Recently I was searching through old email (for my mom’s blueberry torte recipe, if you must know) and I came across a bunch of old Listserv posts I wrote for a group of professional women in Chicago. One of the members had a corporate background and was interviewing at a non-profit and wanted to know things to keep in mind. Apparently I had many Thoughts about this topic. There is a ton of advice out there on how to do well at a job interview, but not so much advice for job seekers about using the interview to suss out whether this is the right employer for you.
Before we start, I want to set the frame a little bit.
1) Sometimes you have to take a job that you know will be a bad fit because you would prefer eating to not eating. Never, and I mean never, feel like you have to defend or justify that choice. However, for purposes of this post, I am assuming that a given job seeker has options and can choose to work at given a place or not. I realize that there is substantial privilege in that assumption. Mostly, if you have to take a given job, please know that we aren’t trying to add a victim-blamey “but you should have known it would be terrible!” on top.
2) There are crappy work environments & crappy bosses. But in this discussion, please do not denigrate any job title or function. Do not use the words “a monkey could do this job.” Are easy jobs necessarily terrible ones? Chances are, someone here does that job. Chances are, I’ve done that job. Chances are someone here would be grateful to get that job. One person’s boring is another person’s stable. We really have to get past the classist capitalist bullshit that assigns people value based on what they do, but as a society we are not there yet, so you referring to x job as crappy sends a message to a person that does that job that they are crappy.
3) Your job may contain some of the red flags listed here and still be perfectly fine. We all have a wish list vs. reality. Please, please, please do not feel like you have to argue that x is ok for you, therefore it shouldn’t be on the list. Some red flags, or a certain volume of them, are warnings, but at first they are just information and a reminder to remain skeptical and not invest until you know the full picture. Seeing one Ayn Rand book on a new date’s shelf won’t necessarily make you flee, but it will make you look harder at the bookcase to make sure it doesn’t contain every edition of every Ayn Rand book before you touch any part of yourself to any of their parts.
4) My professional background includes work at non-profit organizations (both big foundations and scrappy agencies, as well as 9+ years in academia), private corporations (government contractors, manufacturing, finance, health care, media). I’ve had a few long-term multi-year positions, especially during the first five years out of undergrad, and I’ve also worked short-term & temporary gigs for many, many companies and almost every size & type of office. I’ve worked in offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Warsaw, Bucharest, Prague, and Kiev. I’ve done some project management, budgeting, corporate communications, public relations, proposal writing, office administration, reception, tech support, light finance, training, human resources, recruiting, and database management. I’ve also waited tables and done telephone sales & tech support.
This is to say, I have walked into an office or a job for the very first time many, many times. I’ve had to look around and take quick stock of personalities and environment and learn the ropes, and only through much trial and error, I have developed a pretty good nose for sources of possible dysfunction and trouble ahead.
First thing to keep in mind when interviewing: They are auditioning for you, too. It’s easy to feel like a supplicant and see this only as a one-way audition. You are trying to get them to want you. Employers feed this narrative. It’s definitely easier & cheaper for them if everyone sees them as the ones with all the power, and in the crappy economy of the past few years they have had substantial power. But just like with dating, you want to put your best foot forward, but you are also looking for a situation that fits you. Be enthusiastic as you want to be (or need to pretend to be to elicit an offer), but remain skeptical and watchful. Hiring people and getting them up to speed is expensive and annoying for companies. When looking at a giant stack of resumes, potential interviewers are not carefully weighing every facet of your experiences and looking for ways you might be a good fit. They want to make the pile smaller, so they are looking to weed people out as quickly as possible. However, once they are inviting people from the small pile for interviews, they are most likely looking for reasons *to* hire. Keep this in mind, it gives you power.
So. You apply for a position and the company arranges an interview. We are assuming that the work is something you are qualified for and want to do, and the overall level of compensation and schedule is in the ballpark of what you are looking for. Now we are become spies, sifting and absorbing information about whether we actually want to work at this place.
Preliminary questions: Was it easy to schedule something with them? Were they polite on the phone? Did they give you an idea of what to expect? I once had a place call me to schedule and then cancel an interview four times. Then they called again to reschedule. I said “Sorry, I can’t rework my schedule again. Good luck filling the position!” If you don’t respect my time & can’t stick to a schedule for a one hour meeting when you’re trying to recruit me, what can I expect on the job? I once asked the Human Resources person scheduling an interview “Can you give me an idea of who I will be meeting with that day?” While names would have been good, even an idea of positions & # of people (Big boss? Interview by committee? Just HR for a pre-screen?) would have helped me prepare. She acted like I was asking for precious trade secrets, said snottily “We don’t give out that information,” and hung up the phone. Uh, okaaaaay? I went on the interview, which was ultimately fine, but I gleaned something about the icy & rigid corporate culture of the place from the initial exchange.
