Monday, 30 August 2010

Don't forget... you're assessing us too

Many graduates find themselves nervous and in awe when attend an interview or assessment in a fast-paced office where dozens of people are employed. It is sometimes only when a job offer arrives and a decision has to be made that you may realise that the finer points of the experience have eluded you.

It is easy to slip into the mentality that an interview is a one-way assessment. The experience is harrowing enough without having to focus on what's going on in your surrounds. You should remember however, that this is one of the only opportunities you will have to decide whether this is a place of work that fits with your ideal, or even acceptable, working environment - and you should ensure you do not waste this opportunity by being aware of what you should be looking for. You are in a position where you can judge the company as much as they are judging you.

Most companies hold their interviews or assessment days on location - for example, IBM and Accenture both hold the majority of their graduate assessment centres at their base offices in London. If the opportunity to visit a company office arises, be prepared to observe as much as possible in order to decipher the kind of company they are - and occasionally this can be different to that is portrayed at interview or in company presentations. A visit to the location is often the only chance available to see the day-to-day inner workings of the company.

The Staff

Inevitably if the interview is held on company site, the staff who normally work there will be going about their work. Their demeanour is one of the most important clues as to the company culture. It is largely impossible for you to take everything in on the day of the interview, as focusing on the job at hand is of paramount importance, however trying to keep the following in mind will help to assess the culture:

-       Do the staff appear to be enjoying their work?
-       Is there a social atmosphere - are people chatting, or are any discussions very formal?
-       Do they smile at you and appear welcoming or do they avoid eye contact?
-       What is the dress code? Is it very formal, business casual or very casual - are people wearing jeans and t-shirts or wearing suits (be aware that sometimes companies have dress-down Fridays or 'Denim day' charity events)?
-       Look at the age ranges of the employees - are there many who look like they might be recent graduates? A large graduate intake may mean the company has a structured programme which will ensure that as a graduate you get the appropriate career guidance, training and support through your early years working in the industry.
-       Does there appear to be a hierarchy or is it difficult to tell the junior and senior staff apart?
-       If you have 'down time' between interviews, are any staff sent along to meet you for informal conversations?

The Logistics

Whilst the location, layout or office d├ęcor may not seem of great importance on the day of an interview, they can again reveal ways of working or indications about company culture to you. It is not always possible to observe everything, but looking at signs, layout maps and what staff are carrying can give some ideas about what facilities are in the building. 

-       How does the reception area look - is it imposing / welcoming / very modern and flashy? Does it have plasma screens promoting the company or posters and advertising campaigns?
-       Is the office open-plan or are there lots of smaller individual offices?
-       What type of facilities is on offer - are there a canteen / an outdoor area / a gym?
-       Do the chairs and desks look expensive? Do the desks have 21 inch monitors? This may imply a company looks after its staff - that their health, safety and comfort and efficiency at work is paramount, and that they are willing to pay extra to ensure this is the case.
-       Are there assigned desks or is 'hot-desking' in place? This implies there may be a degree of mobility involved in the work.
-       Are there a lot of branded folders, bags, and merchandise in view? This may imply that image and branding is of importance.
-       Do they reimburse any expenses you incurred travelling to/from the interview?

The Job

It is likely that there are a large number of job roles in view at any given time on a visit to a company site, there will always be indications which hint at the type of work the staff do on a day to day basis.

-       Do they have posters of their work or clients on the walls? Do you recognise any of the campaigns or customers?
-       Are there many meeting rooms with lots of meetings going on? This may imply lots of teamwork or client interaction.
-       Is the main entrance busy with people coming and going throughout the day? Do these people appear to be staff or visiting clients? Again, this may give an indication of the type of day to day work.
-       Can you see evidence of awards and achievements around the office? This is often a sign that the company invests in research & development, or recognises individual and team achievement amongst its staff.
-       Do staff work from fixed PCs or laptops? Again, laptops may imply that mobility is required.
-       Are there a lot of reference books and manuals on desks? This may be an indication of new development work, research, or an encouragement of on-the-job learning.

Some companies chose to do interviews at hotels or specialist conferencing facilities. Sometimes this is due to lack of office space, or the location of the interviewing staff, or sometimes it is because they want to put across a particular persona to the graduates being interviewed.  Whilst this type of interview does deny the opportunity to observe the company culture and staff in their native arena, there are still a number of indicators which can be taken into account.

-       What type of hotel or conference facility been booked? 
-       How are the staff dressed?
-       Is food, tea, coffee or drinks laid on for interviewees?
-       How many of the company's staff are on location to make sure that everything runs smoothly?
-       Is the time management good or are they constantly over-running and you find yourself waiting an hour for your interview?
-       Again, do they offer to pay any expenses you incur, if applicable?

Through these kinds of observations, you may be able to establish if the trip to undertake the graduate assessment is something which the staff approach with enthusiasm because they are rewarded by the company - with a nice hotel, reasonable travel arrangements and comfortable living whilst there.

The actual interview is also an opportunity to unearth something about company culture, but often the interviewers are well-trained and highly professional, so the image they portray may not always be representative of a typical person or personality in the company, depending on the type of interview which is in question. Take in everything they say and do, and then use that in combination with observations on the day, to make a decision about the kind of culture which appears to exist in the company. The culture is a very important part of the company and will be the driving factor of work hours, social activity and ways of working on a day to day basis.

Regardless of the marketing strategies or public perception of a company, what you should be most observant of during your time at interview is the opinions and attitudes of the employees and the atmosphere and ethic of the work place.

If, when that all important job offer arrives, you can see yourself in that place, with those colleagues, in that atmosphere, doing that work, then chances are, following that gut instinct is not something you will regret.

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