Looking for a job can be a scary process. We’re very focused on saying the right thing, presenting our credentials, convincing the interviewers that we’re the right person for the job. But sometimes it’s important to take a step back and look at the environment we’re trying to enter.

Take a look at the employees. Are they interacting in a positive way? Do they look happy, content? Or do you see a lot of stressed-out faces? When you have to interact with employees before or after your job interviews, is it easy? Or does it seem difficult to relate?

Does the environment have the quiet buzz of activity, or is it deathly quiet? On the flip side, do you hear radios playing? You may be comfortable with that, or you may be someone whose concentration is disturbed by that type of background noise.

Look at the make-up of the employees. If you live in a racially and ethnically diverse area, does the employee population reflect that? Is there a large proportion of women and minorities in positions of authority? Or is the upper echelon of the company primarily white and male? Even if you are a white male, you might want to question that; a company structure that doesn’t reflect today’s social values of diversity and opportunity could be a very conservative, strict environment without a lot of upward mobility.

What about the age range of the employees? Do they range from high school age to retirement age? If you don’t see a lot of older people, you may be looking at ordinary make-up for, say, a high-tech industry, or you may be looking at age discrimination.

It’s ordinarily not a good idea to be quizzing prospective employers about pay and benefits during your first interview; but before you sign on the dotted line, you need to know what those are, and you need to make sure they’re adequate for your needs. Figure out what your expenses are, and make sure your basic pay – without any promised overtime pay or bonuses – covers those expenses. Don’t forget to cover a savings plan, entertainment, and some long-term financial goals. If you’re working full time, there’s no reason you should have to live like a monk.

Does the company have a written policy of periodic evaluation and raises? If not, it may be extraordinarily hard to earn more income there.

Certain benefits, like health insurance or HMO coverage, are getting scarcer; even companies who continue to supply health care coverage for their employees are requiring larger co-pays or cutting back on coverage. If that’s the case, make sure you can afford the co-pay, or, if there’s no available insurance, make sure your base salary can at least cover an individual policy offering catastrophic coverage.

One great company benefit is an education reimbursement for college and business classes. This could very well signify a company that offers opportunities for advancement. If you’re hired, take advantage of this benefit; it could be the best thing you could do for your career.

Whether you’re applying for a full-time or part-time job, it’s important to find out whether the company hires part-time help, and how they treat their help. Do they prorate benefits for part-time people? Do they offer definite work schedules for part-time people, or do they offer part-timers twenty hours a week, but expect them to be available for forty? Not respecting the needs of part-timers is a red flag; this kind of insensitivity ultimately impacts every employee in one way or another.

Keep your eyes open! Making the right decision about a company environment can mean the difference between an enjoyable workday and a miserable one; if you don’t manage to read the tea leaves, you’ll probably end up – looking for another job. Remember, employers are looking at you as closely as you are looking at them, to see if you are the right person for their company.

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