Have you ever found yourself in a job that just didn’t fit? You had a great interview, were excited to be offered the position, and realized after only a few weeks or months that it was the wrong job for you. Maybe you didn’t get along with your supervisor, or the company culture wasn’t right for you. Maybe your first impressions of the company and the reality didn’t line up. Whatever the reason, it is always disappointing when we’re not as successful as we hoped in a new job. In addition, poor job choices can have a negative impact on our careers and our reputations.
It is important to approach the interview process with the idea that you are trying to gather as much information as your potential employer. You are in a sense interviewing the company to predict if you will feel comfortable, valued, and challenged while working there. The stress and pressure of job-hunting often keeps us from thinking in these terms, but poor job placement can eventually harm your quality of life, your professional reputation, and your employment record.
Conventional wisdom tells us to approach interviews with the intention of selling ourselves to our potential employers. We’re given formulaic ways to answer standard interview questions. We’re told how to dress and act. But what this well-meaning advice often ignores is how creating an overly manufactured impression hurts the interviewer’s ability to recognize and value your authentic self. A job where you can bring the full power of your skills, talents, and personality to bear is a wonderful opportunity for growth. A position where you have to hide or minimize important aspects of yourself is not good for you or your employer.
The good news is there are several things you can do to prepare for interviews that will help reduce some of the risk involved in choosing a new position.
Do Your Research
Any recruiter will urge you to find out as much about your potential employer as possible, and this is good advice. From the company’s website you can learn about product offerings, company history, and sometimes performance and stock valuation. Always be sure to look in the “about us” or “company” sections. You will usually find information on the organization’s values, vision, or mission. The employment section is usually housed there as well and you can read about benefits and company culture. This information provides an important framework for understanding what your interviewers will be looking for, and clues as to what type of person they are seeking.
Now look a little deeper. If the company lists a set or core values or a mission, see if you can recognize how those elements are represented through the company’s actions. If the company lists “respect for people” as a core value or tenant, see if you can find evidence of this. Do they offer superior benefits or perks compared to their competitors? Have they received any awards, or been listed be a third party source such as the Fortune 100 as a good place to work? Do you know anyone who works there? If so, ask them to give you examples of how the organization supports their stated values, especially towards employees. If you find that there are contradictions between how the company represents itself and its actual actions, this is important information. Asking further questions about how the company supports its values during the interview is highly recommended.
Don’t be afraid to go beyond the company website. Google the organization and look for press releases and industry articles. Look up the executives and learn about their backgrounds and previous roles. If you have the names of your potential managers, look them up on LinkedIn. You may be able to learn more about their tenure at the organization and what they did before. High turnover of executives can be a warning sign of instability. All of these sources will give you more knowledge about who and what the company values, and whether or not it will be a good fit for you.
Digging into Language
Another important element to look for when doing your research is language or jargon that is specific to the organization. On the surface, a candidate who can successfully adopt the language of the organization may seem more like a “culture fit” to an interviewer who is steeped in the company culture. However, it is important to note that specialized language often hides contradictory information. Different employees may interpret these terms in different ways, and sometimes jargon serves to reduce or eliminate discussion or clarification of important issues.
For example, “excellence” is a blanket term that organizations use frequently. Microsoft lists “personal excellence” as one of their values. What does excellence mean to you? Does it mean being really good at everything you do, no matter what? Or does it mean providing a good product? Does it mean fully utilizing your unique talents and strengths, but not necessarily spending the same kind of energy on tasks that are less essential? It’s hard to imagine anyone being excellent at everything.
Whenever you notice an indistinct term, unusual clusters of words, or acronyms being used frequently, ask for clarification. Don’t assume that you and the interviewer (or the interviewer and the company) are interpreting these terms in the same way. Asking questions doesn’t betray ignorance; it shows willingness to learn.
