Companies & Industries

Nine Ways to Research Prospective Employers


Do this advance work and you'll be set for a smarter interview—and have the knowledge to make a smarter career decision

It's a great to spot a job opportunity that sounds like a match for your talents. Unfortunately, the typical job ad doesn't tell you much more than the company's name. You need to know: What sort of place is it? Is the organization profitable? Does the company hire smart people and give them room to grow? Is the CEO a tremendous leader or a dysfunctional tyrant?

Following are nine ways to learn about your next prospective employer both before and after you enter its recruitment and selection pipeline. The research will require an investment in time and clever stealth tactics on your part, but the information you'll gain will merit your efforts. Your enhanced knowledge will allow you to make better decisions and ask pithier questions during the interview process. This not-quite-insider knowledge will give you extra confidence as you deal with company reps, too. And who couldn't benefit from an extra dose of that?

1) Build Your Dossier

Of course you've read the organization's own Web site thoroughly, focusing on "About Us," "Management Bios," and "Investor Relations" (if it's a publicly traded firm) as well as information about the company's products and services. That's just a starting point. Business information sites like ZoomInfo.com, Hoover's, and BusinessWeek's Company Insight Center will add breadth to your research. Targeting public companies? The EDGAR database is packed with filings, forms, and comment letters on public firms. Dig in!

2) Who's On First

Want to know more about the company's leadership? LinkedIn is a great place to spend some time. LinkedIn features its own employer listings, plus bios (written by none other than the great men and women themselves, or people willing to try to sound like them) that will not only enlighten you as to the leadership team members' past roles and educational histories but also provide their contact lists as well. New LinkedIn tools allow users to create blogs and upload files, but be sure to check your target firm leaders' profiles for PowerPoints (MSFT), white papers, and other great cover letter and interview fodder.

3) Get the Dish

The user-generated-content site Glassdoor.com is packed with insider information on 30,000 companies, including actual salary figures (reported by the worker bees themselves) by function and location, interview questions used by specific employers, details on the hiring process, and tons more. (Full disclosure: I'm a contributor for this site.) Once you've read up on the enterprise, division, and group you're pursuing, you'll be better prepared to handle interviews and salary negotiations. After all, you're not the first person to go through this process.

4) Get on the Network

Post a question on LinkedIn Answers to ask users about companies you're looking at, and to make contact with people who have worked for those employers in the past and can speak freely with you about them. If you're wary of posting a LinkedIn query under your own profile, ask a friend to do it and funnel the answers back to you. LinkedIn users can reply to you offline, upping the odds of very frank reports about their experiences—good or bad.

5) Soak Up the Ambiance

When you're scheduled for an interview, arrive early—really early, 30 minutes ahead of schedule—and say this to the receptionist: "I've got an interview at 2 p.m., but I got lucky with traffic and got here way ahead of time. Please don't bother (Mr. Trump) just yet—I'll remind you when we're closer to the hour." Then sit in the office, watching the foot traffic and listening to the conversation among employees and vendors coming and going. This is a great way to get a feel for a business. Are people happy or stressed? Are they chatting pleasantly with one another, or does the place seem like Death Row? A lobby visit is a great way to drink in an organization's culture.

6) Get a Different Perspective

As you talk with your prospective hiring manager, ask him or her, "Would it be possible to talk with (a team member, a customer, a vendor)?" If you're in procurement, for example, it makes sense for you to meet at least one supplier by phone. If you're in sales, you should be able to talk with a customer. If you're anybody else, it makes sense to meet with at least one co-worker—without the manager in the room. If your request is rebuffed, take note. Unhappy people don't make good ambassadors. If you do get the opportunity to meet, ask your new contact what he or she believes the organization's biggest challenges are and what makes it a great place to work. If you don't get a quick reply to that question, take heed.

7) Call in Your Posse

Send a blast e-mail message to your friends and colleagues (bcc:ing everyone) and ask them whom they know at XYZ Corp., past or present. What's great about this approach is that your friend can make an introduction for you, lowering the wariness barrier and raising the trust level between you and the person whose insight you seek. Don't ask, "What is the culture

like?" This question is nearly impossible to answer. Rather, ask for a culture-related story or two—incidents that illustrate the way things get done in the shop, the way decisions get made, the way people are praised or corrected, and the level of respect (if any) in the environment. Stories are tools for getting these elements across.

8) Investigate the Product or Service

Sounds obvious, but don't take anything for granted: Buy the product or service your next employer makes or distributes. Use it, and call tech support to ask questions and learn more about it—and about the way customers are treated by this company. If you can't afford the product or don't need one (an oil tanker, for instance), contact sales to request product information be sent to you. Check it over carefully. Is it current as far as you can tell? Does the salesperson follow up with you? When you make your query, is it handled efficiently, or are you sent into circular voicemail hell? These cues to the speed and energy level of the organization are important, even if your prospective job is on the other side of the company. Disorganized companies don't tend to be fun to work for.

9) Join a Group

Join a discussion group on LinkedIn, Yahoo!groups, or Ning to hobnob with people who know this employer better than you do. Follow the conversation and chime in with your own questions to learn what's working and not working, what customers are saying, and what the industry is doing. A job interview isn't a one-sided process—your résumé is your most valuable asset, and you can't afford to damage it by working in second-rate enterprises. Do your research, and accept your next offer with confidence.


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