You're looking for a job. Or, better yet, you've found one. It looks like it could be your dream company, but appearances can be deceiving. So before you sign on the dotted line, spend a little time checking up on your prospective employer. That is easier said than done. One of the most difficult things to do when you're looking for a job is finding out what working conditions you're going to face once you've signed that employment contract. This week, we take a look at some of the ways you can research a company to see if it's really all it's cracked up to be.

The First Step: Before You Even Apply

As most of our readers already know, even applying to a company can be an exhausting and time-consuming process. So before you start, try to make sure the company's culture appeals to you. There are five pieces of information that can tell you a lot about the culture of a company: the company's size, its location, its international nature, its financial status, and the public perceptions of the company. Knowing these will both help you determine whether to apply and make your application that much more interesting to the company when you do apply.

You'll be able to find most of the information you need from the company's annual report. If the annual report isn't online at the company's Web site, any business school library should have it. If the company is private, it may not have an annual report, but most of the information you need should be on their Web site or available from a company representative.

Size Matters

If a company employs over 500 employees, it is generally considered large; one with less than 100 is small. The working atmosphere at a small company will be very different than that at a large company. Usually, in a large company, there's more of a set career path within the company, a more rigid job structure, and both your title and job description will mean a lot. In a smaller company, the job description is less important, as you'll probably have responsibilities that grow with the company. In short, you'll need to take more initiative in a smaller company; however, your career progression may be more volatile.

Location, Location, Location

The company's location will have a lot to do with the company's culture as well. First, is the city the company is in a nice place to live? How long is your prospective commute? How do people generally get to work? How much does it cost to go out for lunch? All of these things will be geography-dependent, and they'll make a big difference in the work atmosphere. Generally, if people are happy outside of work, they bring that in to work with them. If they've just spent 2 hours in traffic just to get to work, they're more likely to be miserable and difficult to deal with during the day.

International Company of Mystery

If a company is international in nature, it will also affect the culture and working atmosphere--especially if the head office is somewhere else. "Head Office" culture is quite different from "National" or "Branch Office" culture. Traditionally, head offices were where "all the action" was, and where you had to be to get anywhere in the company. Branch offices were "more relaxed," but with less control over what you did from day to day (all major decisions being made somewhere else, by someone who didn't know you). Recently, however, some companies have given more power to their branch offices. You should know which type of office your position will be in, and you should prepare questions about branch autonomy for when you're interviewing at a branch office.

Show Me the Money

The company's stock price history will give you a slightly different perspective on company life. For public companies, this is available online at a variety of sources--look up the company on Yahoo Finance and ask for a 2-year stock price chart. If the company's stock has skyrocketed in the last 6 months, it's likely to be a crazy place to work--high growth, with everyone taking on a lot of new responsibilities every day. If the stock price has been going slowly but steadily up, chances are it's got a pretty good culture--employees with stock options are still happy, but the growth is being managed so that the work environment is at least predictable. If the company's stock price has been going down significantly, you should find out the reason why--and no matter what the reason, it's likely not to be as fun a place to work, because people aren't able to cash in their stock options.

... But What Do Other People Think?

The way the public perceives a company will tell you a lot about what the internal culture of that company will be like. However, discovering this can be quite difficult. Sites like CareerMosaic have company profiles, but the profiles on most of these sites are written by the companies themselves. Although useful information, bear in mind that they are written by the company and specifically targeted to people who are thinking of working there, so take the information in them with a grain of salt. More useful are consumer protection sites like Consumerama that tell you about people's complaints about companies, lawsuits pending, and consumer boycotts. Because chances are, if your company is being boycotted by consumer groups, has lawsuits pending, and people are griping about their products, it will effect the morale of the people working at that company.

Step 2: Before the Interview

So, you're general feeling is that the company you've chosen is going to be just your kind of place. And they agree! At least enough to give you an interview. Before you go in to talk to the company officially, you should talk informally to people that work at that company. People in the department you're applying to. People in Human Resources. People in investor relations and public relations. And any friends or relatives you might know at the company. During these conversations, look for words and phrases that are constantly repeated.

Then, take a tour. Many companies offer tours, usually led by retired employees. You can learn a lot about a company by looking around during these tours. Find out what the company is the most proud of. And look at the people working around you. Do they seem happy? Overworked? How big are their offices or labs? How are they dressed?

Another thing to do in order to get a general feel for the workplace is "the parking lot check." By hanging out just outside of the company parking lot, you can find out a lot about it. What time do people show up to work? What kind of cars are they driving? How are they dressed? Are people car-pooling? A place where everyone shows up in their own cars at exactly 7:30 a.m. will have a very different culture than one where people are car-pooling in at 9:00 a.m., or one where there's a random stream of cars between 7:00 and 11:00 a.m.

Step 3: The Day of the Interview

If you're lucky enough to have your interview take place right at the company (instead of at your school or some other location), this gives you yet another opportunity to see people that work there. After your interview, ask to go to the bathroom. But don't go straight for the toilet. Wander a bit and poke your head into doors. It'll allow you to see more of the workplace.

After the interview, get lost. Literally. Instead of heading for the parking lot, deliberately take a wrong turn and walk into a part of the company you have never seen before. Keep alert, and look at the people you pass--and talk to them. How compatible a workplace is it with your own sense of what a workplace should be like? Are the people grumpy or keen? Are office doors open or closed? How many people are playing solitaire?

Step 4: After the Interview

It's never too late to find out about a company. Even after the interview, even after the job offer, you still have an opportunity to find out more about the company. If you've received an offer, try to get it in writing. If you have it in writing, and it's got an expiry date on it, you can bug the people at the company as much as you want until you've made a decision, or until the expiry date. Call them. Ask to come and see them. Have lunch with your new boss. They'll make time for you, because once the offer's out, it's in their best interests to have you accept it. And trust your gut--if the place feels right, it probably is.