Secret Shop a Job Before Your Interview


A man sits at a sad desk in a darkened basement with an old computer

Photo: Stokkete (Shutterstock)

Perhaps the most frightening thing about starting a new job is not knowing whether you made the right decision. You could, for example, be baited and switched by an employer who lured you into a position with false promises, or suddenly feel pangs of buyer’s remorse once you realize that your old job offered a friendlier atmosphere than your new one.

Researching companies online has its shortcomings; there’s only so much you can glean from reading past employee reviews of a company on Glassdoor, so it’s best to be proactive when it comes to deciding if a job will ultimately be the right fit. To do that, you can shop a company discreetly, so the hiring manager won’t know that you’re snooping around for intel during the interview process.

Here’s how to go about gathering reconnaissance on a potential employer before you make that pivotal decision.

Talk to employees of the company

Find current or former employees of the company and pepper them with questions, as there’s little incentive for them to lie about their experience. If someone left their job after a number of years and still has a bad taste in their mouth, it might be a sign that the place harbored a toxic culture or might not look after its employees.

Ask questions that apply to your concerns. Don’t be shy if you want to ask about money, vacation time, health care plans, and basically every other vitally important aspect of a potential job offer. If someone worked at a place and is happy to relay their positive experience, take it as a good sign that you’re barking up the right tree.

When it comes to actually finding these people, consult LinkedIn and social media. Or just Google the person’s name. Most professionals have websites these days, and are generally easy to track down and open to talking shop.

Pretend to be a customer

Try pretending to be a customer to get a sense of how people in your prospective position operate. For example, if you’re applying for a position in insurance sales, try calling a representative and masquerading as a potential client. This way, you get a sense of the tools these sales reps employ, how they communicate, and the kind of tone and approach they may use over the phone. This might work best if you’re considering a position in sales, but if you can find a way to make it appropriate for another field, more power to you.

This can be a quick, 15-minute conversation where you pretend to be considering various offers, and decline to commit to anything. But it’ll be an instructive lesson in how you might approach an interview, if you take the call as a cue.

Talk to outsiders

Try to understand the broader reputation your prospective employer has within your industry. If it’s a well-known player, people who haven’t even worked at the company are bound to at least have a vague idea of the firm’s culture. Moreover, people removed from this potential employer are bound to have a more unfiltered and unbiased view. They won’t be inclined to protect friends who may have earned unflattering workplace reputations, nor will they be opposed to sharing company gossip that might irk an employee or ruffle the feathers of management.

Interview the hiring manager

Job interviews are a two-way street. At a minimum, you should be showing some kind of curiosity about the hiring manager’s longterm vision for your role, or how they’d like someone in your position to help them become better. If the questions you’re asked during an interview give you pause, or hint that you might not like working for someone, it’s best to tap into your more inquisitive side. As John Lees, the UK-based career strategist and author of How to Get a Job You Love, told the Harvard Business Review in 2014, ask targeted questions that speak to your concerns and curiosity. “Ask about turnover and find out what happened to the last person who did the job,” he said.

If they don’t seem to be interested in having a conversation about this, it might behoove you to think about looking elsewhere.

Trust your gut

There are certain intangibles that come with understanding if a job is going to be a good fit or not. People’s energy in an interview setting is a very real thing. You have to gauge work relationships not only in terms of their professional usefulness, but on more human levels, by asking yourself: “Could I actually tolerate spending 40 hours a week or more with these people?” Of course, nobody you work with has to be your best friend, but it helps when you get a good feeling about your potential colleagues.