My friends in real estate say that homebuyers do not always tell the truth when it comes to the type of house they really want to buy.

ask questions“The more I show them, the closer we get to the truth — what they really want,” said a successful Realtor with a ton of experience working with both first-time and very experienced buyers. “It is interesting to watch their initial pushback and dissatisfaction with the houses the tour and how, as they see more options, what they said they want morphs into a new vision.”

In the world of a job search, candidates should be on the alert for employers who do not know what they are looking for.  It is not that they deliberately withhold information or distort, but they are sometimes conflicted with what they are really seeking in terms of competences and personality profile.  They may go through several different types of candidates before they have that moment of truth and lock in on what they really want and need.

Sometimes the employer’s indecision is based on lack of buy-in by their senior team who come to the decision table with conflicting points of view and turf defense issues.  Other times the employer’s seeming lack of transparency is driven by the fact that the organization will not come to terms with its challenges and weaknesses; they simply cannot bring themselves to tell candidates about how things really work.

This does not mean the employers are unworthy.  Far from it.  It means that employing companies are composed of human beings and one of life’s immutable truths — human nature drives behaviors.  No one, and that includes corporations, enjoys discussing their failings and weaknesses, even when we are talking about truth.

More than 15 years ago, as I was leading a mission-critical search for a Chief Information Officer for a large public health system.  The CFO became upset with information in the revised Position Prospectus, our comprehensive job description and offering statement.  This document pointed out some of the significant challenges and real obstacles to success within the organization.  “You can’t say that in the document,” she asserted.  “Why,” I asked, “Is it not true?”  “Yes, it is true,” she replied but we do not want the candidates to know about that! It might scare them off!”

My response was direct, “Don’t you think that this is the least embarrassing time for a candidate to find out?”

I had done a lot of work for this health system so I felt fairly secure in challenging the client.  But that is not always the case when it comes to recruiters — internal or executive search firms – and that means more of the burden to understand this element of the corporate culture falls on the candidate’s shoulders.  They have to ask more questions on a subject that few ever raise: The corporate culture.

You start by asking the recruiter but it is  often doubtful you will get any truly helpful information, candidate say.  Many recruiters tend to be risk-adverse and they do not want upset the powers that be by being too honest since the current search is all about securing the next search.

Not asking these questions because the candidate fears the risk of upsetting the prospective employer is not a particularly great idea.  That thinking reflects the candidate side of the human nature equation — not wanting to offend a potential boss.  But the truth is that unless  the government is about to throw you into debtor’s prison, taking a job because you are desperate to earn a paycheck before thoroughly exploring these important issues is a big mistake.  It could well lead to a short employment tenure, further compromising your career brand and multiple your personal finances.

Here some questions I suggest that candidate ask:

Start with the recruiter:

  • Why is this a great place to work?
  • Describe the employer’s corporate culture.
  • How are decisions made?
  • What is the turnover at the management and director levels? (If there is a lot of turnover, this should be a yellow or red flag for a candidate, so a follow-up question is in order:  What is the most common reason that people leave?)
  • Is this a new position?  Is everyone in agreement for its reason for being?  Is it universally accepted at the executive level or is it a decision that is being tolerated?
  • If this is an existing position, what happened to the previous occupant?
  • What are the performance deliverables;  how will you be held accountable?
  • Is their an internal candidate?

Some of these questions should also be asked of the employer.

For the employer:

  • Describe the culture.  What are some of the important signposts regarding behaviors and values that help new employees acclimate?
  • What are the sacred unwritten rules?
  • How much candor is accepted, or tolerated?
  • How often do people hit their performance numbers but still do not survive a term longer than two years?
  • Describe the pace of change.
  • How will I be held  accountable — what are the specific performance targets?
  • Are their internal candidates?