Anyone who has ever worked knows there's a lot more to job satisfaction than a paycheck. A workplace's physical and psychological environments are also essential for a happy employment situation. This is even more true for potential targets of discrimination: women, gays/lesbians, older workers, workers with disabilities, veterans, Asian Americans, African Americans, American Indians and Hispanics/Latinos.
Before accepting a job, it is important to be at least reasonably certain you will be treated fairly and with respect. Although there are no guarantees, here are three steps you can take to get a reasonably good sense of a company's environment.
1. Ask Good Questions During the Interview
This doesn't mean you should come across like an undercover agent for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Interviewers will almost certainly be put off by candidates who grill them mercilessly about issues surrounding diversity and discrimination. "The thing you don't ever want to do is give any reason for them to reject you," says Barbara Mitchell, principal at the Millennium Group International. You're much better off asking more general questions, such as:
- Why do you like working here?
- How important a role does teamwork play in your company?
- What opportunities for advancement exist in your company?
- What makes people want to stay here?
- How open are managers to differing viewpoints?
Obviously, different people have varying needs, and some of those needs should be addressed openly. "It is perfectly acceptable for applicants to ask how many minorities are in positions of authority," Mitchell says. She believes it is also acceptable to inquire about mentoring programs designed to acclimatize diverse workers to the company's culture.
If you are physically handicapped, you may need to discuss your accessibility requirements. Here again, tread carefully. Twenty different questions about the availability of ergonomic office equipment may raise red flags for the interviewer.
2. Take the Tour
This will often answer at least as many questions as the interview does. Keep a mental checklist of the following:
- Do the employees look happy?
- Are the offices clean and well-lit, or are they dim and sloppy? Often, the visual culture is a good indication of the healthiness of a workplace.
- Does there appear to be some diversity among the employees? Bear in mind that a diverse pool of employees is by no means a failsafe guarantee of a good working environment. Mitchell suggests observing people to see if they appear to really want to be there. "Don't look for people who look just like you," she says.
If possible, show up a few minutes early and talk to the receptionist. "They're gold mines of information," says Mitchell. Pay careful attention to small details, such as whether you're offered something to drink while you wait, or whether people smile and say hello as they walk by.
3. Research the Company
Often, you can glean the information you need without asking pointed questions during the interview. For instance, if you're gay or lesbian and want to know whether the company offers partner benefits, look online, as company Web sites increasingly offer detailed descriptions of benefits packages.
Look over the company's literature carefully. For instance, employee photographs can give a good indication not only of a company's diversity, but also of its promotion practices. A company with several African American employees but no managers might properly send off warning bells.
If possible, employ the "six degrees of separation" strategy. That is, see if you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who works for the company in question. Getting the inside scoop on company politics can often be enormously helpful, both during the interview and in your own decision-making process.
If you are very concerned about the possibility of harassment in the workplace, you may want to expand your research to include possible EEO lawsuits pending against the company. The best way to do this is to search a legal database, such as Lexis or Westlaw. Take what you find with a grain of salt, though. "Companies can have cases filed against them frivolously," says Mitchell. Obviously, if there are hundreds of cases, you'll want to look for a job elsewhere.