Researching a Company Before Applying (Part 2)

Last week we talked about where you can go on the Internet to find out more about an organization before applying for a job there. Sometimes, though, a company's not big or old enough to have a collection of reviews out there. How else can you find out what it's like to work there? You can talk to the people who used to work there.

I encourage seeking out former employees rather than current employees because current employees may not feel they can be completely honest if they don't like aspects of their job. Those who no longer work there have less incentive to spin the truth in a positive light if that wasn't their experience.

This process is more time-consuming than doing a quick Internet search, so I don't usually do this before applying to a job, but I will do it before going for an interview. That way I at least have an idea of what questions I should ask when I go to the interview (though in one case I actually pulled out of the interview process because of what I learned).

Finding some to talk to is similar to what I described when talking about informational interviews. You can use the LinkedIn search tool to find people who used to work at the company you're interviewing with. Look for people who worked in the area where you'd be working — even better if they held the same position or internship you're interviewing for. Also look at how long they worked there and how recently, as it can be valuable to speak to someone who has a historical perspective on the company as well as someone who left recently.

Then send them a short, professional e-mail explaining that you're interviewing with X Company soon and would like to ask them a few questions about their experience there. A phone call is best, as you don't need as much of their time as in a full informational interview, but you want to be able to get the vocal inflections that you can't get from an e-mail.

Here are some of the questions you can ask:

  • How would you describe your overall experience at Organization? Positive, negative, in-between?
  • What did you like best about working at Organization?
  • What was most challenging about working at Organization?
  • Why did you decide to leave Organization? Would you ever work there again?

If you know the specific person who supervises the position you're interviewing for, it's a good idea to ask the person you're talking to whether they know that individual and how they would describe him or her.

This might sound like a lot of work, and it is, but it's worth it. At one job where I stayed less than four months, I found out shortly after arriving that the people before me had stayed for similarly short periods of time. If I'd taken the time to look any of them up and talk to them, I might have saved myself a lot of stress and misery.