3 ways to decide if a company is a good fit—before you accept an offer

Eric Reed, Contributor
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So you've begun looking for a new job.

A job change is an exciting move, and these are exciting times in which to do it. Far from the days when someone could expect 50 years and a gold watch from their first boss, changing jobs today is part of the culture. By some estimates most workers will have four different jobs by their early 30s alone.

Job hopping has become acceptable — expected even.

So you've got your stack of newly printed resumes (in multiple formats, of course). Tabs are open with every employment site under the sun and you skipped your own wedding to write personal cover letters to each and every human resource manager. Now what?

Now you start checking up on corporate reputations.

More than two-thirds of American workers say they won't work at a company that has a bad reputation, even if means continued unemployment. Corporate reputation and the culture that breeds it, together known as "the employer brand," have become such a critical part of the job search that it's begun bleeding over to the bottom line.

Lemonis: An obvious place for great employees - is in plain sight
Lemonis: An obvious place for great employees - is in plain sight

Job seekers have begun to shy away from employers with bad word-of-mouth, wanting to feel like they'll be well-treated at work. According to a Harvard Business Review study, the effect has become so pronounced that it increases HR costs by 10 percent per hire, and can drive away talent altogether. Half the employees that study author Wade Burgess interviewed said no amount of money could ever convince them to sign on with a toxic enough company.

"Consider," Burgess wrote in his study, "that unemployment in the U.S. has dropped below five percent for the first time in eight years, tipping the balance further in favor of employees and job seekers… [Workers] now have more choices and bargaining power than they've had in nearly a decade."

For job seekers, that's a very good thing.

According to Moritz Kothe, CEO of the employment research site Kununu, a company's reputation can reveal a lot about actual working conditions. Word of mouth is, often, more honest than when everyone is on their best behavior during the interview.

"What companies sometimes do," he said, "[is] oversell themselves. I call it decoding HR. So, in an interview stage companies would say, 'it might be a challenging boss' or a 'lively environment' and everyone knows what that means. In a world where resources are scarce, employers will showcase themselves as sometimes even more than they are."

NYC is not actually a great place to find a job
NYC is not actually a great place to find a job

"Focusing on short-term solutions to fill positions, they sometimes tend to oversell themselves," Kothe emphasized. "[They] pretend to be somebody that they aren't really, leading to mismatches and the wrong employees starting in positions and leaving after a few weeks."

Armed with this knowledge, here's how to proceed.

1. Do your research

Figure out what sources to rely on.

While it's easy to discuss reputation in the abstract, you can't just hang out around the water cooler. You have to decide where to go for information and how to judge its credibility.

Start by asking yourself whose opinions matter the most and what you value in your career.

Depending on your priorities, corporate reputation could mean anonymous postings on job boards, because maybe you want to lean in to the wisdom of crowds. Maybe it means asking around to friends and colleagues, because you trust the word of people you know. Maybe it means seeking out a mentor or someone with years in the industry, because you prioritize experience.

Maybe it means none of the above and something else entirely.

Decide the sources that you trust and reach out to them. Corporate reputation is about soft skills and how people interpret the workplace, so make sure you feel good about someone's judgment before relying on it.

2. Decide what's important

Reputation covers the "other" part of an office. Job postings address black and white questions such as pay and benefits, but reputation covers the grey areas and subjects of personal interest that you can't find so easily.

Professionals in these cities take home the most money after rent and taxes
Professionals in these cities take home the most money after rent and taxes

Does this employer hire from within? How tolerant are they of abusive bosses or, on the other hand, will they call you pushy if you ask for a promotion? Of the vacation days they give, how many can you use without consequence? Does a "fun" office sound like a great, relaxed environment or a juvenile playground for adolescent 20-somethings?

These are all important questions, and ones you need to define for yourself.

"It's all about very specific and individual metrics," said Kothe. "Some people might be annoyed by the fact that bananas are in the office kitchen on Wednesday. Other people might think it's a nice perk. Even someplace that at first glance doesn't have a good reputation, they might be a good fit for somebody."

Finding a company with a good reputation means defining what pieces of that reputation matter most to you.

3. Don't ignore red flags

Individual needs notwithstanding, there are a few red flags never to ignore. For example, if a company tolerates a sexist public face, what do they accept behind closed doors? That kind of environment makes workers miserable and careers stagnant. Avoid it.

Other major red flags, as Burgess wrote in the study cited above, involve job security, dysfunctional teams and poor leadership. Calling them the "three factors that contribute most to a bad reputation as a place to work," they are some of the biggest issues that job seekers cite when avoiding a given workplace.

For good reason. Whether it's poor leadership, a toxic workplace, high turnover or poor work/life balance, some problems generally can't be fixed. Ignore them at your peril.

With a stronger economy and applicants who can call more of the shots than they did this time eight years ago, corporate reputation means a lot. Defining exactly what it is and where it comes from — that's up to you.

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