By Michael Carroll, Author of Fearless at Work
Part of being recruited to a new job is being "sold" a polished and bright picture of the company, its business prospects and its culture. And, its only right that a hiring manager, Human Resources and the company overall put its best foot forward when trying to attract talented players. Every enterprise has an exciting story to tell and they ought to tell it well!
But getting a full and realistic picture of a company beyond the "polish" is the responsibility of each individual who is considering joining the prospective enterprise and there are many avenues for doing proper due diligence on a prospective employer. We can "discretely" solicit opinions from executive search consultants, former employees, and competitors and through social networks like Linked In and Facebook, in order to glean "confidential" insights into the culture and leadership of the company. Or we can review the company's benefit package to assess management's commitment to employee health and well-being: does the company have an EAP? Does the medical plan cover annual physicals? Is disability and life insurance covered and at how much? And of course we can review annual reports and financial filings to get a true measure of the business health of the company.
But, one of the most challenging dynamics to assess when trying to determine the health of a company is what I call assessing the company's tolerance for "cranky pants" or to put it a bit more bluntly -- to what degree has the company gone "toxic". We have all either had the experience or know others who have of joining a new company or taking a new job and finding out that many of the people we are working for and with are unpleasant, confusing, disheartened, incompetent or just plain "toxic". And unfortunately when we find ourselves in such a situation we almost always ask: "How did I get into this situation? What did I miss?" But missing the "toxic" signals is easy to do because more often than not they are what are called "undiscussables" -- unspoken "red flags" hidden in plain view.
"Undiscussables", a term coined by Chris Argyris of Harvard, are issues that people are afraid to openly talk about though they are secrets that everyone knows. And highest on the list of "undiscussbables" are manager/leader behavior and co-worker performance*.
Getting some clarity on these "undiscussables" can help us join a company or take a new job with "eyes wide open" and here are three techniques for shaping such a realistic view.
Look for coded words versus candor
"Undiscussables are spoken about in code. For example, describing a CEO, future boss or colleague as a "task master" "tough", "hard charging" "assertive" or "Type a" often signals that the individual lacks the vital emotional intelligence skills to be an effective leader. Or if the workplace values are overly described as "demanding", "competitive" "hard driving", we may be receiving a message that the workplace is less than supportive or possibly blindly counterproductive. One word that always sets off an alarm for me is "interesting" as in " . . . well let's just say this is an interesting place to work . . . " I always sense something toxic brewing when I hear such a line.
On the other hand, if people within the prospective company or project team are candid about shortcomings, willingly share concerns and maturely discuss cultural and leadership challenges the likelihood is that dysfunctional "undiscussables" are not dominant within the culture. When we experience socially intelligent people from the get go in our meetings, the likelihood is that they are elsewhere in the company. Candor and maturity in conversations in anticipation of a prospective engagement bodes well for finding such health and maturity elsewhere within the enterprise.
Read the messages sent through the work atmosphere
One dynamic I am always attentive to when visiting a new enterprise is what messages are being sent -- deliberately or not -- through the workplace atmosphere. When on Google's campus, for example, the vibrant cafeterias, outdoor recreation and pet friendliness say: relax, enjoy, work hard and make it happen. When visiting a certain prestigious business school the message is: we are really really smart (really!) and we prefer associating with important people. Or when visiting a top investment bank, the message is: we are sharp, restrained and going a billion miles a second. It is a good exercise to permit one's poetic instincts to read and phrase the atmosphere of an enterprise since all companies telegraph messages about their cultures -- including hints at their 'undiscussables'; it's just a matter of skillfully paying attention in order to read them.
Can you have a human moment
Finally, another way to get a picture on the health and well being of a prospective company or work team is to what degree you have an authentic human moment with potential future colleagues, managers and associates. Too often the recruiting process has an air of a "breezily-polite" interchange focused more on facts, employment history, compensation and job requirements. And while such practicalities are important no doubt, the inability to connect with something genuine and human is a telling indicator of what might be to come if you were to join the team. Politeness without substance often masks a culture that places more value on goals than people; appreciates results over talent.
On the other hand, when prospective colleagues and managers naturally share themselves -- telling stories, enjoying a laugh, recognizing shared commonalities -- we sense the likelihood that such authenticity would likely be valued throughout the company or team. And when we leave a discussion with a prospective employer feeling well treated, listened to and respected our instincts tell us "This is the place for me!"
*See "Driving Fear out of the Workplace", Ryan and Oestreich (Jossey Bass 1991)
© 2012 Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work
Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work, worked on Wall Street and in the publishing industry for over two decades, holding executive positions at Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. Founding director of AAW Associates, Carroll consults with major corporations on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. He is a longtime student of Buddhist meditation and an authorized teacher in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. Carroll has taught mindfulness meditation at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia University, Kripalu, and the Cape Cod Institute.