4 Ways to Spy Your Way In (or Out)

If you're a job seeker, do yourself and employers a favor and determine if you're a good match with the company's culture.
February 23, 2012

From the first “Culture Beat” column, we’ve been talking about cultural fit. And increasingly, managers and recruiters are being encouraged to assess cultural fit during the hiring process in order to ensure that candidates will assimilate well.

If you’re a job seeker, though, there are things you can do to determine whether you are a good match and help the company out. After all, it's just as important for you as it is for them; you will not be satisfied or productive in an environment that doesn’t support your values and vice versa.

The best way to do this is to spy. Before you take the job, spy on the people, spy on the process, spy on the behavior and spy on the place. You must observe carefully and ask questions during each phase, considering what negative or suspicious data say about the company as a whole.

Spying on the people

Prior to the interview, query your network to find people who have worked at the company or know others who do. What are their impressions of the leaders, employees and overall culture? Once on site, ask to speak to employees besides the ones who are interviewing you, especially the person in your position and the person who will be your direct manager. Meet these individuals face-to-face if possible. While you can’t reasonably expect an existing employee to trash her company outright, you can read between the lines. Ask each person how long they have worked there and what they like best about their job.

Spy on the process

From the recruiter to the receptionist to the hiring manager, were the application and interview process conducted in a professional and organized manner? Was everyone prepared and considerate of your time and did they respond to your communications promptly? Your answers here will provide clues as to how seamlessly things will work when you are a full-time employee. The hiring process should include due diligence, but not too much. You don’t want to be offered a job on a whim because that shows carelessness, but an unwieldy process can signify layers of red tape you’ll have to cut through to get anything done on the job.

Spy on the behavior

How is the rapport between you and your interviewers?  Does the conversation flow easily, or does it feel like the distance between you and them is as wide as the Persian Gulf?  Ask questions about the organization’s culture, such as:

  • How would you describe your culture?
  • What qualities are essential for employee success in your organization?
  • What managerial style does the organization promote?
  • What professional development opportunities do you offer?
  • How do you encourage employee collaboration and camaraderie?

Do you sense that the interviewers are providing thoughtful, honest answers to your questions?  Are the responses relatively consistent from person to person?

Spy on the place

Pay close attention to how you feel as you walk through the office. Are you at home and can you imagine working there? Is the atmosphere lively, or does it feel like your soul is being sucked out? How are employees dressed, and what does personal space (i.e. individual cubes or offices) look like? Do photographs and employee awards adorn the walls or is each cube indistinguishable from the next? Does the technology look up-to-date and are the grounds well-kept? Visit the cafeteria and other common areas, listening to see if conversations are taking place or if people are sitting in silence.

What kind of spying have you done to make an informed decision about accepting a new job?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian