During the good old days -- that is, a few years ago -- some job seekers managed to line up two or more opportunities before deciding which one to accept. It wasn't an everyday occurrence, but it wasn't rare. And even for those who weren't so lucky, offers were common and frequent enough that strong candidates knew they had a choice. You could take your time and analyze the fit. If it didn't feel right, you knew there was another offer waiting around the corner.

That hasn't been true for a few years now. During these days of economic uncertainty and job-market unease, my columns have focused on the art of looking for work, on increasing the odds of an increasingly rare event: finding a job. But I sense that this is changing.

Maybe it is the optimist in me, but based on the number of management positions our recruiting company and others have filled in the past 6 months, I sense that, downstream, hiring will soon increase in companies large and small. Although no one is shouting with glee yet, it's likely that sunnier days are ahead. The only real question is, how long will it take for them to get here?

Whenever they come, those sunny days will signal to readers that they need to start thinking again about the quality of the fit. If there isn't "personal chemistry" between you and your boss -- and you and your company -- a job offer can be an offer of entrapment. There's nothing worse than being trapped in a job you don't like, a culture in which you don't fit.

Defining company culture and personal chemistry

Here's an example of what I mean by "company culture." I tried recruiting a protein chemist with very marketable experience out of a California biotech firm and into a major pharmaceutical company. It felt like a no-brainer, but he would have nothing to do with it. He'd found the perfect match -- perfect company culture -- with his current employer.

During each lunch break, this fellow takes his surfboard out of a closet and hits the water. That's right, he fits his favorite pastime into his workday. He sure wouldn't be able to do that in the Fortune 500 company I had contacted him about. He would probably also be uncomfortable with the number of white shirts and ties at that company, another indication of a poor fit.

The other critical factor in evaluating an offer (apart from the obvious things like the quality of work, the location, the salary, and the benefits package) is the personal chemistry you have with your prospective boss and colleagues. Whereas company culture refers to your fit on a grand scale, personal chemistry is about how you're likely to get along with the people you will work with every day. Does your working style complement your boss's working style? Do your future colleagues seem like the kind of people you'd enjoy being around? After all, you'll spend nearly a third of your life with these people for the next few years at least.

It's critical to think about how both elements of the fit feel to you. So, start thinking about the fit on interview day.

Interview day

If you have a passion as strong and obvious as my surfer friend, you probably can evaluate the fit even before the interview. A company in Des Moines just isn't going to cut it if you want to surf at lunch. However, most of us don't have such rigid requirements. As long as we're given a place to put our work passions to work, we're flexible.

So what should you -- an easy-to-work-with, flexible prospective employee -- look for? It's simple really: You want to feel good about what you hear and see on interview day, to see and hear things that remind you of what you like about going to work each day.

Here's my number-one suggestion for interview day: Be the real you. If you go into an interview projecting a pumped-up, artificial version of yourself, that's the person who's going to get the offer. Congratulations! You now get to be that person every single day. That's how people end up with 6-month or 1-year stays on their resumés.

Of course, you have to be the best "real you" you can possibly be. People who attract top offers are those who can talk positively about themselves without overstating their abilities or seeming arrogant. There is something about candor in the interviewing process that elicits the same response from the hiring manager. The best candidates know that they have got to do some selling, but they also know that overdoing it can hurt them.

Questions to ask


Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

All good candidates bring questions to the interview, questions they've thought about in advance. Some people feel uncomfortable asking questions of their prospective boss. I think that's a shame because I know the boss expects it. You lose points and appear disinterested when you don't ask a few good ones. And by the way, it's fine to refer to your notes.

Here are a few questions about company culture, to be asked of the HR person or any senior staff member:

- How would you describe the company culture here at ABC Biotech? (An obvious question, but don't leave without asking it. It's the shortest route to what you need to know.)

- Please tell me about some of your most successful long-term employees. What qualities do they have in common? (Ralph in maintenance may have been with the company for 30 years, but what you really want to know about is people like you -- Ph.D. biochemists, M.S. microbiologists, and so on.)

- How does the company communicate with its employees? Do people at my level in the company generally know what's going on with major decisions and corporate goals? (It's important to know if it's an environment where people at your level are treated like mushrooms -- kept in the dark and "fertilized" -- or whether they are integrated into the company's big picture.)

- How does the company celebrate big wins? (Does everyone celebrate, or just the bosses? This ties into the question above.)

- What is the company's mission statement? (Another obvious one, but you need to ask. Take this with a grain of salt, as many companies give it lip service only.)

- What's the corporate view of the quality-assurance team? (This question applies to whatever part of the company you'd be joining. It's important to know how well the team is thought of by upper management.).

Suggestions for questions about personal-chemistry issues (to be asked of the prospective boss or any peer-level staff member):

- Tell me about your management style. (Or, "Tell me about Susan's management style," if in a meeting with a prospective colleague. This is a critical question that reveals much.)

- Please share with me some of the secrets for a successful career with ABC Biotech. What kinds of personal traits and work habits work well in your team? (You're looking for specific examples of things that people do and how they behave that work well with this boss. Don't let him or her get away with gleaming generalities. Everyone is a "hard worker.")

- How is work assigned? Is there a regular process for reviewing progress? How often? (One of the great devils of the industry workplace is the micromanager. Here, you're trying to determine just how "involved" the boss is in your everyday activities.)

- Is it easy to recognize success in this job? How will I know when the company thinks I'm doing a good job? (This question ties into the question above and tells you about how the boss views goal setting and performance reviews.)

When reviewing issues like company culture and personal chemistry, go with what you see as well as hear. Although questions and their answers get you part of the way there, on interview day you should keep your eyes open for contradictions between what people are telling you and how things appear. Frowns and warning looks on the faces of lab employees can reveal that everything they're telling you is suspect.

Photo:(top) Andrew Huff on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1000100