Get Creative to Find Out Whether You'd Fit In

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 2009

When Marcia Feola wants to know what workers are really thinking, she wanders around and looks for themes to the cartoons they post on computers, bulletin boards or desks.

"Humor is the truth about the culture in those jokes," she says, whether they point to being snowed under with work or finding managers always in meetings.

When Jeffrey Kudisch talks to his MBA students about locating an employer that's a "good fit," he suggests asking questions before and during the interview. "Selection is a two-way street," said Kudisch, who teaches management at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

Both Feola, an executive and organizational coach, and Kudisch say the job hunt should include effort spent finding a good workplace that matches the job seeker's talents and approach. Especially now, when jobs are harder to find, it's important to home in on one that will work well for you -- and which will last.

Studies have shown a relation between great workplaces and financial success. "Those companies that have a strong, positive workplace culture are more successful; you're more likely to keep your job with them," said Amy Lyman, director of corporate research for the Great Place to Work Institute, which consults with employers and creates best-employer lists (including the Fortune magazine list).

List a dozen areas important to you in your work, your values and your life. These could be flexible hours, elder care assistance, leadership training, room to grow or bonuses.

"Know what you're looking for," said Feola, whose firm, PowerfulWork, is in Rockville. Understand "what kind of productive happy environment" suits you and your work style. After you develop an inventory of best work-environment and boss attributes, you'll know what questions to ask.

Start early with questions to test the waters with a recruiter or human resources person before you get to formal interviews. Ask about how management communicates with employees and about the training and development opportunities for the job you want, Lyman said. Find out about volunteer programs -- great for community support and building camaraderie. And, if the recruiter is working in house, ask about the organization's culture and how workers get their questions answered.

Lyman suggests watching for this red flag: great employee programs being offered but low usage of them. "Ask very innocently, 'How many people participate?' " she suggests. "If it's a great company they'll tell you all kinds of things. . . . If they can't, you'll want to do the follow-on questions" to learn more.

Another key consideration, Feola noted, is your next boss. Consider what your current supervisor does that you find supportive and helpful and what she is lacking. "What kind of boss do I want? Some people want things very clear, very prescribed" while others crave independence and an open agenda, she said.

Find out more about your future boss by asking the kinds of questions interviewers often use: "Tell me about a time when an employee really disappointed you. How did you handle it?" Or, "Describe your proudest accomplishment as a manager."

Throughout your search, keep asking great questions -- and do it in a way that shows you to be curious and engaged. Kudisch suggests asking everyone, "If you could change anything about the workplace, what would it be?" Or perhaps: "How often do you receive recognition and praise?"

To really understand whether the workplace lives up to its billing, spend time with employees -- at work or at an after-hours hangout.

"Spend a lot of time observing the workplace," said Feola, who sometimes helps organizations with culture and team-building. "Look at employees. Are they happy, rested, energetic? Are people in offices with doors closed? Is it bustling and noisy or quiet?"

"You want to go somewhere where it's fun -- where it's not work," Kudisch said.

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