How to Tell If a Company Is Right for You

A group of young professionals meet at a conference table.

Is there any way to determine whether you’ll actually like a company before starting there?

Applying for jobs is scary. The prospect of making money is nice, sure. But you’re basically signing up to spend at least 40 hours a week at a place you really don’t know much about.

Is there any way to determine whether you’ll actually like a company before starting there?

Well, there’s no foolproof approach, but you can definitely gain a better sense before you apply for a job, after you apply and during the interview process.

Before You Apply

Know what you want to do: If you’re just getting ready to graduate, you might have a general sense of what careers you want to look into, but your skills may translate into all kinds of pursuits you hadn’t ever considered. Before pigeonholing yourself into one career path, research some other jobs.

For instance, you may be a math major thinking about becoming a teacher, but then you hear that the job of actuary was ranked the best in the country. Or, you might graduate with a music degree, but find that you’ll be happier as an underwriter making $140,000 a year.

Bottom line: really make sure you know what you want to do before you start narrowing down your search. You might wind up finding many more opportunities than you otherwise would have.

Look for companies, not openings: Once you’ve identified some careers you think will make you happy, don’t just start typing those terms into a job board. Start looking for companies in those industries, and start making a list of companies you’d like to join.

By really examining the companies in certain fields, you’ll gain a better sense of the standout organizations. Furthermore, some great companies may never appear on big job boards because they prefer to find people through other means. If you only look at job boards, you’ll miss all kinds of opportunities at companies you might ultimately prefer.

Once you find companies, dig deeper: There’s never been more information available about companies than today. Check out a company’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram feeds and blog. You will likely find good information about what it’s like working there.

You can also go to sites like Glassdoor to read reviews from current and former employees. We all know that negative reviews are more likely to get posted, but if there are a ton of messages bashing the company, take notice: a bad culture is more depressing than a great culture is exciting.

See if you have any connections there: This is where the whole “It’s who you know, not what you know” thing comes into play. LinkedIn and Facebook can now tell you whether anyone you’re connected with works at a company you’re interested in. Absolutely reach out to any of those people to ask them if they’d recommend looking at opportunities at their company. This may be the best way to get honest answers, so leave no stone unturned in trying to find connections.

After You Apply

Beware of the process: A messy, confusing hiring process might be a good indication that the organization you’re looking at just doesn’t have its stuff together. It could mean that the company just has incompetent HR people, or it could be a broader indication that the company supports a hectic, frustrating work environment.

Author Alison Green applies to the job search the old adage, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” In other words, she advises that if the general vibe you get from a company is rude, distracted or dishonest, then you shouldn’t be surprised if you start working there and find that the culture is similarly offensive.

Similarly, if the application process is a long, loathsome, impersonal slog, that’s a pretty good sign that you’ll be working at a company with a lot of red tape. It’s up to you to determine if you’d hate to work at a place like that, or if other perks outweigh the frustration of a bureaucracy.

In reality, how many people would decline an otherwise good job because the process wasn’t ideal? For most people, that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But if you have other options, it could be a tiebreaker.

During the Interview

Ask for stories: Researcher Adam Grant proposes that every job interviewee ask one question to get at the heart of the company culture: “Can you tell me a story about something positive that happened at this organization but wouldn’t elsewhere?”

The answers almost always come in the form of seven stories, which boil down to issues of fairness, safety and control. If the boss is fair to his or her employees, if you don’t have to constantly worry about your job, and you have the ability to control your destiny, then you’ve found a great culture. If the person interviewing you doesn’t have a compelling story to tell, maybe there isn’t much good to say.

Ask specific questions: If you have other questions but don’t know exactly how to word them, try being more specific. For instance, instead of asking, “How soon will I get a promotion?” ask the more indirect, but also more specific, question, “Can you give me an example of an internal career path for someone in this position previously?” One is a hypothetical, while the other is a fact.

Now what happens if you fail and wind up working at a company that’s a real mismatch? Learn from your mistakes. See if there were signs you missed or ways you could have learned more ahead of time. You might also learn some things about yourself and that maybe you’d prefer a different career path than the one you imagined. The best you can do then is apply those insights to your next job hunt.