columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

When I first started job searching, I tried to research the companies a lot. That was a waste of time. No hiring manager I ever talked to quizzed me about my company knowledge. They wanted to talk about the specifics of the job.

Yet I always hear you should research the company before an interview. What am I missing?

Green responds:

It's absolutely true that interviewers are unlikely to quiz you on your knowledge of a company. Some interviewers will say something like, "Tell me what you know about us so far," but with that question they're generally just looking to ensure that you know the basics.

So, no, you don't need to memorize facts about a company--but that's not what researching a company is about. It's not about memorizing the names of their board members or their sales numbers last year, or knowing every location they have an office in, or the precise year they were founded. If you spend time on that kind of thing, you're going to waste your time--and if you try to bring it up, it's likely to come across as stilted and forced anyway.

If that's the kind of research you're doing, you're doing it wrong.

What you want to know when you research a company are things like this:

  • How they see themselves. What do they think differentiates them from other companies in the field? What do they say makes them different from their competition?
  • What they're most known for.
  • Any recent news they've made and why.
  • Their biggest current initiatives/projects/products/clients.
  • Anything you can find about the company's culture and values.
  • Roughly what size they are. Not to regurgitate this info back to them in your interview, but to give you a general sense of their context.
  • Who their key players are, so that you recognize names and know what sorts of backgrounds they bring.

And here's the key: This isn't research for you to then recite in the interview to show you prepared. It's mainly for your own background information, to inform your understanding of what they're all about--which will help you have a more intelligent conversation with your interviewers because you'll better understand their context.

It's not about rote memorization or proving anything. It's more like the type of research you'd do if you were an independent consultant about to meet with a prospective new client so that you weren't starting from scratch in your conversations with them.

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