How can you really tell whether a company is worth working for?

Companies always say they're a great place to work. How can you figure out whether that's true or not?

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(Quick disclaimer: we know that 'worth' is a very personal thing so this is in no way meant to be a definition of what a company worth working for looks like. But it IS a guide to helping you figure whether it is worth it to you.)

IT is an industry that is showing no signs of slowing down. You will find dozens of companies looking for their next developers, architects, project managers and everything in between. How in the world do you decide which companies and organisations are worth working for? You might say – the company that’s worth working for is the one that offers me the job. And in many cases that may be true, especially if the market is struggling and there is nothing else on offer. But in many cases, you have some options. You have the freedom to pause and think, at least briefly.   

We want to encourage you to do this regardless of whether this is the only job offer you have or one of many.

And if you read nothing else, we want to share our WALL acronym with you - Watch, Ask, Listen and Learn. Apply this and you have a better chance of shedding some light on what your potential employer might be like. But we would love to help you get more specific than this, so if you want to know how and when to WALL, read on.

1. Be a stalker (no need to find their house on Google Maps though)

We thought we’d get the most obvious one out of the way first and then delve into more detailed suggestions afterwards. You have access to the Internet – use it! As cliché as it sounds, study the company website.  As obvious as this might seem, you’d be surprised at how many people think “yeah yeah, I get it – I need to look at their website and know what they do” and then spend a grand total of a minute looking at their ‘about us’ page and just remember a few key facts. Maybe you’re one of those people – don’t worry, we understand that life is busy and you don’t have hours to spare to dissect their whole marketing and comms strategy. The purpose of this blog is to give you actionable points to direct your research efforts.

Speaking of actionable points - look at their blog/news page – what do they write about? Is it all about their achievements or do they also write informational blogs that benefit a wider audience? How do they describe themselves? Question what you read. Why might they highlight this part of their culture and not other? What common themes do you see in the content on their website and social media?

Go one step further and do some stalking of the social media profiles of the people interviewing you, and in people at the office in general. They will be looking you up, no doubt – return the favour! Get some understanding of what the people are like, this will help paint a more accurate picture of the culture of the company as well as the types of people you might work with.

 

2. Distinguish between company culture and team culture

You have probably heard this said before – company culture is very important. It influences every aspect of your day to day activities at work, interactions with colleagues, conflict resolution, approach to achievement and everything else – even attitudes towards coffee breaks. So don’t forget to ask some specific and direct questions about the company culture.

However, there is another thing that is often missed out but matters greatly – team culture. While the organisational culture influences the teams, teams often develop their own micro-cultures. It’s important to ask about the team you will be working in – what the people are like, what they do, how they operate, what’s the feel of the team. You might notice that the people you see in the company’s offices look happy, they laugh a lot and there is lots of chatter going on. This will either be appealing or unappealing to you. And while this observation is important, you must withhold judgement until you find out more about your immediate team.

Your tour of the office or what you briefly saw while walking from the front door to the meeting room may not give you the full picture. It is possible that you will not be introduced to the team you would be working with. What if this team is very loud but you want to work with people who stay largely quiet and just get on with their work? What if they are the most target-driven section of the organisation but you’re after a role with less pressure?

 

3. Date the hiring manager

Okay, maybe you shouldn’t go on an actual *date* with Sally from HR. Sorry not sorry for the clickbait heading. But it is imperative to see your interview as a date with the hiring manager and as an extension, the company or organisation as a whole. They are there to ignite your interest in the job and the company as much as you are there to sell yourself. Do not fall into the temptation to say what you think they want to hear or to try to present yourself as a certain type of person when you are nothing like it. Give the answer that you believe and that truly reflects who you are, what you think and how you operate. There are few things as disappointing as having been offered a job based on the hiring manager’s false perception of you, the honeymoon period evaporating and everyone realising that this was never going to work – for you, or for them. It’s not worth it.

So treat it as a date – the evaluation goes both ways!

If they ask you “Why do you want to work for us?” feel free to ask them “Why would you say people should come to work here?” Listen carefully to the answer they give as that will give you a strong insight into aspects of the company culture. Is the focus on why they are great or why they are great for YOU? What do they emphasise? The reputation of the company? How much profit it makes? If that’s all they say, it might be indicative of a performance and target focused culture where profit is king and your job is to bend over backwards to meet any deadline you are set, regardless of how unreasonable or impeding on your personal life it might be. So listen.

However – don’t draw firm conclusions from this. Again – ask further questions. We love the rule of “5 Whys” – ask “Why?” 5 times to get down to the motivations and real reasons behind what people are saying. However, you have to be careful with this one – overuse it, and the interview atmosphere might become tense as you begin to lead the conversation with a myriad of investigative questions. Leave the lead in their hands but feel free to ask about what is important to you.

