Make sure your prospective employer is stable and poised for growth
By Dan Rafter
With the Dow taking a dive, NASDAQ in a tailspin and companies reeling with layoffs and mergers, it's no wonder that today's job seeker is leery about the future of the companies she's interviewing with. Yesterday's dot-com millionaire wannabes are pounding the pavement in search of stability and other job hunters are skittish about the prospects of accepting a new job, only to find out three weeks later that their new company is being bought out or going under.
Before signing on with a new employer, it would serve you well to do a little undercover work. Doing some research in the days before a job interview can save some major headaches down the road. But where to begin?
Find out where the company's workers go to lunch every day. Get a table near them, order a coffee and keep your ears open. Are the employees fretting about possible layoffs? Have they heard rumors of a possible merger in the future? Are any of them throwing around the dreaded "B" word, "bankruptcy?"
If you hear any of this, you might want to avoid a second interview.
Of course, eavesdropping isn't the only way to learn if a company is experiencing financial problems or if it is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. It's just one of the steps that New York-based author Shelly Field recommends to job hunters. The others aren't as devilish, but are just as important: request a company's financial reports, speak with its former employees, read newspaper and magazine features about the firm and pore through the various financial websites on the Internet to see if the company you're considering is making headlines for the right or wrong reasons.
"It's important to find out as much about a company as you can before you accept a job there," advises Field, author of The Unofficial Guide to Hot Careers. "You want to stay at a new job for a while. You don't want to stay there for life, probably, but you do at least want to get familiar with your desk."
Job seekers would do well to follow Field's advice if they're interested in finding an employer that is financially sound and poised for growth. Here, then, are some tips for finding those companies that are financially strong.
Do your research
Most job seekers today have access to the Internet, whether at home or at their nearest public library or university. This is good news: The Internet houses a treasure trove of information regarding companies and their financial stability.
Job hunters should first stop at www.hoovers.com, the home of Hoover's Online, a source filled with business news. Visitors can type in a company's name and find its recent yearly earnings, stock performance and future plans. Other sites filled with business news include the online home of the Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) and Business Week (www.businessweek.com).
Job seekers can also find company information at several of the biggest online job boards, such as Monster.com (www.monster.com). And don't forget to check out the Internet home pages of companies that interest you. Many provide valuable information about company performance. Be warned, though: company websites may provide information that is skewed to make an employer look better than it really is.
You shouldn't rely solely on the Internet to do your research, of course. You can find information that is equally useful in magazines and newspapers. You might stumble across a story predicting job cuts at a company you're considering, or maybe a short feature on the legal problems its chief executive officer is facing.
Also make sure to get your hands on the annual reports and earnings reports of companies that interest you. You can usually get these reports directly from a company, but many are also available at public libraries.
Unfortunately, too few job hunters actually do this research before accepting a new position. Michael Komie, a licensed psychologist and career counselor in Chicago, said that the economic boom times of the 1990s, with low unemployment and big job perks, came with a negative side effect: Because they mistakenly believed that everyone was doing well, job hunters forgot how important it is to research companies.
Don't fall into this trap.
"We learned how important research was in the 1980s," Komie asserts. "Before then, we thought that companies would be stable. We thought we could count on a company to be our employer for life. But in the early '80s, we found out that wasn't the case. Unfortunately, people have forgotten that lesson during the boom times of the '90s."
Talk to people who know
Even job hunters who do their book research before accepting a new position rarely take advantage of a resource that might be even more powerful: people who work or have worked with the company. This is also a resource you can use if you're interested in working at a smaller, private company, one you're not likely to read about in the Wall Street Journal or find on the Internet.
If you know someone who works at a company that interests you, talk to her about what she sees as its future. Has she heard any rumblings about layoffs or buyouts? Are managers forcing employees to log 70-hour workweeks in a last-ditch effort to boost profits? An employee will know the answers to these questions.
An even better resource is a company's former employees. They're more likely to fill you in on all the hidden negatives at a company. They might even have left a company that interests you because they know that the organization is heading into troubled financial times.
Finally, speak with the vendors and salespeople who work with the company you're considering. They often know how well a company is or isn't doing.
"Very few people think to take these steps, but those who do take them can find a lot of information about a company," says Beverly Lieberman, president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates, a Stamford, Conn.-based executive search firm. "Find the IBM rep who sells computers to the company you're considering working with. What does he think about the company?"
Lieberman says it's important to find out as much information about a company as possible before you go into your job interview. Then, once in the interview, you should ask the tough questions about a company's future. Don't expect a completely honest answer, but do expect to at least earn the respect of the employee conducting the interview.
"When interviewing, sometimes you don't think you're in the driver's seat," Lieberman says. "But the best candidates challenge and ask questions from a seat of confidence. Ask really good questions about the business. People who do that are looked on as being really sharp. They're viewed as being someone who is on the ball."
Develop a career plan
All the research in the world can't guarantee that you won't find yourself working with a company facing bankruptcy or layoffs. That's why it's important to develop a career strategy, and to follow this strategy when looking for new jobs.
A career strategy sets out your career goals. If you want to one day become a chief executive officer, for instance, a career strategy might include stops as a department head and senior vice president along the way. By keeping your strategy in mind when looking for a new job, you'll make sure to gain the experience you need to reach your ultimate goal, no matter what happens to the company at which you're currently working.
This is important, career experts say, because in today's working world, no jobs are secure.
"The workplace has changed so dramatically in the last 12 months. Companies that you thought were secure and stable, and always would be, are falling on hard times," observes Cathleen Faerber, owner of the Wellesley Group, an executive search firm located in Lake Zurich, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. "If you were looking for a job in past years, for instance, you couldn't have found a company that was considered more stable than Motorola. Now look at that company. They're laying off tons of people because they didn't keep up with technology as well as they should have."
Because it's now so hard to predict which companies will be strong in two years and which will be gone, a strategic career plan is essential.
"There is no such thing as security today," maintains Faerber. "You should instead focus on how to further your career. The only security anyone has anymore is to go out and get another job. You need to build a rÈsumÈ that helps you do that."