Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with organizations in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.” We’ve all been there. You’ve been invited down to the offices and are spending a few hours (or days) with the team and key members of the management staff. You’re being walked around the office. Everyone has made great pains to point out the free chai/coffee/jelly beans/whatever in the break room. If you’re particularly “hot” you might even be talking to a hip company that has things like free parkur classes over the lunch hour or a selection of single malt scotches lined up for the Thursday evening tasting mixer. My personal favorite was the time I spent an afternoon chatting with people at a (now defunct) company who shall remain nameless where everyone I met made sure I knew there was an onsite gymnasium with an on-call masseuse and physical trainer.
Ignore all of these things. The perks and benefits of the workplace are not a good indicator of how much or little the company values their employees as people, much less how well the team works together as a cohesive unit. Things like stock grants, vacation time, and commuter packages are nice but they are pretty close to the least effort a company can expend when proving itself it cares about its employees. I’m hoping to impart a few lessons I’ve learned over the years so everyone involved can have a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience. Before reading forward, please remember this list of five things should be in no way considered either exact or comprehensive. For every point I make I’m sure there is at least one awesome company out there who would fall into this category if you caught them on the wrong day or met with the wrong people. Unfortunately that can’t he helped. This is an inexact process when you boil it down. Going on a Meet-and-Greet is an exercise in awkwardness topped only by first dates or possibly any meeting resulting from an online personal ad or profile posting. The following points are to be taken illiterally and with a very large grain of salt.
Does everyone seem to agree on the major issues?
A lot of times these meetings will consist of a series of people you meet at various times over the day. You’ll hear a lot of the same questions being repeated which can be an indicator of a lack of coordination of communication, but it might also be nothing. Of greater concern to you should be the sense that people are operating under completely different concepts about the whole process and what the successful end game will look like. Nothing spells quick failure for someone coming into a new situation than disagreement on the core reason they’re being asked to join in the first place. Being asked the same question multiple times is annoying but having four people think you’re there to help them with five unrelated issues can be an indicator of much larger problems with communication and cohesiveness.
Where are the mid career folk?
Really good companies are ones where people have a path to grow and build themselves a future. These are the companies who first look to themselves for the senior staff and leads before putting out the general call for help. Sometimes a company wants to start a new effort or the staff they have available to them is not the correct fit for whatever reason. Being asked to interview for a leadership position is not an indicator of a lack of career growth opportunities. Not seeing anyone you’d consider the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer in the military, however, is a giant red light that should be spinning in your face. Companies without a clear channel for moving along in a person’s career have one thing in common, all the mid-level people quit. At some point in time an entry level person gains experience and wants to advance to new challenges and … let’s be honest … more pay. Companies that see their employees as more than a specific role or series of tasks to be performed will usually take full advantage of that by offering them a way to move upward and keep their tribal knowledge in house. Companies that don’t won’t make a move until they’re threatened by the employee putting in their notice. Really bad companies won’t care since they only see the employee as a series of tasks so replacing them shouldn’t be a problem.
Do people seem to bring up amusing anecdotes about problems or other departments a lot?
We all like to think we’re witty and personable. Many people use humor to defuse tense or awkward situations. Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism but “funny” can only occur if the other party has some frame of reference for your jokes. The other side of this coin is humor used to obscure actual unresolved tensions. During the turn of the century many people in the United States were feeling the pinch of an economic downturn. People were losing their jobs and farms were in trouble as commodity prices dropped. Into this mix came a large wave of Asian, European, and Baltic immigrants. The newly arrived immigrants were willing to do pretty much anything to find a toe hold in their new country. This caused some tension between the “native born” people and the immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Ireland. It was at this time the popularity of things like “pollack jokes” gained traction. Otherwise tolerant and normal people would give in to their tensions through (what they hoped was) a useful artifice contained in a joke. Rather than simply say “I hate the Jews” a person could tell a joke about a Jewish merchant and feel somewhat safe because it’s just a joke, right? The same mechanism applies to the people you’re talking to in these meetings. Do they seem to have a lot of “funny stories” about situations that would otherwise be considered massive failures? Do they talk a lot about friendly rivalries between departments? Does it seem like they spend a lot of time talking about “others” rather than talking about everyone as if they were all on the same mission and team?
Does everyone seem happy?
This is a hard one to precisely define but I bet most people by the time they reach a certain age will have more than likely developed enough intuition or empathy to be able to take a wild guess at this one for themselves. The trick to this one is to not try and parse out the “Why” of your instincts. Rather than deconstructing your impressions you should rather focus on the things people seemed happy about. Did it have anything to do with their jobs? Did people seem to suddenly light up when they talked about the generous flex time benefits or the employee discount? Did everything seem sort of flat until you began chatting about their band and the show coming up in two weeks? The company where you want to land is probably the one where people seemed at least excited about what they’re being paid to do all day.
Does it seem like a diverse group?
Full disclosure … I am a middle-aged, white, English-speaking male who had full access to a modern (and free) public education system that did an excellent job of preparing me for a career in pretty much whatever it is I decided I wanted to do later in life. With that out of the way, let’s talk about diversity.
It’s important. It’s important to you as a prospective worker bee even if you are some one like me. I will give the caveat that, again, you should go with your instincts and not talk yourself into seeing diversity where none actually exists. Hiring people from all over the world can be seen as diversity, but if they are all males in their mid-twenties from engineering schools who binge drink after work and wear khaki pants with popped collar shirts is that really a diverse group? Diversity means “differences” to my mind. Does it look like the people you’re meeting are actually different from each other? Are you getting different feelings from each of them or does it all sort of feel rather generic? This is important because a management team that cultivates a culture of conformity is not one that will be open to differences of opinion or things which are truly innovative for the organization. A homogeneous culture will reward adherence to the norm even if that norm is not serving the better interests. It’s best if you don’t get involved unless you are comfortable in that sort of environment.
Are people using a lot of industry buzz words when talking to you?
Language is a funny thing. The English language is particularly funny since it’s a mashup of several languages from different linguistic groups all together. As a result the English language can be used to wonderful effect both for explaining and for obfuscating. A particularly telling habit of some people and organizations is the use of what are called “buzz words.” These are terms used commonly throughout certain sectors that have varying levels of popularity at different times. Sometimes these terms are actually descriptive of actual concepts for which there is value, but more often they are actually a wall of noise thrown up by people in the absence of actual knowledge or ideas. The problem has become so rampant the British Civil Service has actually banned some phrases in their official Whitehall Style Guide. It’s a subject for a larger post of its own but for the purposes of this entry suffice it to say that an organization that uses such terms as “promote” (if you’re not a marketing company) or “advance” (if you’re not an education company) or “synergy” (if you’re any company) is practicing obfuscation through verbosity. People use terms like “disruptive innovation” because they don’t actually know what it is they do or how they will make enough money to keep the lights on.
As a last piece of advice, I’d ask you to come up with your own list. What are some of the warning signs you’ve come to trust when meeting a team or company for the first time?