When it comes to job satisfaction, culture is king.  And if there’s one thing I’ve come to treasure about self-employment, it’s the immunity from having to deal with the politics, turbulence, and shenanigans that often take place within the walls of many organizations these days.

For example, I recently received this note from one of my readers:

“Matt: Thanks again for your blog and the high standards it sets for quality.  I don’t know if you’ve considered this, but I would be interested in hearing about the various climates in organizations these days.

For example, in the position I recently stepped into, the climate is incredibly brutal.  The task at hand is 90% the effort of others, with my team having only a 10% stake.  It’s like putting your mechanic in charge of talking to everyone in your family and all of your friends about what car Honda should build for you. Then getting Ford to build the car.  Then when you don’t make a lot of quick progress, you fire the mechanic and start over.  It doesn’t make sense, and yet that’s my task.

In my organization, everything is laced with a ‘do this or you’ll be fired’ undercurrent.  Once an organization gets a taste of human blood, they become man-eaters. Feral.  A LOT of bad business is being done these days, from what I’ve observed, and it’s being done by people that know better.  People are sacrificing their principles and credibility for the quick buck, rather than doing good business and making their growth real and sustainable.

How do we continue to do good business and stick to our principles in a market that only wants immediate results no matter the cost?”

Here’s yet another story that was sent to me:

“Hello, Mr. Youngquist.  Just wanted to tell you I enjoyed a writing of yours I recently happened across that talked about how many executives become ‘conspicuously absent’ when it comes time to conduct layoffs or terminate employees.  I had to chuckle, because, just as you said in your article, my wife’s CEO recently had someone else tell my wife she was being laid off — but that they’d let her work two more weeks during transition.  Then the CEO took a two-week vacation and returned to work on my wife’s first day gone.  Coincidence?

Anyways, you already know about these kinds of stories.  But she also made another career mistake that triggered it, and I thought you may like to know about it in case you haven’t seen it before.

In her case, the lesson learned was to be aware of organizational policies and local laws before doing anything.  When my wife was on maternity leave, she heard that the office was talking layoffs.  She never feared it would be her, since she had the most seniority in her section.  She called them and asked if it may help them save someone’s job if she were to go part-time for a while — she could spend more time with the child, they’d save money, someone else may not get laid off, etc.  A win-win-win.  They said yes, and thanked her for sacrificing for the company.  Two months after she went part time, they then proceeded to lay her off because she was now ‘part time’ and the ‘logical cut.’

In hindsight, there were two key things she failed to consider: 1) that she forfeited her right to unemployment benefits since she pursued the part-time employment voluntarily and wasn’t forced into it, and 2) her employer’s policy was only to grant severance pay to full-time employees, not part-time ones.

In other words, she did them a favor, not by helping them save a job, but by giving them an opportunity to eliminate her without paying the typical consequences.  I’m just sharing what she learned the ‘hard way’ in case it is useful to you or may help someone else avoid the same pitfall.”

And these stories go on and on.  I even had a client of mine report that she had to quit her job with a local insurance company, for ethical reasons, since the company instructed her and her fellow sales agents to start pushing a new policy on potential customers — without informing them about an obscure loophole that would allow the company to avoid paying out claims, down the road, if the customer didn’t read the fine print.  Pretty sleazy, eh?

So again, in terms of interviewing and job satisfaction, there are few things as important as doing serious due diligence on a company’s culture before signing on the bottom line with them, especially if you’ve got a nagging suspicion something might be amiss.

Here are some tips for conducting this kind of research:

•  Pay close attention to how the company treats you during the “courtship” process; if they deal with you respectfully, show up to meetings on time, and get back to you like clockwork when they say they will, that’s a pretty good sign that the company has a healthy, employee-centered culture
•  Watch the body language and facial expressions of the receptionist and other people you encounter in the office.  Do they seem happy?  Busy?  Friendly?  Stressed out?  These non-verbal clues can’t usually be faked and will speak volumes about the work environment!
•  Ask lots of questions, especially nearing the offer stage, if you have any worries or doubts about certain aspects of  how the company does business; e.g. “How much independence do you give employees in terms of how they perform their work?” or “What is your philosophy of teamwork here at XYZ Company?”
•  Visit the websites Glassdoor and Jobvent to see if any current or former employees at the organization have posted anonymous reviews discussing the company culture; these sites have really leveled the playing field in terms of giving job candidates a true sense of a company’s management style and how it operates, internally
•  Use sites like LinkedIn to look up and pursue dialogue with people in your network who may have previously worked at the company; in some cases, I’ve had clients turn up the actual person who previously held the job in question — unearthing a goldmine of useful information!

While I still like to think that most companies are pretty healthy and functional, culture-wise, it pays to be cautious.  So use the techniques above, whenever possible, to hedge your bets and make sure you don’t get stuck with a “lemon” in your next assignment!