Getting the Lowdown on Potential Employers

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Of course, you want to know what it's like to work for a firm before you relocate your coffee mug and family pictures to your new desk. Save for having a friend on the inside, how do you get the dirt on a company's culture?

Marcia Bench, chief executive of Career Coach Institute, a Lake Havasu, Ariz., organization that trains and certifies career coaches, calls the employer background check "one of the more overlooked parts of the job search."

"People focus on looking at the salary and responsibilities, but they often overlook the environment, which can be key in unnecessary turnover," she says.

In fact, 47 percent of 150 senior executives polled in a Robert Half International survey ranked having little or no knowledge of the company as the No. 1 most common mistake job seekers make during interviews.

Hit the Web

So, what to do? First Google the company, says Martin Yate, a career consultant in Savannah, Ga., and author of Knock 'Em Dead: The Ultimate Job Search Guide. "If they are in the middle of a class-action lawsuit, that is a good thing to know," he observes.

When searching online, keep the company Web site in perspective: There's no doubt it's going to be full of smoke. But Google News, Yahoo News, Hoovers.com and financial news sites like The Wall Street Journal Online, MarketWatch, CNNMoney and MSNBC should net a good overview of the company's financial status and its approach to layoffs in tough times. "If that's their first approach, that says something about how much they value their staff," notes Bench. (Note: Links to other sites open in a new window.)

Networking Is Your Friend (Again)

After you've e-mailed and phoned everyone you know who might be acquainted with your target company, start hitting up people you don't know, says Martin Yate. "You can build a network and do due diligence on a company by taking out membership in a professional association where you can know and be known with the best-connected in your geographic area," he says. "It's the new version of the old-boy networks." The same goes for Alumni networks and even online networking organizations like Linkedin.com, Spoke.com, Ryze.com and Xing.com.

When it comes to job searches, use such directories to locate people who've worked at the company. If you ask questions in a professional manner, you'll get the information you need, Yate says.

"You do want to look for dirty laundry, but you don't have to phrase your questions that way," he explains. Instead, try asking things like, "Is management punitive? Passive aggressive?" "What kind of people succeed at this company?" "What kind of behavior is rewarded?" "Have you enjoyed working there?"

While it might be tempting to get as close as possible to the department you'd be working in, distance is the rule when approach when people you don't know well. Says Yate: "If you are interviewing with the CFO, you don't want to talk to the controller."

Keith Feinberg, director of permanent placement services with Robert Half Finance & Accounting, suggests forging relationships with professional recruiters, who often have the inside scoop on companies. "(Employees) are telling us the bad when they're leaving a company, and the good when they're coming into it," he says.

Ask for an Informational Interview

Feinberg also suggests contacting the firm's Human Resources department and asking for an informational interview with the department you're considering. "Companies are willing to do that more often than people think - especially if you know someone there," he says. "Give them a bit of your background and say something like, 'I'm currently working at Merrill, and I'd love to know what the culture is like at Morgan Stanley.'"

Make the Real Interview a Two-Way Street

One of the best ways to find the nitty gritty on a company's culture is to grill your future bosses in the actual interview, Yate says. "The Indian chief is not going to tell you what it is like to be a member of the tribe, but he will tell you what the expectations are," he says. "If we want to excel, we have to become part of the inner management circle, and to do so we have to find out the expectations of inner management."

Certainly, going into an interview armed with questions sets you apart as ambitious and with a clear idea of your goals. At the same time pointed, well-informed questions allow you to segue into revealing your qualifications, Yate notes. For example, if your online searching uncovers a nugget about the company's plans to expand to Jordan, you have an opening to mention you're fluent in Arabic.

"One question frequently asked early in an interview is 'What do you know about us?'" says Yate. "In the age of the Internet, when research so damn simple, it's a real black mark if we flap our lips with our fingers." However, he adds, "having done the research gives you wonderful insider information and can lead you to ask intelligent questions and/or avoid stupid blunders."

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