5) Soak Up the Ambiance
When you're scheduled for an interview, arrive early—really early, 30 minutes ahead of schedule—and say this to the receptionist: "I've got an interview at 2 p.m., but I got lucky with traffic and got here way ahead of time. Please don't bother (Mr. Trump) just yet—I'll remind you when we're closer to the hour." Then sit in the office, watching the foot traffic and listening to the conversation among employees and vendors coming and going. This is a great way to get a feel for a business. Are people happy or stressed? Are they chatting pleasantly with one another, or does the place seem like Death Row? A lobby visit is a great way to drink in an organization's culture.
6) Get a Different Perspective
As you talk with your prospective hiring manager, ask him or her, "Would it be possible to talk with (a team member, a customer, a vendor)?" If you're in procurement, for example, it makes sense for you to meet at least one supplier by phone. If you're in sales, you should be able to talk with a customer. If you're anybody else, it makes sense to meet with at least one co-worker—without the manager in the room. If your request is rebuffed, take note. Unhappy people don't make good ambassadors. If you do get the opportunity to meet, ask your new contact what he or she believes the organization's biggest challenges are and what makes it a great place to work. If you don't get a quick reply to that question, take heed.
7) Call in Your Posse
Send a blast e-mail message to your friends and colleagues (bcc:ing everyone) and ask them whom they know at XYZ Corp., past or present. What's great about this approach is that your friend can make an introduction for you, lowering the wariness barrier and raising the trust level between you and the person whose insight you seek. Don't ask, "What is the culture
like?" This question is nearly impossible to answer. Rather, ask for a culture-related story or two—incidents that illustrate the way things get done in the shop, the way decisions get made, the way people are praised or corrected, and the level of respect (if any) in the environment. Stories are tools for getting these elements across.
8.) Investigate the Product or Service
Sounds obvious, but don't take anything for granted: Buy the product or service your next employer makes or distributes. Use it, and call tech support to ask questions and learn more about it—and about the way customers are treated by this company. If you can't afford the product or don't need one (an oil tanker, for instance), contact sales to request product information be sent to you. Check it over carefully. Is it current as far as you can tell? Does the salesperson follow up with you? When you make your query, is it handled efficiently, or are you sent into circular voicemail hell? These cues to the speed and energy level of the organization are important, even if your prospective job is on the other side of the company. Disorganized companies don't tend to be fun to work for.
9) Join a Group
Join a discussion group on LinkedIn, Yahoo!groups, or Ning to hobnob with people who know this employer better than you do. Follow the conversation and chime in with your own questions to learn what's working and not working, what customers are saying, and what the industry is doing. A job interview isn't a one-sided process—your résumé is your most valuable asset, and you can't afford to damage it by working in second-rate enterprises. Do your research, and accept your next offer with confidence.
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.