quantity and types of "Dilbert" comic strips hanging on billboards and cubicle walls. Ask yourself if the company simply has a sense of humor, or if people are aggravated with management. 

  • Beware the motivational posters
    Oddly, there appears to be an inverse corollary between the number of "motivational" posters and slogans hanging on a companies walls and the quality of the management team. Beware of the company that hang these things everywhere. They have their time and place, but most well-run companies have excellence running through their veins and don't need resort to propaganda to get the message out. 

  • Visit the cafeteria and break areas
    Not every company has an employee cafeteria; but if they do, make sure you check out the quality of the food as well as the cost. This information and the quality of the dining area can tell you a lot about the corporate culture. Is the food healthy, or is it the same old lame cafeteria mash? Is the dining area clean and comfortable? How many food choices are there? Do the executives eat with everybody else or is there a separate dining facility? Are you allowed to eat at your desk? Are there other dining options nearby? Did the company make an effort to ensure the break areas are comfortable and relaxing, or did they just throw something together with a minimum of thought and effort?

  • Check the vending machines
    If the company is "nickel and diming" their employees by gouging them at the vending machines, it may be an indicator that management is looking for any opportunity to squeeze them in other ways. Companies negotiate with independent operators to determine the profit from the vending sales, which determines the price. If they don't take a profit for themselves, the machines are much cheaper. Some companies supply and stock their own machines, which allows them to charge even less.

  • Check the parking lot
    There are a number of things to look for in a company's parking lot. First, check to see if there is a large difference between the employee lot and the executive parking. Executive perks are one thing, but how far does management take it? Two Fortune 500 companies I've worked for had special garages for their executives where a paid attendant washed their cars every day. The rest of the employees parked outside in a gravel lot filled with deep ruts and potholes. Guess what their management style was like? The second thing to check is the overall quality of the vehicles in the lot. A majority of newer cars may indicate that employees are doing well and have faith that their company is healthy. Expensive luxury cars in the non-executive area may indicate the value of profit sharing programs, proliferation of bonuses, and advancement opportunities. 

  • Visit the washrooms
    This may seem silly at first, but in my experience this is the acid test for corporate America. I believe you can tell a lot about a company by the quality and cleanliness of their employee's bathrooms. I don't mean the bathrooms in a company's lobby (which are always kept spotless for visiting clients), I mean the bathrooms in the area where you'll be actually be working. How well are they maintained? Do they smell any worse than they need to? If you don't think the quality of a bathroom makes a difference, go visit the bathrooms near the offices of any top level executives - you'll quickly see the difference. How a company allocates housekeeping and maintenance tasks among its various departments is an excellent barometer to gauge how they really value the employees that work for them. 

In the first two weeks...
So you finally accepted the job offer and you start on Monday. You now have 14 days to find out if your employer lied to you in the job interview. This gives you enough time to evaluate and accept another job offer without ever having to put this company on your resume. In the first week, strive to make as many friends as possible and be subtle when gathering information. Don't ask everything on the first day, unless you want to come across as the Grand Inquisitor.  Items you want to follow up on are:

  • Employee turnover
    Asking coworkers how long they have held their position and how well they like the company is a good way to break the ice. The overall corporate turnover rate says a lot about the company. The turnover rate within the department says a lot about your boss. 

  • Overtime and irregular hours
    Here's a sensitive issue. Almost everyone has to put in a little extra time during a crisis, or when a project falls behind. However, if this happens more than once a month, it's the result of bad management, understaffing, or both. Find out what the overtime policy really is, and if it really gets paid out.

  • On call demand
    Almost every IT employee I know wears a pager and/or a cell phone. That's not really the issue. The problem arises when your pager goes off 3-4 times a night after working hours, and your company expects you answer all pages within 15 minutes even on weekends and days off. If you care about your life and loved ones, you'll give this issue serious consideration.

  • Training time
    If your employer told you that they offer technical training to their employees, find out how many of your co-workers have actually had the opportunity to take worthwhile classes. Is the training budget the first thing cut? What is the overall quality of the training offered? Is the training done in house or off site? Are there limits to how much training time you can take?

  • Corporate Travel
    If your position requires you to travel, find out quickly how often it's expected (ask your peers, not your boss), and who makes the travel arrangements. You may not be flying first class or staying in luxury hotels on business trips, but if you know the company's preferred airline, hotel chains, and rental car companies you can get a good idea of what travel will be like. Will you fly business class or coach? What is the typical rental car class? Are the hotels usually close to the work site? What are the remote sites like? Does the company do a good job when making arrangements, or would you be better off making them yourself?

  • View of Management
    How the rank and file feel about management is an important consideration. If the general consensus is that upper management is clueless, they're probably right and it will reflect on the balance sheet sooner or later. Be careful when gathering this information, and ask these question indirectly so you don't come across the wrong way. Watch out for companies that embrace management fads, ridiculous buzzwords, and useless bureaucracies. 