The Interview: Being Authentic
I’m not going to contradict the basic conventional wisdom regarding interviews. Do dress well, be well groomed, and behave in a friendly and open manner. Show up on time, bring your resume, portfolio, cards, or any other collateral that will help you explain who you are and what you offer. However, don’t represent yourself as someone other than you are. If you’re wearing a suit, wear one that expresses your personal style, even if you rarely wear formal clothing. If you’re a cautious, introverted person, don’t try to appear extremely outgoing and gregarious. Putting your best foot forward doesn’t mean someone else’s foot; it just means a polished version of your own. Remember, you want a position where you can be yourself as much as possible. Even if you feel a great deal of urgency about finding a job, the wrong job can be worse than no job.
Remember, you are gathering as much information during the interview as your interviewer. Your interviewer will try to get a feel for your personality, evaluate your presentation against whatever information he or she already has about you (your resume and maybe a personal recommendation), and probably try to get some idea of how you will fare under the day-to-day pressures of the job. If this person is someone you’ll be working with frequently, you need to know the same things about him or her.
Pay attention to how you feel during the interview. It’s natural to be nervous, but you should be able to discern if you feel comfortable and safe with the interviewer, or intimidated and challenged. If you like working in an environment where you are challenged to defend and promote your work, or you dislike conflict and prefer to work collaboratively in a relaxed setting, then this is important information. Paying attention to your emotional and physical state during the interview will also help you stay calm, collected, and objective. Taking notes on all your observations will help you keep track of any information that could impact your decision to take the job if it is offered.
How well structured is the interview? Does the interviewer ask you specific questions about your skills and previous experience, or is it a looser, more conversation-like interview? This may indicate the skill of the interviewer and how well-cast they are in their own position. If you’re applying for an engineering position and your potential manager wants to talk mainly about product sales and marketing, he or she may not be qualified to evaluate the work of technically skilled employees. In subsequent interviews you will want to look closely at whether the other employees’ skills and roles match up.
The Job Killer: Dissonance
A final caveat: one of the hardest things to spot and the most detrimental to your future success in a position is dissonance between what the organization says and what it actually does. This is why it is important to look carefully at how the organization portrays its relationship with customers, community, and employees, to see if it matches up with reality. Nothing is more frustrating and disengaging for employees than repeated dissonance. Most companies set high ideals and fall somewhat short of the mark due to financial and market restraints, and this is to be expected. But organizations that behave in ways that blatantly contradict their stated values can be toxic places to work. Enron’s core values were communication, respect, integrity, and excellence. While they were certainly excellent at making money for a few lucky people, the behavior of leadership and company policies were the opposite of the values they espoused. The emotional and even physical stress that this kind of environment can create should be avoided when possible.
No company is perfect, but be aware of the level of dissonance you can tolerate before it affects your ability to be fully engaged in your work. A start-up that’s had to trim back employee benefits to survive may be understandable and tolerable for you, but a company that espouses openness and honesty but has poor communication and transparency may not.
Know Thyself: Your Values
It will be difficult to know if your potential employer is a fit if you don’t know your own core values. A career coach or counselor can help you identify your values, or you can find an exercise online. A quick and easy way to identify your values is to spend about ten minutes brainstorming and writing down all the things that matter to you. They might include family, honesty, affluence, freedom, or any number of other terms. Make your list, then narrow it down in two phases: first cut the list in half, and then try to narrow it down to no more than five terms. This will give you a good idea of what is most important to you.
If maintaining your family life is one of your personal core values, a company that expects 72 hour weeks is probably not for you, no matter how much it pays. If honesty is important to you, but the company fails to mention it or an analogous term, you’ll want to inquire further during the interview process. Personal values and an organization’s values will probably never be an exact fit, but knowing your values helps you recognize your deal-breakers, i.e., things you specifically want to avoid in a future employer.
The hiring process can provide you with as much insight and information as it provides your potential employer. Don’t waste any opportunity to glean information that will help you make good decisions about your future work. Internet research, word of mouth, and interviews all have the potential to reduce the risk involved in taking a new job. Represent yourself as authentically as possible, and be on the lookout for the warning signs of institutionalized dissonance. Finally, know your values so you don’t end up in a job where they’re violated or marginalized more than is tolerable or sustainable. Find a position where you can build your personal and professional skills and express your talents, and be appreciated for your hard work and dedication.