Researching employers: why and how
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To effectively sell yourself as a job candidate, you need to be able to persuade the employer that you are a fit for that employer's needs. Even when the job market is great for job seekers, employers aren't going to interview and hire candidates who are not a match for their needs.
You can't present yourself in cover letters or interviews as a match for the employer's needs if you don't know enough about the employer to do so.
By doing research, you get information to decide which employers to contact. Rather than sending fifty letters/e-mails and resumes to employers you know little to nothing about, send ten letters and resumes to employers you know something about and with whom you have a greater chance of securing an interview. Targeted letters, individualized to the recipient are more effective than "form" letters you know a form letter when you receive one; employers do too.
In interviews, employers expect you to arrive knowing background information about the organization. If you don't, you look like you're not really interested in the job. You have to be able to answer the critical question of why you would like to work for that employer and not sound like you would take any job.
Research helps you formulate intelligent and appropriate questions to ask in your interview.
How to research specific employers
Talk to people: Find people who work for or know about the organization. This could be people you meet at a career fair, family members, neighbors, parents of friends, students who graduated ahead of you, and alumni contacts. Hokie Nation Network is the professional and social networking services provided by the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, and its purpose includes career networking.
The employer's website: This is a no-brainer! Look for basic facts, information about mission, culture, values and more. If the website posts jobs and/or the organization invites e-mail from job seekers and/or accepts resumes online, follow the instructions the employer provides.
Internet research. Note sources of information you find and gauge the credibility of those sources. Sources to research industries, careers, employers.
Call or write the organization and ask for information AFTER you've searched for it elsewhere. This is perfectly appropriate to do if you simply cannot find information about the organization through their website, or if the information is not clear. If you have an interview scheduled with an employer, the employer should have already provided information (website, brochures, etc.); if not, by all means, ask for this.
Be careful. If you e-mail with a question the answer to which you could have found online with a little effort, you'll be perceived negatively as a potential employee (lazy, not smart....). As a potential employee, you want to be perceived as a person who does work, not creates more for someone else.
Guidelines for correspondence in your job search
Do I have to send a cover letter with my resume?
Dear whom? (What if I can't find a name?)
Hard copy or e-mail? When to use which.
Doing research before you have any interactions (phone, e-mail, going to a career fair) will make you stand out as a job candidate.
Employers, in talking about expections of candidates, often use the phrase "doing your homework." That means they want you to know something about the employer in advance of any interaction.
Asking "what does your company do?" when you could have easily learned that with a little effort makes you seem high-maintenance (and thus not very employable).
Obviously if you have a chance encounter with someone, in that situation asking about his/her work and organization is friendly and smart.