Once you’ve scheduled something, read the company website and learn about what they say they do and how they say things are going. Also read: Any recent media coverage. Google the people in charge and see what’s going on with them. Recent hires? Recent departures? Definitely dig around for some financial information and make sure you have an idea of how the place is funded and their overall financial health. Is how the company presents itself congruent with what you find out from other sources? If the place is dependent on state or grant-funding, what does the security & future of that funding look like?
This kind of due diligence will give you so much information, including:
- What personalities are involved? Look at their social media activity if you can find it. Don’t stalk them or follow them if you weren’t already or feel like you have to read every Tweet, but, is the overall picture that emerges a good one? Do you know people or have interests in common? Is their username Wh1tePr1de666 and do their tweets contain a lot of un-ironic uses of “misandry?” There’s a weird etiquette thing where everyone pretends that they aren’t looking at this stuff, but they’ll almost certainly be Googling you. Google or Bing! them right back.
- What opportunities and challenges is the company facing right now? You can shine in an interview if you can talk about your work in context of their bigger goals. “I see you are looking to expand into x market. Have you thought about engaging y & z as sponsors?”
- Oh, they have many legal challenges & PR problems going on? Interesting.
- It gives you information on how to negotiate salary. An expanding business with an influx of venture capital or a new grant will be more willing to give you the top of the range. A business that just laid off staff or whose grant is expiring at the end of the year will be much more conservative.
- What’s their website like? Is it well-designed, informative & navigable? I once turned down a position for a job with a small marketing firm because a) they claimed to specialize in every. single. industry. even though it was just one lady running it and b) she couldn’t even hire good designers or write good copy for her own site, so, what the hell would the marketing materials be like?
Ok, let’s talk physical plant. Once you’re at the building, if the place has a parking lot, check out the other cars. Were they purchased in the last decade? Are they well-maintained cars that look like they are driven by well-paid happy people who can afford things like auto maintenance and car washes? No? You see only ancient, rusted heaps held together by duct tape and CLINTON/GORE ’92 bumper stickers? Interesting.
One possible takeaway: Ask for as much money up front as you can possibly get, because you are never getting a raise.
Look at the building itself & the grounds outside. Is everything maintained? Clean? Accessible? Climate-controlled? Pay attention to your gut reaction. The inside and office itself might be fine, but if the sight of the place instantly depresses you, it’s worth noting.
Once you’re inside the office, I want you to look at three things. Ready?
1) What are people’s computers like?
Are they ancient dusty beige hulks? Are there 10 million tangled cables coming out of them? Does the receptionist try to print out an application for you and spend 10 minutes cursing at the screen and apologizing? IS THIS A FLOPPY DRIVE I SEE BEFORE ME?
True story: I once worked for a small women’s non-profit as the office manager. We hired a development assistant to raise money at a salary of $32,000/year. Her computer was so old and slow that it would not interface with our network printer. The executive director was super-cheap about supplies, and would neither buy a new computer, a better version of a used computer, nor a $80 local printer that would connect to the existing computer. Part of this woman’s job was to create fundraising materials for mailings. You know, that might need to be printed at some point. Anytime she wanted to print something she had to email it to someone else to be printed out, which took forever, because her computer was too slow to do anything. She quit in tears of frustration after less than one month. Dollars raised = ZERO. So glad we saved that $80!
2) How are people dressed?
Dress codes vary so widely, and individuals also vary in their presentation, so this is more of a vibe thing than specifics, but what you are looking for is an idea of the overall dress code and culture and where & how you fit into it. Does it feel super-conformist and stiff, like you just stepped into Camazotz? Also, is there some indication that people can afford to buy a new pair of shoes and get a haircut every once in a while? It’s kind of like the cars in the parking lot – not something that directly affects you or is telling in itself, but it is an immediately visible factor that gives you a sense of how people are paid & treated & how they feel about work.
3) What is the overall vibe?
Are you getting popcorn lung from the breakroom microwave? Do people have giant piles of unkempt papers on their desks? (1 = a messy eccentric, 2-3 = a few messy eccentrics, everyone = there is too much work to do here and nothing is ever resolved or filed). Is it clean, safe, maintained? Does the lighting remind you of a David Fincher movie? If you had to sum the place up in one word, would that word be “dystopian?”
What does the place sound like? What is the energy level like? How do people interact with each other? I like a busy space with some bustle to it. I don’t like a tomb. I don’t like listening to yelling. I don’t like feeling like there is barely held in tension. I will notice if everyone is sighing, or everyone is clenched and tense. I will notice if it smells like weed, cigarette stench left over from the 1970s, or fear. I will notice if conservative talk radio is on in the background. I will notice if every sentence people say starts with “Sorry,…” or if everyone is just a little too happy to see me, like the dinner party scene in 28 Days Later. I really didn’t enjoy it when an interviewer with a filthy office, full of papers and plates with crumbs on, balled up my coat and put it on the floor under his chair because there was no place to hang it, and I decided that a man who could not summon a closet or a coat rack probably couldn’t be the boss of me about anything.