  • Ordering supplies
    Here's an useful test for a bloated bureaucracy. Find out the company's procedure for ordering office supplies. A well stocked, easily accessible supply cabinet is a good indication that the company trusts their employees to make appropriate decisions and doesn't micromanage everything. A web based interface with an automated ordering system that delivers in less than 24 hours shows technical savvy and the willingness to streamline processes. If you have to fill out paper forms, chase managers around for a signature, and then wait 2 weeks for a few pencils, this company probably isn't doing a good job with the rest of their business processes either. If you don't happen to need office supplies, pay attention to the amount of time it takes to receive a network user and corporate e-mail account.

The bottom line...
You can't tell enough about a company from a one or two hour interview to really make an informed decision as to whether or not you'll enjoy working there. But if you know what to look for, you can get a much better idea of what the reality is, and potentially keep yourself from making a mistake you'll regret. Most people don't find out how bad things really are until after the first 30 - 60 days of employment. By that time, they are obligated to "finish out the year" so they don't appear to be job hopping. Spending a day or two researching a potential employer can save you a lot of stress, aggravation, and frustration.  

True tales from the field...
Here is a little taste of how bad things can get when you don't plan ahead...

A friend of mine got a job with a prestigious "Big 8" consulting firm that required all of its employees to dress "two levels higher than the client." In order to fit in, he spent a small fortune on new suits which left with him very little money for day to day expenses. On his first day, he brought a bag lunch but was told by one of his peers that eating at your desk was frowned upon at the company. The next day, he went to a local fast food restaurant and was told "We don't do fast food" Then he was told flat out that the corporate culture "required" him to eat at a sit down restaurant, and never be seen "going cheap." - Anthony A.

Our employee parking lot is a mile away from the building we work in. We are required to wear suits to work, but by the time we complete 'The Battan Death March" we're either covered in sweat (during the summer), rain soaked (in the spring and fall), or frozen to death (in the dead of winter). Management parks in a heated garage next to the office. - Greg Y.

A large international oil company I worked for sent me to South America to install a server at a remote location. What they didn't tell me until I arrived was that the local drug lords hate the oil company, and frequently shoot at the planes as they fly over the jungle. I had an armed security escort all the way from the airport in Bogot© to the field station and back. Although the jungles were beautiful, I'd rather quit than go back. Now I make sure to ask around before accepting travel assignments. - Bob P.

The technology company I worked for interviewed me in a nice modern office that is occupied by their HR department. On my first day, I was taken to my workspace - 4x4 foot cubicle in an old building that hadn't been updated since the 1930's. The place stunk from the old carpet, the "sea-green" paint was peeling, the plaster from the ceiling was crumbling onto the desks below, and the air conditioning didn't work. To make it worse, the building was infested with cockroaches which would often crawl across my keyboard while I was working. - Craig G. 

The large international technology consulting firm I work for seems to have a policy of transferring employees to another office more than 100 miles away within their first year of service. Employees from our office go to Detroit, and then an employee from Detroit or Chicago is transferred to our office to fill the empty position. This "employee shuffle" has become so common, the running joke is that our company's initials really stand for "I'll be moving"  - Name withheld by request

The Fortune 500 company I work for doesn't have cubicles, just rows and rows of old steel desks left over from the fifties. (Ever see the movie Gattaca?) There is no privacy and the combination of PC, keyboard, monitor, and phone on your desk barely leave enough room for Post-It Notes and a pencil cup. The desks are old and ratty, and the rough metal edges snag and tear your clothes when you get up. - Gen Y.

Our company has a Draconian employee evaluation system where management places you into a category of either being in the top 10%, the bottom 20% or somewhere in the middle. The bottom 20% gets the boot if they're in the category for two quarters in a row or three times in one year. The top 10% get promoted, and the middle are just stuck. To be in the top 10%, you have to put in a lot of unpaid overtime and kiss a lot of butt. After a while, this means the middle has to work a lot of extra hours just to stay afloat. And, if you elect to work a 40 hour work week, you're almost guaranteed to be in the bottom 20%. To save the core team of guys we have in our department of 20 engineers, our boss hires 2 new guys every 3 months just so he has a bottom 20% to get rid of. The new guys don't have a clue when they start, and we don't spend a lot of time socializing with them because we know they'll be gone in 6 months. - George E.

Our company makes us log the time we spend each day in 15 minute increments, based on projects and "cost centers" But there is no cost center for the time I spend each day filling out the time reports, looking up project numbers, troubleshooting my PC when it boots, waiting for someone else who is late for a meeting, walking to the mail room to pick up a package, etc. If I complete 3 separate five minute projects within a 15 minute time frame, I don't know where to bill the time because each project manager kicks back the item claiming that it doesn't take 15 minutes to complete "X". - Keith B.

 

By Bernie Klinder, January 2000

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