Morale Spy

When you go on a job interview, common advice reminds, you interview the company as much it interviews you. Remember, just as you might exaggerate that you have ten years’ experience developing .NET on Linux, the company might embellish its resemblance to a happy television family. Whether the company represents the Cosbys or the Bundys, participants in your four-hour interrogation will concur that the company represents the Panglossian best possible workplace. Managers want to fluff the company’s stock price. The proletariat wants more proletariat to share its burden. If the company demands twelve hour days or offers daily browbeatings, no one will tell an outsider. You would only learn true company morale after you started unless you conducted a little reconnaissance during your interview.

To gauge employees’ true attitudes toward a company and its working environment, you can reconnoiter two locations in the building: the kitchen and the bathroom. In most cases, no professional employee bears the task of cleaning these locations during working hour. Contrast these areas with conference rooms, such as the one wherein the company will grill you, which the company keeps fastidiously clean and presentable for interviewees, roving executives, and venture capitalists. The regular grunts in the trenches don’t spend that much time lounging in conference rooms. On the other hand, many non-executive employees use the kitchenette and the bathroom, and you can glimpse their corporate pride and morale in these utilitarian locations.

During your interview, ask for a tour wherein you can see the kitchen, or at least the coffeemaker alcove. If the company doesn’t offer a coffeemaker for employees, politely but quickly end the interview and flee. When the interviewer breezes you through the kitchen, pay attention to the counter around the coffeepot and the sink. Dirty dishes on the counter can indicate bad news. Coffee stains might indicate that the poor souls working for the company are too overworked to wipe up after themselves. The company has too few resources for what it does, and you better not have personal plans on Saturdays. Untended spills might also indicate that the employees here delegate cleaning to, or worse yet assume it will be done by, underlings or the new guy.

A clean kitchen indicates that the other employees handle their spills and mistakes. Or they want to make a good first impression on the employees who might wander in after them. Such ambition and drive is good. Or maybe they’re just decent, clean people. Regardless, a clean countertop bodes well.

You can apply the same observation to a bathroom used exclusively or predominately by employees. If the company has its own campus or building, look for a bathroom behind the receptionist’s desk to provide the best intelligence. Ideally, you could review such a facility before your official interview begins, but don’t be afraid to ask the HR person to whom you hand your official application about the nearest bathroom before he or she hands you off to the real interviewer.

While you’re straightening your tie or fixing your makeup, check for paper towels on the floor. They can indicate that employees have creases a little too tight in their pants to bend over and pick up what they drop. You can also examine the counters for excessive water/soap residue. If the employees don’t wipe up after themselves, who will? Look for graffiti on the stall walls, urine on the toilet seats or, worse, vice versa. If the employees show less concern for their workplace than for a tavern, they’ll probably show you the same tenderness they show a beer-scented conversationalist in that same tavern.

Regardless of the company line during the interview, nothing describes the other employees’ care and attention to detail, as well as their overall job satisfaction and pride, as how they treat those corporate spaces for which they have no direct responsibility but in which they can, and often will, make individual messes. Your surreptitious health inspections represent a quick and dirty way to find out how quick and dirty the company operates. The snap judgments you make are no less valid than the snap judgments that the company will make about you based upon the color of your slacks and the length of your hair.

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