Virtually every career advisor will say you should arrive 10 to 20 minutes early to an interview to prove you can keep an appointment, have time to fill out paperwork, wipe that bit of cream cheese off your lip, fix your hair and all kinds of other stuff that will help you make a good first impression.
But remember that the interview is just as much about whether the opportunity would be a good fit for you as it is whether you would be a good fit for the opportunity.
With that in mind, here are a number of observations you can make in those precious few minutes before the interview that will help you determine if the role at hand will be a good fit.
1. The greeting. You can tell a lot about a company the second you walk in the door. “Not all companies have reception areas, but was there some effort to direct incoming traffic, or did you end up standing around like you wandered through a Narnian wardrobe?” says Karen Ross, CEO of technology and financial consulting firm Sharp Decisions. “If there are no simple greeting protocols in place, think twice about team organization at your prospective employer.”
2. The receptionist. You can glean a lot of information about a company from observing and interacting with receptionists (at companies that employ one). For example, if the receptionist greets you warmly and says “you must be (insert your name),” that gives a much different message than if he or she comes off as bored, rude or dismissive.
Additionally, “reception is usually a high-turnover position,” says Rick Maher, owner of Human Resources solutions provider Effective HR and a member of the business coaching franchise The Alternative Board (TAB).
So if you manage to ask how long he or she has been with the company and learn it has been many years, that can be a great sign.
3. Technology. Take a look at the kind of desktops, mobile technology and video/projection equipment being used around the office. If it all appears cutting-edge, that can indicate the firm values up-to-date technology and will provide the resources to keep it that way. By contrast, a firm with antiquated technology may prevent you from doing your job with paramount effectiveness.
4. Physical layout. Are employees boxed into cubicles or are barriers at a minimum? Is anyone at a standing desk? These observations can speak volumes about the company culture into which you’d be integrated.
For example, Yewande Ige, North America talent team lead at software consultancy firm Thoughtworks, says: “A candidate exploring Thoughtworks will discover an open and flexible environment,” complete with moving walls and writing on all sorts of non-traditional surfaces, evidence of the company’s dedication to innovation and creativity.
This is the kind of observation that helped Jamie Anderson, editorial coordinator at Austin, Texas-based advisement firm Software Advice, identify that her current employer was the right option when she came on site for an in-person interview.
“While the total suite boasts more than 10,000 square feet in usable space, the majority of employees sit alongside teammates at long French farmhouse tables without dividers,” Anderson says. “While I watched people wheel over from space to space to ask each other questions, and even to hold brief team meetings, I knew the open environment was meant to foster the collaboration necessary to do good work.”
5. Walls. Are they adorned with …
● Employee recognition? This observation can suggest how the firm values its personnel.
● A mission statement? A mission statement can help you understand a firm's values and what they expect from their employees. "Our logo, which includes the tagline 'Be Brilliant,' is displayed throughout the building,” says Dominique Jones, vice president of human resources at talent management solutions provider Halogen Software. “Prospective employees know right away that this is a fundamental part of who we are as a company and if they are to work for us, we will expect them to be their very best – brilliant, in fact.”
● Awards? You may notice recognition for sales performance, social responsibility or diversity. These are integral cues that can help you learn if your values and goals align with the hiring firm’s.
6. Employee dynamics. While the physical environment can provide great insight, remember that its architecture is often carefully preconceived to convey a specific message.
By contrast, “the way people treat each other can't be staged,” says Karen Cates, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Do people look at each other? Are smiles strained and put on or real? Are jokes routine and dull or personal and warm? Are [employees] considerate in the common areas?”
Similarly, evaluate whether employees are all wearing headphones and glued to their screens, indicating a more intense or independent culture, versus employees engaged in collaboration, laughter or even games.
7. Employee dress. Depending on your personal style, keep on the lookout for office attire defined by T-shirts, sneakers and denim versus collars, wingtips and blazers.
One last note: Some hiring firms may have you wait in an area that obstructs your ability to make these observations. In that case, consider asking to use the bathroom. That can provide the critical mobility you need to check everything out before your focus is directed at the interviewer.
Ben Weiss is the digital marketing strategist for Infusive Solutions – an NYC-based IT staffing firm in the Microsoft Partner Network that specializes in the placement of .NET, SharePoint and SQL Server developers as well as Windows Systems Engineers, DBAs and help desk support professionals in verticals such as legal, finance, fashion and media. Connect with him on Twitter: @InfusiveInc or at Facebook.com/InfusiveInc.
Clarified on 10/22/2013: A previous version of this story failed to include that Rick Maher is also a member of The Alternative Board (TAB).