Fast Company

What Counts in a Job Now

Forget promises of options, Foosball tables, and free breakfast buffets. Today's job seekers want more tangible rewards, like challenging work, skilled managers -- and cash.

Hard to believe, but it's been only a year since people rejected jobs for reasons like "They won't let me bring my Chihuahua to the office" or "They said my piercings would have to go, so I left." But just because there are a lot fewer jobs around these days, doesn't mean that people are willing to accept any job. Sure, standards have changed, but they haven't gone away. What people want in a real job these days is not about perks. It's all about possibility.

We asked veterans of new-economy jobs what they are looking for in a job now, and they had plenty to say. They've learned what counts and what's window dressing. They know what defines a great job and a fulfilling career, what separates a real manager from a poseur, and what differentiates a real business plan from a movie treatment.

Here are eight things that matter most now.

Challenging Work

Ping-Pong tables and wet bars are an embarrassing memory. What people seek, above all now, is a challenge. Many employees feel that the frenzy of their prior startups kept them locked into repetitive chores simply because they were good at those things. Now people are craving inspiration. They want to work on a project or service that makes them feel they can make a difference in people's lives or can transform a business. "We're cycling back to more fundamental values that were temporarily distorted by opportunism and greed," says André Delbecq, director of the Institute for Spirituality of Organizational Leadership and professor of management at Santa Clara University. "A job has to be purposeful."

A Future

No one expects to stay for years and years at a company. But people do not want to keep getting laid off every three months either. It's bad for the budget, not to mention the morale. Burned by past empty promises, employees are obsessed with the idea of working at a place that makes an honest-to-goodness product or service. They want a clearly visible path to profitability, with supportive investors and partners already in place, and a CEO who can articulate the strategy and doesn't shrink from tough questions. If they don't find that, they'll look elsewhere -- or change their minds quickly. "We have taught people to leave," says Colleen Aylward, president of the recruiting firm Devon James Associates. Note to managers: Do not, under any circumstances, mention an upcoming IPO to a prospective hire. You'll be laughed out of the room.

Honesty

Although many people in the workforce are fairly young, they are no longer naive. They know when they're being fed a bunch of baloney, and to them, there is nothing more repugnant. So if the company's experiencing trouble, they want to know about it, directly from the head of the company or the business unit. They can handle it. If they are not meeting expectations, they need to be told, so they can improve. And when offering a job to candidates, don't promise them the world -- simply tell them what you need from them, and be honest about the tough parts. If you think the job may change, tell them. Candidates are flexible these days -- as long as they don't feel that they got a snow job on the way in.

A Chance to Become More Marketable

People know that their job won't last forever. They know that things might not work out and that they could get the boot one day. So what do they want? The chance to gain skills that will round out their abilities -- and that will make them more employable in their next job. That doesn't mean they'll be less loyal -- on the contrary, employees tend to stay longer at places that don't try to fence them in. One company, NetPace Inc., an e-commerce solutions provider, now has regular technology rotations, so staff technologists become familiar with all the latest innovations. "One thing we've been doing is ensuring that our people are not bored by run-of-the-mill projects," says Omar Khan, co-CEO of NetPace.

A Manager With a Clue

Managers don't have to have gray hair and wrinkles -- nor should they revert to the old command-and-control mentality -- but they do have to have experience, as well as respect for the act of managing itself. And employees want regular, periodic reviews, something that didn't happen much in the frenzy of the past few years. Job seekers want to know about your culture and how people are retained, says Beverly Kaye, president of Career Systems International, a talent retention and development company and coauthor of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), "You'd better be able to answer those questions, and you'd better not fib."

Accountability

People who are still interested in the startup world now want to work in a place where what they contribute can be measured, both by the boss and in a way that can be demonstrated in their next job. Judy Chang, a veteran of three startups, says it's key to work in a place that gives performance reviews and takes them seriously. "I was promised reviews that never materialized or that were delayed months and months," she says. "When the review finally came, it was one-sided -- 'Here's what I think.' If I had known what the boss was thinking, I would have changed."

A Respect for Balance

Now that everything has slowed down, job seekers are thinking more than ever about work-life balance. It's not that working hard is a problem; it's that working hard simply to work hard is a huge problem. That mentality is a big change from last year, when people were still willing to freeze their lives in the hopes that they'd hit the jackpot. Today, they no longer believe that they're going to make a million bucks in an IPO, so they won't put their lives on hold waiting for the big kill. They will work extremely hard to support a new product launch or to finish a critical project, but they now find the idea of working late hours because it's supposed to be "cool" rather absurd. Better, they say, to follow the lead of Mia Di Giovanni, CEO of SmoothSale Inc., a software company that helps online sales reps, and a veteran of several other successful high-powered startups, such as GeoCities and Xoom. In her nonwork life, she's a semiprofessional polo player and has been for many years -- and she sees absolutely no conflict between the two. "It's a huge warning signal to me if people don't have a life outside their job. I play polo on Friday afternoons and Sundays, and I'm not going to miss that. I've worked my schedule around that commitment for the past 10 years, and I've never let myself get into a position where it wasn't acceptable."

Cash

Stock options have had their day, and the once-ubiquitous pay cut for equity is no more. These days, options are seen as a perk that will probably never pan out -- something nice to have but unlikely to form a retirement nest egg. Job seekers realize that leverage may have shifted back to employers -- and they know the salaries offered last year may be tough to beat. But employers hoping to attract good candidates will need to offer hard currency instead of paper dreams to get the talent they want.

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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