When it comes to judging out-of-this-world job offers, Professor Maura Belliveau, who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, gives this down-to-earth advice: Don't believe everything you read or much of what you hear. She has assembled a guide to help her students "interview" companies and learn what makes them tick. In an interview, she shared some of her tips with Fast Company.
1. Know some answers before you ask questions.
"The best information about a company comes from the people who know the intimate details: current employees, former employees, customers. But these people may not know you. How do you persuade them to be frank? By becoming as informed as possible before you talk with them. The more you know, the more likely it is that people will consider you someone worth spending time with.
"One of my students evaluated a consulting firm. She wanted to talk about office politics — a sensitive topic. Before she visited, she found a 50-page history of the firm on its Web site. She absorbed that material. She had a better understanding of the firm's evolution than some of the people she talked to, which meant that they were more likely to answer her questions honestly."
2. You're often just two degrees of separation away from the best sources of information.
"It's easy to say, 'I want to talk to people with inside knowledge, but I don't know anyone on the inside.' Work your networks and you'll be amazed at who you know. If you've gone to business school, you have fellow alumni who work for that company or in that industry — or know people who do. Get their phone numbers through the alumni directory. Chances are they'll be candid with you."
3. Appearances matter.
"Don't just look at where people work. Watch how they work — simple things like how a receptionist greets strangers can be illuminating. Organizations convey something about themselves in their selection of frontline staff. Companies with strong cultures stand out from the moment you walk onto the premises."
4. Look for heroes, listen for stories.
"Every company has heroes, people who embody the core values. And every company has "stories" — anecdotes that employees share with outsiders. What are the stories about? Big wins? Great service? Political battles? The stories that people inside a company share tell you a lot about the company itself."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.