After nine months of unemployment, Susan Sands took a job as an administrative assistant. Two weeks later, she wished she hadn't. • A single mom, she discovered her boss was a workaholic, that taking vacation was taboo and that the work day ended well after 7 p.m. She was headed for work/life disaster.
The job market is showing signs of life, but with U.S. unemployment nearly 10 percent, most workers feel fortunate just to land a position. In fact, they feel so fortunate they often ignore warning signs that the job doesn't fit with their life needs.
"What's happening is that people are enamored by a brand or a certain kind of profession and they take the offer without doing due diligence," said Mary Young, director of Ziff Graduate Career Services Center at University of Miami School of Business. "It's potentially disastrous for everyone."
For jobs filled in the past year, turnover is hard to track. James Pedderson, spokesman for global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, thinks most people who landed positions are hanging on to them, building their network of contacts, keeping their resumes updated and waiting for the economy to strengthen.
Before signing up for a dream job that might become a nightmare, you need to dig deeper into the company culture. In most companies, there is a range of benefits that, when packaged together, can really make a difference in a worker's life. Often that information is available on a company website.
"It's not a guarantee of a family-friendly workplace, but it's a start," said Judith Casey, director of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.
Almost as important, she said, is learning if the benefits and policies can actually be used for the position you are considering without suffering a penalty. "Some organizations, for example, may allow flexibility for their supervisors but not for their line workers," Casey said.
When work/life problems crop up, they typically involve a worker's supervisor or the business owner. Benefits may be available, but if your supervisor isn't on board, you might as well work for an employer who doesn't offer them at all. Experts suggest you investigate the issue during the interview. Ask questions such as, "How long have you worked here?" "If I could talk to people who work for you, what would they say?"
Finding out why a position is open is important, too. You might ask: "Was the last person who had this role promoted?" Also ask about work hours. You may want to check out the parking lot in late evening and see how many workers stick around after standard hours.
The best sources of information on culture are insiders. At the office, people talk. When they leave a company, they talk. Consider a Google search to see what surfaces. Your social network might turn up a contact who has worked at this organization or, more specifically, in your future department. "In huge companies, one department might be great and another a sweatshop," said Catherine Jewell, career coach and author of New Resume New Career.
For someone looking for a family-friendly workplace, check out the various "best places to work" lists. For more work/life benefits, try pinpointing companies where women fill top positions and females are a larger proportion of the work force.
A Families and Work Institute study revealed that companies with women in half or more of their top executive positions are more likely to provide traditional flex time and day care. And companies with a larger proportion of female workers are more likely to provide family-oriented benefits. A company's website can be a treasure trove of information on what positions are held by women.
Employment attorney Frances Green suggests if an employer touts himself as family-friendly, ask for examples. "If the employer can point to such things as flex-time work for employees or job-sharing arrangements, such policies would suggest that the employer values a good work/life balance."
Whether you are a 20-something who wants time for a hobby at night or a 60-something who wants a reduced schedule, job interviews are about whether the position fits your needs, too.
Marcia McPherson, CEO of Employment Resources in Tamarac, said candidates mistakenly allow a job interview to be a one-way conversation. "Go in prepared with questions. You are trying to see if you are a match. If flexibility is important, go in prepared with that question."