I know a lot of worthy places are strapped for funds, but working for a great cause will not offset the daily damage that a shitty computer, a messy, poorly-maintained environment, and completely demoralized coworkers will wreak on your morale. You’re not in love yet, this is just the first date, so please don’t discount your gut if it’s telling you that this place doesn’t feel good. Do not assume that you will be able to change dodgy things for the better after you start working there. Change happens, but it happens slow.
As for the actual interview, Ask A Manager has a ton of advice on searching for jobs and interviewing for jobs on her site, so I am not going to recap all of that here. I am going to tell you about THE job interview question that has given me the most insight about what I’m stepping into.
“Is this a newly created position or will I be taking over for someone?”
Newly created? You can ask them about their rationale for creating it, how they envision it working. “It sounds like this was created to fulfill a short-term need and clear some backlog, so may I ask how you see this evolving as x project ends?” “If someone does this job very successfully for several years, what kind of opportunity for advancement is possible?” or “What is the time-frame for advancement, if any?“, etc.
You’ll find out loads of stuff.
- Oh, the boss has all these grandiose visions that aren’t in the actual job description? Good to know.
- Oh, you’ll be reporting to 8 different people who all have different ideas of what this job is? Good to know.
- Oh, this is a dead-end mish-mosh of a bunch of unrelated low-priority tasks that piled up when they laid off three people? GOOD TO KNOW.
Will you be stepping into someone’s shoes? Cool. Where are they now?
- Still with the company – “Would it be possible for me to meet them at some point during the interview process and get a picture of the day-to-day?” You will find out the real scoop of things. Bonus, if this person meets and likes you, they will advocate in your favor.
- Fired, you say? – “Wow, that must have been very awkward, though it sounds like you have a strong idea of what you don’t want going forward. Would you be comfortable telling me how your priorities for the position have changed since that event, or any mistakes or pitfalls I should watch out for?“
- Left for another position? – Note to self, research who, what & where. Might give insight into what growth opportunities are out there later, or maybe we know someone in common who can make an introduction.
Almost every interviewer will ask you why you left or are leaving your current job. They are looking both for facts (are they consistent?) and attitudes. Do you go all weird when you talk about it? Do you spend 40 minutes kvetching about every unfair & incompetent thing your old boss did and get very worked up and angry? Are there inconsistencies? Are all of your stories about how nothing is your fault? If you answer this confidently & consistently, it will set their mind at ease. If not, it is a red flag for them about you.
By asking where this job came from and about who used to have it, you are doing the same thing. Does the story hint at some giant drama that dare not be named? Does your potential new boss seem fair, thoughtful, and forthcoming when s/he describes what went down? If the person left for a better opportunity, does the boss seem supportive & reasonable, or does it become a lecture about disloyalty? Someone who can’t or won’t answer simple questions like these either hasn’t thought about it enough to be your boss or is doing some weird power play.
If you do get to talk to the person who used to have the job, listen carefully to what they say and what they don’t say. A person who had a good experience working with the boss will be very forthcoming, the same way a reference who really liked working with you will be forthcoming when the company calls to check on you. A person who had a bad experience will be cagey and vague. If you’re asking “What was the best thing about working for so-and-so?” and getting answers like “uh….The schedule…. I guess” the person is telling you without telling you, “I would cheerfully burn it to the ground.” Just because they hated it doesn’t mean you’ll hate it, but like the other red flags, it’s information.
One more from my NO!-files: If you ever hear a potential new boss talk about how “We’re all like one big family here!” or “We like to think of ourselves as a family!” in an interview, my recommendation is to run far, far away. In my experience that means:
- We have no structure or policies, it’s all just the CEO’s feelings and whims!
- He (it’s often a “he”) sees himself as everyone’s dad. Stand by to be patronized!
- We like to say thank you with flair & mandatory “fun!” outings instead of with money.
- Speaking of money, we don’t use that to motivate you. We use guilt. Just think of the people who would be happy to have this job! And think of all the people we are helping! And think of how your long hours for little pay are helping me, your CEO-Dad, be more profitable! Don’t you want me to have a boat? But we’re a faaaaaaaamily!
- The Venn diagram of “we are like a family!” businesses and “we will call with complex questions every single day of your vacation” businesses are a series of concentric circles.
Obviously this post is non-comprehensive, so tell us: What red flags and bad experiences have you run into during job searching? That unpaid “social media internship” that’s 40+hours/week? The dude who, per Twitter, told @Shinobi42 “I like to hire women because they’ll put up with my shit?” The interviewer that seems to have an office, but really just has his studio apartment with only the bed for sitting? (Recommendation: FLEE AT ONCE.)
Finally, in addition to Ask A Manager I would also recommend Work Made For Hire, Katie Lane’s site targeted to freelancers & creatives. It is excellent. Scripts galore.