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Dear Electra,

I am a Mechanical Engineer searching for a new job. I make great money, but I am very unhappy with the work environment. I would be willing to accept a position in which there were less money if it meant I would be happier in my job. I am trying to find information on how to determine whether or not a prospective employer will offer a suitable work environment.

I know from experience that a potential candidate for a position is shown the company and job in the best possible light and that anything negative is NEVER revealed. That hits you in the face once you start working. How can I interview the workers, management, and company in order to determine what the working environment is REALLY like? I need to know how to approach and speak to these people so I can get a clear picture of what working for the company would be like. It would have to be in such a way as to not offend the company.

Learned My Lesson

This is an issue facing all job seekers and all employers. You see it works both ways: during the hiring process BOTH the candidate and the company are putting on their best face. Neither can be sure that they are getting what they really want or need.

While you can research public information about a company using JobStar's Researching Companies, I have only discovered ONE way to find out what you need to know--to check reality and to see all sides of an employer or a candidate--and that is to talk with people whose judgment you trust in the industry or within the company. This is why networking is the best and sometimes only way to get a job. Someone who knows your skills, accomplishments and preferred work style says: "You know, you would be perfect for this company. They either share your style and values OR they are aware that they NEED someone with just your style, skills and values."

This intermediary might even go so far as to put you in touch with someone inside the company--either the hiring manager or someone who could be trusted and interested in helping you get on board. The same process applies to the employer. They say to people they know and trust: "I need an engineer but this has to be a process guy who is real comfortable with chaos and a fast timeline. Someone who can motivate, lead and produce in a somewhat disorganized but fast growing company."

So you see, networking allows you to fit not ONLY skills and training but personality, style and environment into the job search.

No matter how well you do this, neither party can be 100% sure that it is going to work out! But 50% "more sure" is better than the very little you know when everyone is on their Sunday best behavior. Too often employers hire anyone, hoping it will work out. Too often jobseekers take any job they are offered because it might work out.

Networking isn't perfect and it isn't easy. It is especially difficult for the jobseeker who has kept his/her head close to the ground at the last job and doesn't have a near-to-hand reliable network of colleagues. (In which case you just have to do the best you can with what you have in terms of contacts and network.) There are some tips on networking at JobStar's Get Networked.

Read any article on planning your career and you will see the same thing said again and again: You MUST have a network of others in your profession and industry who know you and your work and who can give you the "inside" information you need to make the best transition to a new job.

But it takes years and lots of on and off the job effort to build up these connections. You may not have them. Without these contacts you can never know the REAL story. (And even when you do have contacts, you have to be discrimminating and sensitive to see where bias, grudges and personal style might cause even a trusted colleague to misread a company or situation or what YOU might need most.)

My personal tip for creating an instant "insider" network:
If you are currently employed (and the company is somewhat difficult to work for), I would assume that you have had many colleagues who left the company in the last few years--either voluntarily or involuntarily. Those people know 3 things:

  1. They know a bit about what you do
  2. They understand some of the problems you are trying to avoid at a new company
  3. They have found new employers. They can share tips and insights on other companies--either their current employer, companies they may have encountered while job searching, or the suppliers, partners, or competitors of their new company.
In short, they have been where you are now and they found a new employer. Because of the common connection they may be frank, generous, and discreet in their help. I would suggest that you get in touch with some of those people as you begin to plan your own job search.


Page last updated: 9:17 AM on 5/22/09