Their attitudes to your questions will also reveal the culture. Do they get defensive or are they open to your questions and happy to explain things? This might be revealing of the typical management approach at the organisation.

 

4. Ask honest questions about the role

Ask for specific responsibilities, examples of projects your predecessor worked on, what a typical week looks like, how is your time split, what teams you interact with etc. Try to get a vivid picture of the day-to-day. You and the company might have very different understandings of what this role should encompass. Watch and listen for cues in their responses. Are they honest and transparent? Or are you suddenly faced with an impenetrable wall of jargon?

 

5. Be upfront about your needs

If you have childcare commitments, don’t pretend that you don’t or say that they shouldn’t interfere with your ability to work, if you know you need to leave at 15:00 on Tuesdays. If you don’t have children but plan on having a family in the future, find out whether there are flexible working arrangements available. Even if you don’t intend to have children – ask anyway. Find out whether flexible working is only available for parents or for anyone in the company. There are organisations where the rules don’t apply to everyone – some teams can flexi-work, others can’t. In some roles you can, in others, you can’t. Ask about the company as a whole, as well as the team you would work in.

If you have a learning difficulty or anything else that you might require assistance with – find out what provisions are in place to enable you to fulfil your role effectively. If it matters enough for you to worry about even slightly, it matters enough to ask. And most employers these days are very forthcoming and are more than happy to make sure that your environment is conducive to your specific needs. And if they aren’t interested in meeting you where you’re at, you need to know that before joining. Although we would guess that at that point, you wouldn’t want to join anyway.

 

6. Identify common themes in the questions they ask you

Prepare your own questions but pay careful attention to the questions you are asked throughout the hiring process, from emails to phone calls to skills tests, interviews or group exercises. What common themes are emerging? What are the tasks you are set focused on?

Do they ask you only professional questions? Or do they also want to know more about you as a person? This will show you how concerned they are about cultural fit, and therefore, how likely it is that the leaders of the company are intentional about the culture they want to build. If they are building a certain culture – expect personal questions. They will want to know who you are to see if you fit, to see what it’s like to have a casual chat with you. Your interests will tell them a lot about your character and personality. If you are asked these sorts of questions, don’t be confused - this is a good thing.  If they only ask you professional questions – it’s unlikely that culture is something they have given much thought to.

This is where you have to decide what matters to you. You might care very little about the culture, your main and only concern might be getting your job done and getting paid and you don’t mind if you don’t like the people or if the management is difficult to get on with. If so – focus on asking as many questions about the role itself and what you will be doing as possible, because you want to be doing what you came here to do, rather than ending up disillusioned. But bear in mind that if and when people become disillusioned with their jobs, they often suddenly begin thinking about the company culture. All of a sudden they want people to chat to, to have a laugh with or a superior to speak with about how they feel about their role. They want a breakout area with sofas where they can relax, unwind and gather energy for the remainder of the day. So ask. Because even if the culture doesn’t matter to you now, 3 months into the job you might find yourself wishing you had asked.

 

7. Observe how friendly or detached they are towards you

Take note of the way people interact with you and treat you. Are people welcoming? Are you offered a drink? Are you asked about your day and journey? Do they smile? Are they making an effort to engage in conversation with you or is the walk to the meeting room done in silence? What’s your impression of how they are trying to come across? Keep these things in mind as your interview continues.

 

8. Hold back on asking about their company values

Our suggestion is that you DON'T lead with this question. If you want to get honest answers (or as honest as possible anyway), leave this question until you have asked all the others. Why? If they are prone to embellishing and disguising the reality, reminding them of their values (at least what they are on paper) is likely to influence the answers that follow as they will feel a pressure to match their answers to the values, increasing the likelihood that you will not get an accurate picture. Ask your other questions first. Hopefully, by the end of the interview, you won’t need to ask about their values and mission because they will mention them as part of their answers. And if not, you can ask this question at the end and then compare what they say the values are, to what you have observed they actually are through their answers to other questions.

 

In summary

There are many things to consider when evaluating whether you would like to work for a certain company or organisation – we want to encourage you to WALL (watch, ask, listen and learn) as much as you can. Realistic expectations matter too - it is likely you will always find something that the company or organisation could do better, but if on the whole you are happy, then that's a great outcome.

Our role is to do a lot of the WALLing for you, and we hope you can put your trust in Certes to help you find your next job - or your next employee, if you're a company or an organisation looking for an employee or a contractor that will be the right fit for your company.

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