What you don't know about a company's financial health could hurt you. Here's some number-crunching to do before you accept a job.

IT'S SO HARD TO FIND a job these days, you might be tempted to pounce on the first offer you get. Slow down. Given the shaky condition of many companies, you could wind up joining one that's about to collapse or fire half its staff.

"I've seen so many resumes littered with Internet startup failures. Many people went down that road just going on what they were told," says Julie Kampf, founder and president of JBK Associates, a recruiter in Englewood, N.J. "Now people are not so quick to jump into a new job. They're asking more questions."

And well they should. In a recent survey by Netshare, an executive job Web site, 64% of the 562 executives who responded said they had been duped about the financial health of a company before accepting a job.

Smart candidates do their own research. Start by boning up on the industry your company is in, suggests Rebecca Moehring, a research analyst at Freestone Capital Management in Seattle. Standard & Poor's Industry Surveys, available at many libraries, have key stats that will help put a company's finances into perspective. If you're looking at a publicly traded company, get a copy of its 10-K financial statements at the SEC's Web site. Your goal is to answer two questions: Is the business growing? Is it profitable?

A company's current ratio shows if it's earning enough to pay the bills. Calculate it by dividing current assets by current liabilities. If it's smaller than 1, "the company is probably having some problems managing cash flow," says Jeff Swantkowski, senior financial adviser at Houston-based Kanaly Trust Co. Also, check if the long-term debt/equity ratio is in line with the industry's.

To see if a business is growing, look for increasing total revenue over the past three years. For profitability, divide the net income by revenue to find the net profit margin. Are those numbers rising, and how do they compare with the industry's?

But don't stop there. Check the auditors' statement for a "qualified opinion," which means the accountants think that the statements weren't prepared according to accepted standards or that critical information was not taken into account. "If the opinion is qualified, you probably wouldn't want to work there," says Moehring. And check the footnotes. "They show where all the problems are," says Fred Siegel, president of New Orleans investment advisory firm The Siegel Group. Sure, the firm made a huge profit, but it could blow it all by settling some lawsuit.

The Best Career Advice I ever Got
"Perception is reality."
— Lynn Tyson, Vice President of Investor Relations, Dell

"That was something I learned early on from my parents. When you're a woman and a person of color, people often have predetermined expectations of you. And all you can do is perform at the best level you can, deal with it and get on with life. Once, at another company, I received a performance review that said I was too aggressive. But the workplace was very Type A. I took that review home and thought about it, talked with my family and was reminded of that advice. I asked my managers to look at their own perceptions. They realized their bias; a white male would not have received that feedback. That was a pivotal moment for me. If I had bought into their criticisms, it could have derailed my career completely."

For private companies, get a Comprehensive Report from credit-ratings firm Dun & Bradstreet, at www.dnb.com. The report costs $122 and often details a firm's history, financials, leadership, payment problems and lawsuits. Pay special attention to the company's financial stress class, an indicator of how likely it is to go belly-up.

If you can't get your hands on all the information you need, you'll have to ask for it. In fact, "anyone at the executive level whose future will hinge on the success of the company will be seen as naive if they don't ask," says Constance Dierickx, a management psychologist working in the Atlanta office of RHR International.

The trick is how you do it. One way: "Ask for a bunch of things at once," says Jeff Kaye, CEO of Dallas recruiting firm Kaye/Bassman. "Say 'I'd love to have a look at your health insurance program, 401(k) plan, benefits package and financials.' That way it's just one thing in a laundry list." Or say you want to take a look at the financials so you can share your thoughts on the firm's performance. "Do it in a way that's consultative rather than an inquisition," says Dierickx.

Trend Watch
A Pension Comeback?
For years companies have been ditching pension plans in favor of 401(k)s. But market fluctuations and poor employee participation have put the brakes on the rush to 401(k)s.

"The trend toward terminating pension plans has definitely decreased," says Joe Hessenthaler, a principal at human-resource consulting firm Towers Perrin. According to a 2003 Society for Human Resource Management benefits survey, the percentage of companies with pension plans is up for the first time in years — 42%, from 38.

Deborah Keary, director of SHRM's information center, says that uptick may be momentary. Still, reports of the death of pensions, to paraphrase Mark Twain, seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
— Chris Taylor

And, advises Kampf, "if the company doesn't want to provide the basics, I'd be suspicious." Kampf recalls how one pharmaceutical startup was evasive when her three VP of sales candidates asked when it was expecting more financing. The firm went under soon after.

For startups, there's no historical data to work with. But they're often more candid about their finances. The crucial stat to get is the burn rate: How much cash does the startup have, and how fast is it spending it? Is more funding lined up?

Also ask about the track record of the founders, top managers and backers. And show a copy of the business plan to an accountant or an investment banker, who can tell you if the plan is realistic.

When confronting an employer with problems you've found, try prompting the hiring manager to reveal the information first. If there's high employee turnover, for instance, ask if the firm has done an employee survey and what it has learned from it. There may be a strategy in place to deal with the situation.

Or use a little flattery. For example, tell the manager you understand that the company is facing lawsuits and that its credit rating was downgraded, then add, "Obviously, there are successful leaders like you remaining. What's prompted you to feel so positive?" "That works better than saying, 'Your lawsuit scares me! Reassure me!'" says Kaye.

Recruiter Match
One quick way to find a recruiter who has jobs in your field: Go online. Kennedy Information, which publishes the widely used Directory of Executive Recruiters, offers a virtual database that is continually updated here. Choose the criteria you want to search by — such as industry, occupation, geographic region and salary minimum — and you get a list of relevant recruiters. You can even pick whether you want a firm that works on contingency, meaning it is paid by a client upon producing a candidate, or one that is retained, meaning it gets paid no matter what. The cost for the first 100 contacts is $1 each; thereafter, you pay 25 cents each.
— Anne Kadet