Investigate Like a Quiz-Show Winner
Even if you’d rather scrub morgue floors than do quiz-show-quality research on organizations and their people, suck it up and dig right in — or hire someone to handle the research ditch-digging for you. Consider the rewards:
- You’ll have solid facts demonstrating harmony between your qualifications and the job’s requirements.
- You’ll grab data suggesting you’re a good fit with an employer’s organizational culture.
- You’ll own ammo for brilliant answers when asked, “What do you know about our company?”
- You’ll gain the foundation to absorb new facts during the interview.
- Your preparedness will show you’re a headliner, not a bit player.
Here’s What Online Search Tells Us
Building a treasury of free and useful information on most public — and some private — companies is as fast and easy as following directions to “click here.”
In just an hour or two, you can feast your eyes on these resources:
- Annual reports
- Financial data
- News releases
- Information about products and services
- Industry trends
- Competitor information
You may be able to find out about
- Employee views on a company
- Pending mergers and acquisitions
- Pending layoffs
- Shifts in management personnel
- Corporate culture
- Wall Street’s outlook for the company
Take a pass when you discover a company teetering on a legal edge or dumping employees despite its past promises. But when you discover no impending corporate collapse or toxic bosses running the show, and you want the job, research is a tiebreaker in a tight race with another candidate.
Asking Questions about Potential Employers
Use the following questions as a checklist to gather all the information you need. You probably won’t be able to use information on all the factors that follow, and you may think of others as important for your specific search.
Here’s the rule on how much research to do: The more responsible the job — or the more competitive the race — the greater amount of research you must do to pull ahead.
Size and growth patterns
The size of a company and the scope of its operations say a great deal about the company’s ambitions and opportunities for advancement. Try to answer the following questions:
- What is the company’s industry?
- Has the company expanded globally?
- Is it expanding or downsizing?
- What are its divisions and subsidiaries?
- How many employees does it have?
- How many clients does it serve?
- How many locations does it have?
- Does it have foreign satellites?
Direction and planning
Answers to questions about the company’s plans may be difficult to find outside of the company’s website, its annual report, newspaper business pages, business magazines, or the industry’s trade publications. The following information is worth pursuing, as it lets you know some of the hot issues to address or avoid:
- What are the company’s current priorities?
- What is its mission?
- What long-term contracts has it established?
- What are its prospects?
- What are its problems?
- Is it initiating any new products or projects?
Products or services
You don’t want to go into a job interview without at least knowing what products or services are the bedrock of the company’s business. Find answers to these questions about any company you pursue:
- What services or products does the company provide?
- What are its areas of expertise?
- How does it innovate in the industry — by maintaining cutting-edge products, cutting costs, or what?
How the company is positioned within its industry and how hard competitors are nipping at its heels are measures of the company’s long-term health and the relative stability of your prospective job there. Get to the bottom of these issues by asking some questions:
- Who are the company’s competitors?
- What are the company’s current projects?
- What setbacks has it experienced?
- What are its greatest accomplishments?
- Is the company in a growing industry?
- Will technology dim its future?
- Does it operate with updated technology?
- Cheaper labor: Does it move jobs to another country?
Culture and reputation
How fast is the pace? Frantic? Laid-back? Formal? Informal? Aggressive? Answers to the following questions give you clues about a company’s culture:
- Does the company run lean on staffing?
- What’s the picture on mergers and acquisitions?
- What’s its reputation?
- What types of employees does it hire?
- What’s the buzz on its managers?
- How does it treat employees?
- Does it push out older workers?
Collecting current and accurate information about financials is a long chase, but it’s better to learn a company’s shaky financial picture before you’re hired than after you’re laid off. Dig for the following nuggets:
- What are the company’s sales?
- What are its earnings?
- What are its assets?
- How stable is its financial base?
- Is its profit trend up or down?
- How much of its earnings go to pay employees?
- Is it privately or publicly owned?
- Is it a subsidiary or a division of a big company?
- How deep in debt is the company?
Ready, Aim, Fact-Find
As you begin to scope out and scoop up information for your job search, what curtains must you part?
Privately owned companies are harder to track than publicly owned companies. Local and regional companies are harder to check out than national companies. And discovering the details on a corporation’s subsidiaries or divisions is more challenging than finding out about the corporation as a whole.
Ferreting out the financial and personnel scoop on small and medium-size companies — where the great majority of jobs are found — is a still greater challenge. And unpeeling the onion on start-ups is a major sleuthing gig.
Here are basic questions paired with concise answers to speed you on your way.
Where can I find free guides and tutorials to research companies?
The Riley Guide’s How to Research Employers offers a collection of useful resources. Find it at www.rileyguide.com/employer.html.
