It’s 2009. Do you know where your next job is?

Finding a new job is tough these days.  New hires are in decline, unemployment is north of 8% so there’s plenty of competition and people who have jobs are making Herculean efforts to hang onto them.

And, if you do manage to land a meeting with a potential employer, the contemporary job interview process is way too one-sided.

Think about it. Companies can size you up like a side of beef. They can check references, implement background checks to see if you’ve been arrested or have a bad credit rating. Companies like Microsoft have even created calculated interview questions designed to see if you’re Mensa material or whether you should be fitted for a drool bucket.

Example: Why is a manhole cover round? Answer: Because it’s easier to cover a round hole with a round cover.


It’s high time that job seekers have some leverage. After all, we have questions, too. So if you’re hip-deep in a job hunt, look past the job responsibilities, the perks and the pay, and take a long look at the company itself. How much money does it make? How fast do they lay off employees? Any government contracts? (It's a big plus in this day and age.) How does it treat its employees? Have they ever been sued? If so, how many times, for what reasons, and by whom? Is the company privately funded? By who?

Knowing the answers to these questions before you accept a job offer can mean the difference between the corporate fast track and career-induced chaos. Here’s where to start:

You Say Hello, I Say Goodbye
Some giddy job recipients may be walking into an ambush they never saw coming. How? By failing to investigate a company’s hiring and firing patterns. Let’s face it. When the good times are rolling, companies typically offer fancier perks, higher raises, better benefits and, most importantly, job security. They have to, in order to stay competitive. But just because they do doesn’t make them a good long-term bet.

If the economy recedes like we’ve seen in the past year, companies will take measures to trim the fat, and they often do so in an emergency mode. That means cutting the most recent hires first. To stay ahead of the game, make sure you ask in your job interviews whether the company has a history of laying off employees. Ask how many job cuts the company has suffered in recent years. If they won’t tell you, the Internet will. Try Dun & Bradstreet, which tracks thousands of companies across the U.S. Or use the stock quote ticker at Enter the ticker for Microsoft (MSFT), for example, in the upper right hand of the home page, and you’ll uncover a cornucopia of information on the computer software giant.

Kick The Tires
When researching a company’s financials or its business practices, take what you’re told with a grain of salt. And don’t pay much attention to annual reports, either. You may not get the straight skinny because it’s not in a company’s best interests. Your best bet is to talk to former employees or check out what the media has been saying about the company and/or its industry. Again, the Internet is a big help. Prowl for stories. Many larger companies have dedicated chat rooms formed by staffers who might give you the sweet and lowdown, probably anonymously. Microsoft, for example, has a great insider’s blog.

Mine Their Web Site

Check out the company’s Web site. The best companies have pages devoted to employees where profiles and testimonials can be found. That means they demonstrate a keen interest in how employees view them. If they don’t, it’s not necessarily a red flag. But it’s not an addition to the “plus” column either.

Socialize, Then Capitalize
One quick way to research a company from the inside out is to use the burgeoning number of social networking sites to get the goods on a potential employer. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are all chock full of career professionals who can provide insights about potential employers. Just sign up and post a query. For example, “Brian.oco wants to know how to prepare for a Microsoft job interview.” Twitter is especially good for job search information, because sometimes it comes straight from the source.

Public Company, Public Documents
If you’re investigating a publicly traded company, it’s fairly easy to check its track record, financial health and forecasts for the future. Because public companies sell stocks to raise capital, many must essentially air all of their laundry, dirty or clean. If they meet the criteria, they must regularly file financial reports and other revealing paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Once filed, the paperwork is in the public domain and anyone can check it. Go to the SEC’s home page and type in the company name. If it’s a privately held company or a smaller outfit with no track record, try your local Better Business Bureau or the company’s hometown chamber of commerce.

The “Tommy Boy” Syndrome
Many private companies are family owned. Keep in mind that moving up the corporate ladder at a family-owned business can be difficult. Your aspirations may be thwarted by the founder’s fondness for his dim-bulb nephew, who covets the same managerial job you do. On the other hand, a publicly owned company is controlled by a board of directors answerable to the stockholders. Key jobs are generally open to anyone with talent. People like you.

Sure, it’s a bit of legwork checking out a company’s financials and its business practices. But a little effort up front can pay big dividends down the road.

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