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It’s 7:06pm on a Thursday. Anna finished her last meeting of the day and clicked the new email notification on her laptop. “Unfortunately, we decided not to proceed at this time”… Another rejection email. Anna sighed.
Anna has been working at her company for almost 2 years. Recently, Anna found out she was greatly underpaid compared to her male colleagues and other peers in the industry. She asked her manager about a raise a few months ago, but was only scheduled the raise discussion months later. She started to apply to new jobs and interview with a few companies, but was afraid to make a career change because she’s been burned in the past. Interviewers promised an amazing position, which turned out to be nonexistent; she struggled to perform in the new role with no feedback from the company and was let go within her probation.
Companies design complicated interview processes over weeks or even months to make sure they hire the right person. What about you? How do you know if a company that you’re spending the next 3 years of your life with is the right one for you? Companies hire hundreds of thousands of employees every year, and if you’re gone, you’ll be quickly replaced. But you and I, we spend 70% of our days every year at work, so much so that our habits, social circle and even our identity are shaped around our work. Working under a bad manager or in a toxic environment can damage our confidence and leave longterm trauma in our professional lives.
What should I look for in a company?
Having worked in recruitment (where I often sit in the middle of all the tech company drama), I realized that no company is perfect, and every company has problems. You have to decide which problems are tolerable for you, which aren’t. Know what’s important to you and prioritise them, so you can have realistic expectations about your future company. I listed out the most common factors in choosing a company (and if you have another one that doesn’t fall under any of these categories, do let me know):
- Salary & benefits
- Flexibility (work life balance & remote work)
- Brand name & prestige
- Learning & growth
- Company culture & values
You could choose to optimise for one or two or potentially three factors, but more would be difficult. For example, large tech companies like FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) could offer you both salary & benefits as well as brand name & prestige, perhaps learning & growth too, but you might need to expect a high workload or being on call all the time, or maybe their approach to privacy conflicts with your personal values.
You can also prioritise two factors, but then have a minimum requirement for a third factor. For example, learning and company culture are the top factors for you, but you want to make sure you receive at least 45k EUR in annual salary. Based on your priorities, you can also start focus on companies that fit your criteria and design a targeted job search strategy.
I also recommend checking out Elpha’s quiz “Should I quit my job?”. If you are reading this, you’ve probably made up your mind, but the questions will take you through these top priorities. You can also use the same questions when deciding whether to take on an offer or not!
How do I find out if the company offers what I’m looking for?
- find out during the interview process by asking interviewers questions;
- speak to other employees or ex-employees outside of the interview process (just like how companies will do reference calls on you);
- Check the company’s online reviews.
If you don’t ask any questions during interviews, you might not know whether the company can cater to your priorities. But the more you ask, the more information you can receive to make informed decisions. On top of that, asking a lot of good questions is also a good sign that you are a motivated candidate. Many hiring managers I worked with might even think it’s a problem that the candidate doesn’t have any questions to ask.
Know your priorities but still not sure what questions to ask? Here’s a framework — think of each of the following four layers in the new job:
It’s like an onion!
Think of the responsibilities, as well as the performance metrics and expectations. Say the position is a Content Marketer role. How is your performance measured? Is it by number of articles written every quarter? Is it by the increase in sign up rates? Then ask where the bar is. Two companies can work with the same performance metrics and still have different expectations. Is it to write 9 articles every quarter or 30 articles? Does the company expect 5% increase in sign up rate or 30%? You can also ask about how independently are you expected to work. Is it a blank canvas where you can be as creative as you’d like as long as you reach your goals, or is there an established playbook that you are expected to follow and improve on?
Having a great manager can make all the difference to your career. They are the one character in the entire company that you’ll probably interact the most with, and they’ll also know the most about your work (unless they’re terrible) out of all your colleagues. I would expect at least two things from a manager — feedback (telling me when I'm not doing well) and validation (telling me and everyone else when I’m doing well).
Being able to give good feedback not only shows that they have more knowledge than me in the field, but also that they care about my professional growth. Here, ask them about the feedback frequency, structure, and impact. Do they have weekly or biweekly 1-on-1 meetings with their direct reports? What’s the typical agenda of a 1-on-1 meeting? If 1-on-1s happen only once a month, and feedback is not a routine in these meetings, I would be wary.
Work with a manager who can encourage you and be your advocate in the company. When I think of the best managers in my life, they were people that would make sure my hard work and achievements are seen by leadership and other team members. My manager nominated me multiple times for our “Employee of the Month”.
Depending on your priorities, the focus of your questions could be very different here, but one thing you should always ask about — collaboration. I’ve seen companies where the teams are incredibly competitive with one another (no, not even in the same job function), and would constantly blame the other team.
Don’t hesitate to be straightforward here: How do you and x team enjoy working with y team? If you could remove one barrier between your team and z team, what would it be? If you are in separate interviews with different team, try asking them the same question about a wider topic: what is the biggest challenge that the company’s facing? What’s the next important milestone? What’s the company’s vision for next year? If the answers are drastically different, that means there’s misalignment.
I often hear candidates ask “How would you describe your company culture?” which, makes sense as a general opener. But here the company can then present their culture as positively as they wish, so make sure to ask follow up questions to get them to open up about the tough topics. The possibilities here are endless depending on your priorities, but I found a very comprehensive list of questions by Lynne Tye at Key Values that you can ask about every aspect of a company.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
No company is perfect
Every company has problems, and remember that you don’t need to stay at a company for 10 years to have an amazing career. Keep your top priorities in mind, know what you look for in a company, and don’t hesitate to drill the company just as much as they drill you!