Be like Goldilocks: Find the firm that’s right for you

In my last post, I encouraged accounting students to request informational interviews and office tours during the summer as a way to get a leg up on Fall Recruiting. If you’re a student, I hope you’re taking that advice to heart. If you’re an experienced candidate, please don’t tune me out just yet. This post is for you, too.

Let’s suppose you have interviews or events scheduled with a few firms.  I know I previously emphasized these opportunities as valuable in making yourself known to the firms; however, it’s a two-way street: you should be sizing up the firms, too. Something I learned midway through my career is while my personality, values, and style of working make me a fabulous employee in many organizations, they can lead to significant challenges, and even failure, in others. Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? That girl had no problem walking away from things that weren’t right; she searched until she found what worked. I encourage you to be selective and find the right fit for you. How do you do that? Make a list. I use a spreadsheet. Don’t laugh, I’m serious!

I think the factors to consider fall into two categories, which I refer to as (1) Nuts & Bolts and (2) Culture. Nut & Bolts are things like compensation, benefits, growth opportunity, training support, PTO, etc. Culture is comprised of the way people treat each other, the general vibe of the office, level of office politics—things like that. The first step is to write down the things that you know are important to you in these categories. This list will change over your lifetime, and you might not know for sure what to list, but that’s okay. Start with what you do know. Next, prioritize those items. Is the espresso machine as important as medical benefits? If you say yes, I’m not going to judge (well, maybe I will just a little).  Your priorities are your own. Be honest with yourself.

Why do I recommend this exercise? To avoid confusion or distraction, or the temptation to feel that the firms your friends decide to target will also meet your needs. If you haven’t identified your priorities, it can be easy to get sucked into the allure of a lot of perks that aren’t truly important to you, but look sexy in the moment.  It’s not unlike dating…but I digress.

For our current purpose, I’m not going to talk about assessing Nuts & Bolts. I have plenty of thoughts on those, and I am happy to answer questions if you email me. For this post, I’d like to focus on culture because it has the most important impact on your day-to-day existence, yet can be challenging to assess. Culture can make or break your happiness and success. Here are the things I scrutinize when I’m going through the interview process:

The Observable

  • How do people talk to each other? I’m looking for signs of mutual respect and comradery regardless of position.
  • As I go through an office tour or meet employees, how do they treat me? Are they open and friendly or do they make me feel like I’m a nuisance? If they’re friendly, does it feel genuine or fake? Is it only the recruiter and those involved in the interview process that make me feel welcome or do execs/partners and random people in the hallway take time to say hello, too?
  • Are people smiling and/or is their laughter in the office? Life is too short to work with grumpy people and a whole office of grumpies may indicate something is wrong with the workplace.
  • Do people seem to enjoy working together? Do you see yourself fitting in? The long days go by much faster if you can be friends, or at least friendly, with your coworkers.
  • How are people dressed? Does it reflect how I prefer to dress at work?
  • What does the office look like? Do people have personal items in their cubes/offices or is everything pristine? Does it seem like the company invests in providing a healthy and pleasant work environment? Can I envision being comfortable and feeling safe working long hours in this place, even when I’m the only one in the office?
  • What does my potential work area look like? Will I be in an office or cubicle? Are the privacy and noise levels and the amount of space conducive to productivity?

The “Ask-able”

  • Is there flexibility in terms of schedule and work location? Some managers are old-school and think that if they can’t see you working in your cube/office (“butts in seats”), you aren’t working. That style doesn’t work for me personally.
  • What communication and work tools are available/preferred?   How current is the technology? Am I going to get buried in emails because that’s how everyone talks to each other, or is there a balance of face-to-face conversations, IM, etc.? If the firm is giving me a laptop and cell phone and/or remote access to my computer, it conveys they genuinely support flexibility. However, this might also convey something about expectations regarding my availability….
  • What are the expectations for answering emails or phone calls when I’m not in the office? I am happy to be available for urgent situations and flexible to meet business needs, but I also want respect for my personal time.
  • How does the firm support team building and wellness? I don’t need these programs to be sophisticated or formalized, but I like to know that the company is mindful of me as a whole human being.
  • How is work handled while I’m on PTO? It’s important to me that others on my team are able and willing to keep the ball rolling, at least with the most important items, while I’m on vacation. After all, it’s hard to relax on vacation if people keep blowing up your phone or you’re expecting to come back to days’ worth of work piled on your desk.
  • What examples are there of times the firm has remained committed to employees during difficult economic or personal situations? This is a big one for me personally, in no small part because I’m in HR and want to know how I will be expected to treat people. Any company can be good to an employee when times are good. I want to know how the company has demonstrated support when people have hit personal “bumps in the road”. I also want to know how often the firm has had to lay off people, and what approach they take to that process.  Hey, stuff happens; business is business and life is unpredictable. I don’t want coddling or tolerance of low performance, but I do expect some compassion and reasonableness.

Please keep in mind that the above list and accompanying preferences are mine and won’t necessarily reflect what’s important to you. That’s why you have to come up with your own priority list and rank firms as you get to know them. Obviously, I could go on (and on), but you get the idea—know yourself; pick the firm that fits. No firm is perfect, but by taking some time to evaluate culture, hopefully you too can contently settle in like Goldilocks, declaring “this one fits just right!”

I’m available as a resource if needed. If you have questions, or need someone to serve as a sounding board, drop me an email at (I promise, I check and respond).

This blog post is a summary and is not intended as tax or legal advice. You should consult with your tax advisor to obtain specific advice with respect to your fact pattern.