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by Cathy Vandewater | October 07, 2011


Recruiters may know more about what makes employees happy than you do.

Vault attended an "Identifying & Retaining Talent" event for startups to see how smaller companies attract talent, and what we learned  was that there's a lot more to getting and keeping employees than bonus packages and high salaries.

If you're on the hunt for a job you can be happy at for the long term, pay attention to these key factors. You might find yourself catching--and keeping--a truly satisfying job.

1. Culture

Studies have consistently shown that happiness at work greatly increases with the numbers of friends you make among coworkers. Smaller companies already know this—that's why there are so many ping pong tables at startups.  

But the effect goes double for a poor economy, when companies can't afford to offset unhappy working conditions with higher salaries. Melanie Hughes, the Chief HR Officer at Gilt Groupe and a speaker on the event panel, recounted how she had to lay off 100 people at a previous company, and then raise morale without the help of raises or bonuses. Her solution: weekly breakfast meetings with leaders. Feeling closer to the executives, she explained, helped people feel more a part of the company, while celebrating successes and bonding with coworkers promoted a feel-good mood around the office. The proof was in the retention rates, which shot up—people wanted to stay.

How to Find It: If you're finding big companies a little chilly, it may be time to shift your focus from prestige to companies with great day-to-day culture. Company-wide outings, parties, or well-used break rooms (gathering spots like a ping-pong table or beer fridge) are a good sign for camaraderie, and hopefully, happiness.

2. Work Style

You may have found your perfect job title, but what about your work style? Start-up companies often examine this aspect of job candidates first. Joe Essenfeld, CEO of tech startup JIBE, described the type of people that he knew would be happy working for him: adrenaline junkies, "big picture" types, and those who want to own their role and impact at a company.

Hughes similarly studies personality types—since her company deals in fashion. She said she finds her merchandisers by recruiting at department stores, where very qualified candidates may be bored by the pace of retail. She then emphasizes the fun and excitement of a fast-paced internet company.

How to Find It: What irks you about your current job? Too much pressure? Too slow a pace? Too bureaucratic, or not enough structure? Use these factors to guide you when exploring your hiring options. "Idea people" who are frustrated with the slow pipeline of corporate work might want to move to web, while those who don't like a lot of flash and market speak might want to move away from consumer-related businesses. Think outside the job title!

3. Feedback

Hughes said that when she first started her job as HR VP at Gilt, "my office was about 6 square feet," and right on the floor with the rest of the office. Initially uncomfortably close, it turned out to be an enlightening experience on the importance of feedback. "When you see performers at work, you can trouble shoot early," she said.  The close proximity enabled her to diagnose issues and help correct them in real time—not six months later at a performance review—which made for happier, more productive employees.

How to Find it: Though getting told you're doing something wrong is never fun, receiving necessary criticism can be the only antidote to fumbling and frustration on the job.  A functioning feedback mechanism may just mean greater access to your boss, or HR department. But, in the app age, it could also mean a system as high-tech as what Gilt's VP of HR Operations, Brian Christman, describes as the company's own "Facebook," where users receive instant and continuous responses to their work. Take the time and find the right feedback fit, and you may find yourself less overwhelmed and much more secure at your new job.

4. Real Life Interests

There are the "interests" you cite on your resume: you enjoy problem solving, you're great with details. But think deeper about what truly sparks you. Have a passion for public policy? Attached at the hip to your iPhone? Rabid for fashion? Consider applying your skills and job title to a whole different industry.

Hughes, discovered this phenomenon when she was having difficulties finding technologists for Gilt Groupe, which is fashion-oriented. Instead of trying to attract candidates by focusing on the job description, her company put out a "geek to chic" promo: before and after shots of a tech geek who'd been given a makeover. Not only did tech guys respond to the exciting glamour angle of the job, but their girlfriends applied on their behalves too.

How to Find It:  Exploring your other interests may help you cast a wider—and more successful—net for a job in a field you'll love working in. Bonus: The passion you'll be bubbling over with at the interview will make a great impression.

5. Know What You Don't Want

Ryan at Gilt has one major interview question: "Tell me how you deal with change." That's because his particular field can be volatile—and it's not for everyone. The same applies to learning on the job—do you like collecting training hours, or just want learning modules on a need-to-know basis? Hate several bosses breathing down your neck, or feel at ease without any guidance?

How to Find It: Hughes says that people get hired for potential, and fired for not being able to execute, and it's almost always because of culture-fit problems. Know what's a deal breaker for you with management, feedback, or work styles, and trust your gut on it—it may save you a lot of hassle later on.

--Cathryn Vandewater,


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