Jobstar Central is a California library-sponsored website with organized research leads. The leads are useful almost anywhere in the United States. Find it at http://jobstar.org/hidden/coinfo.php.
Where can I find a variety of free information about companies?
Here’s a sampling of available research that’s not too hard to prospect.
- Company websites are the best place to begin. Run a Google search on the company name. Find Google at www.google.com.
- EDGAR is a government database that provides public access to corporate information. It allows you to quickly research a company’s financial information and operations by reviewing documents filed on Forms 10-K and 10-Q with the Securities Exchange Commission. Find it at www.sec. gov/edgar.shtml.
- The Public Register Online (www.annualreportservice.com) is the largest free directory of online annual reports available on the web.
- Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com) publishes a wide variety of business information you may deem useful.
- Large public and college libraries with business and reference departments inventory a number of resources priced for institutions but free for your use. (College and university libraries typically restrict subscription database access to students, alumni, and faculty.) For example, Plunkett Research Online is a terrific resource for easy-to-understand analysis of trends, challenges, and opportunities in the most important industry sectors, from health care to InfoTech, from banking to energy.
- The social network LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) allows you to find people who work at a company you’re researching and ask them about it.
Where do employees and others post what they really think about a company?
Employee review websites where past and current employees post comments about their experiences working for an organization are coming under new scrutiny. Readers speculate about what’s changing the mix of reviews — negative reviews of companies as employers seem to be disappearing, leaving only positive reviews standing. Judge for yourself by browsing for “employee review websites.”
How can I find out about smaller companies that aren’t in the databases?
Jack Plunkett, who heads Plunkett Research Ltd. (www.plunkett research.com), a leading provider of business and industry information, says that most private companies will not divulge financial information to employees or to job seekers. “However, a few very entrepreneurial firms call themselves ‘open companies,’ meaning that they let all employees know about financial results each month,” Plunkett explains.
What about a company that’s not “open”? Plunkett advises that you politely ask such questions as, What’s the source of the company’s backing? Venture capital? Partners? Family-owned? Angel investors? Is the company profitable? When the company is funded by venture capital or angel investors, the business research expert warns job seekers to beware of potential financial instability.
Here are further ways to get the goods when information isn’t readily available:
- Search local business newspapers published by American City Business Journals. Find them at www.bizjournals.com.
- Company websites won’t tell you about financial stability, but you may get clues to the company’s customers and suppliers. Call and say you’re doing a credit check (which is true) on the company you’re investigating.
- Competitors often have a fair idea of a company’s financials. Perhaps you can find someone who knows someone who knows someone.
- When you really want reassurance, go to Hoover’s, Inc. (www. hoovers.com), and use its links to order a credit report on the employer. These reports, compiled by D&B or a credit bureau, aren’t cheap — find out the cost before ordering. The reports can help you determine whether the company is paying its bills on time or has other problems that warn you away from accepting a job offer.
- Suppose you’re dealing with a mini company, such as one with a half-dozen employees. You can’t find a shred of information written anywhere about the company. After the job offer, you may ask to speak privately with one or two employees “to get a sense of the company culture.” Once alone, you can try to find out what, if anything, the employer doesn’t want you to know. If you’re replacing someone, ask to be put in touch with your predecessor.
- Notice the furnishings as you interview. Are you looking at cement blocks and boards for bookcases? The bare minimum in decor may be a clue to a serious operating capital problem.
How can I check out a start-up company?
When historical data on a company doesn’t exist, you can ask questions of the interviewer: How much capital is on hand? How fast is it being spent? Is additional funding in place?
Additionally, if you can snare a copy of the company’s business plan, review it for probability of success with an accountant, investment banker, or SCORE consultant (a volunteer, free to you, of the U.S. Small Business Administration).
You also can make an informed guess about the competence of the principals of the firm by checking out the track record of the management team and financial backers. Try the free service of ZoomInfo, a people search engine. Find it at www.zoominfo.com.
Also check out the principles on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com).
Library copies of Standard & Poor’s Industry Surveys and Plunkett’s Industry Almanacs are other good places to poke around.
Start-ups, hit with a massive credit crunch in recent years, are hiring about a third fewer people than usual these days. But don’t count them out as places to get in on the ground floor and do very well for yourself in later years.
While no new venture is Oscar-certain, you’re wise to avoid taking a part in a real-life production of Frankenstein Meets Godzilla.
As you approach important job interviews, your research is the first step toward changing your life for the better.
That’s because employers consider company research a reflection of your interest and enthusiasm, intelligence, and commitment. Research shows that you’re thorough, competent, and revved up to work. Every employer likes these profit-building or cost-saving traits.
And not so incidentally, finding out what you need to know about a company may encourage you to look elsewhere.