How to Get Helpful Company Information

There are now many job information sites that provide salary data, management reviews, culture snapshots and even gossip about a particular workplace. But can you trust these sites to give you the real dirt on specific employers? The short answer is yes, as long as you understand what you're looking at and you know how to evaluate different types of information, especially since it's not all created equally.

Reviews of Company Culture

Glassdoor.com and Vault.com are just two sites that allow individuals to post anonymous information on their employers, ranging from reviews of top executives to feedback on company culture, management style and benefits. This provides job seekers with access to an insider's perspective of what it's like to work there.

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Critics argue that the nature of the information -- it's often submitted anonymously -- questions its validity. But anonymous doesn't necessarily mean untrue. In fact, anonymity often gets a bad rap. If you posted something positive about your boss on such sites -- and signed you name to it -- you'd be labeled a suck up. If you trashed the company and identified yourself while doing so, you'd risk losing your job.

Some sites have built-in features to weed out fakers. Multiple reviews posted about different companies using the same computer or login are flagged by Glassdoor's system, according to the company. Someone registering as a 22-year-old, who then indicates 10 years of professional experience, would also be discounted by some systems.

In addition to anonymous posts, Vault, for example, collects verifiable data by sending comprehensive surveys to current employees at a range of companies -- a particular emphasis is placed on law, finance and consulting industries -- for their take on culture, management style, benefits, advancement opportunities and compensation. Expert editors review the responses for patterns, to form reliable insights on each employer. This provides a reputable snapshot, including pros and cons, on life at a company.

Put This Data to Work For You

Just as with restaurant, hotel or travel reviews, it's impossible to know the biases, agendas and personality styles and cultural preferences of each writer. The same applies to the workplace. I might tell you about a nightmare boss of mine -- she was too distant and unavailable, for example -- but you might find that same person to be the dream manager. This means it's important to consider varying opinions -- whether anonymous or on-the-record -- through your own prism.

If you find there's a hot button issue that's registered a lot of complaints on job-related message boards -- such as high turnover among new hires -- you don't have to steer clear of that company, but it's certainly a topic you'd want to address directly in the interview process before making your own decision. It's likely to be an issue you wouldn't have even known about had you not perused these Web sites.

On the flip side, don't be quick to accept everything at face value. The employee who raves about the incredible work/life balance at his current company might previously have worked for a tyrant who expected him to be on call 24/7. Now he's "only" required to be available every Saturday.

Compare the feedback on employers on multiple sites before drawing conclusions. Then use this information as a springboard to initiating conversation when interviewing.

Money, Money, Money

Roughly half of American employees believe they're underpaid, according to a survey conducted last year by Salary.com. The same survey found that only 22 percent of employees are actually underpaid. So, if you're walking around thinking the boss has gotten you for a steal, salary sites are an ideal way to do a reality check.

PayScale.com and Salary.com are two reputable sites that provide easy-to-access figures, based on position, industry, type of employer, location, level of experience and other factors that enable you to see if your salary is where it should be. You may be pleasantly surprised that you're right where you should be, and that knowledge may just buoy your spirits.

For others, it may be a real wake-up call that you're not paid the going rate. This may be an opportunity for a candid discussion with your boss on how your pay stacks up competitively in the marketplace, or it may be time to start looking for a new job. (One word of caution: You can't confront your boss about salary every time you look at these sites. Too many complaints ultimately may cost you your job.)

Sites such as PayScale.com and Salary.com get their data from a variety of sources -- government data, anonymous submissions, employer surveys, etc. -- so, if you compare both of them, among others, you're able to come up with a smart, realistic range for what you're worth in today's marketplace, based on your work history and education.

One of the most common questions I'm asked among professionals seeking a new job is, "How do I answer that dreaded question about my salary expectations, especially when I don't know what an employer is willing to pay? If my number is too high, they'll knock me out of the running. If my number is too low, I'll underbid my chances of the best possible wage."

My answer: Do your homework. This is when salary sites are a crucial resource in your job search process. You should know the ballpark of what a position pays before you respond to such questions and before you sit for an interview.

As you search sites for salary data, including the Department of Labor, your alumni association reports, industry groups that track employment data, or Web sites devoted to this subject, pay particular attention to three factors: the source of the information, the collection and analysis methodology, and the size of the profile pool.

A site that offers information on a marketing manager salary, but doesn't differentiate between a position at a small nonprofit and a Fortune 50 corporation, isn't as accurate and meaningful as sites that do make those critical distinctions.

PayScale, for example, draws from a database of 13 million salary profiles. Glassdoor, which also offers salary reports, has about 40,000 such profiles, since it's the newest site of this kind on the Net. PayScale also probes users on relevant details. When collecting CEO data, the site asks the size of the company's revenue, since a CEO of a company generating $5,000 in sales is dramatically different from one generating $5 million, $50 million or $500 million annually.

As you investigate the all-important salary information, lean on Vault, Glassdoor and maybe even JobVent, for a look at everything else. Management style, culture, benefits and opportunities for advancement are even more relevant to workers today than salary alone.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America," and the CEO of Women For Hire. Connect with her at www.womenforhire.com.

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