As I talk to countless job seekers as a recruiter, and through the job networking groups I lead, it's common to hear people say something like…
I wouldn't want to pursue a job at that company, I hear it's a terrible place to work!
…and they exclude opportunities from that organization because of their preconceptions.
I'm disappointed when I hear that kind of thing, because I think that very often people miss out on what could be a tremendous opportunity for themselves.
As I've talked to people that work at many different organizations over the years, I've learned that very often, what is one person's Hell is another person's Heaven!
Here are some observations, and ways to figure out if a company may be right for you, or not:
Don't believe everything your hear! Very often people will form an opinion about a company after hearing one person complain about their experience there. As with a lot of things in life… there are two sides to every story. It's very possible that any one individual may have a bad experience, however, they may be largely culpable for that as well. Furthermore, the larger the company, the higher likelihood of hearing more negative stories, yet they may still be tiny minority compared to the vast majority of happy employees. It's also not uncommon to hear a negative story after a bad day… yet they are generally happy with their employer. Be careful about making sweeping generalizations about a company based on a few anecdotes.
Don't judge the macro based on the micro! The larger the organization, the more people's impression of the company varies based on where they sit. A company's culture can vary dramatically between facilities, divisions, lines of business, department, or even individual managers. A person reporting to a poor manager in one location might have a very different view of the company than someone reporting to a great manager in a different location. Resist making broad judgments on one set of circumstances.
Consider the nature of the complaint! Organizational cultures are as different as individual peoples' personalities. Not every employee is motivated, inspired, driven, challenged, or responsive in the same way. Some prefer independence and freedom to do their jobs as they see fit. Others prefer structure and clear expectations laid out to be sure they are doing the right thing. Neither is inherently better than the other, just different. Someone that works best with structure, will often feel stressed and as if they are floundering when they are in an environment that expects employees to figure things out for themselves. Conversely, someone that prefers freedom will feel micro-managed when tasks are spelled out to them in detail and constant reporting is expected of them. Someone working in a mis-matched culture is likely to view the company negatively compared to someone whose own preferences match the organizational style.
My observation over the years has been that even companies with widely negative reputations, have employees that absolutely love working there. And conversely, even companies with excellent reputations have very disgruntled employees. (by the way… I've always wondered what a "gruntled" employee is… but that's off point)
So… how do you figure out if it's right for you?
Know yourself! Before you can judge whether a corporate culture is a good match for you or not, you have to know what kind of culture you work in best. Evaluate your own personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. Think about the kinds of managers you've had where you've performed at your best… and the kinds of managers that brought out your worst. Do you prefer to be an individual producer, or part of a team? Do you like structure, or freedom? Do you consider yourself a hard-charger, or steady producer? The more you understand about your own characteristics, the easier it is to identify a fit.
Interview the company! Too often, job candidates view the interview process only as a means for the company to determine if they are a good fit for the job or not. The best interviews, however, are a two-way street. The more questions and dialog you engage in the process, the better the impression you make. They see the sincere curiosity from you and view that as a greater interest in the job. However, it's also the primary way you can judge whether that organization is the place you would like to work and where you can be successful. Ask multiple people their opinions about culture, management styles, team make-up, work expectation, and anything else relevant to your decision making process. Never allow an interview to only be a one way question and answer process.
Check online! These days, there are more resources available to easily gather information than there has ever been. Online sites like Glassdoor.com can provide a wealth of information and see what other people think. Google-ing the company can turn up a great deal of information as well. Be very discerning about what you read though. Realize that people are always more likely to post negative information online than they are to post something positive. Generally, when people are happy, they don't write about it. It's much more likely for someone that's miserable to post a rant. Reading as much as you can find though, looking for consistent themes, can give you a more reliable impression. Keeping in mind, that a negative complaint from one personality type can still be a positive attribute for another personality type.
Never be too quick to decide a particular company is not for you. Do your own homework, and you may find that what was someone else's purgatory, may just be your paradise!