I've been extremely fortunate in all of my jobs in my career. I have worked for the most down-to-earth, egoless, kind people. In my industry, this seems like an exception to the rule, although good business sense dictates this is how supervisors and colleagues should be for the best work environment and professional relationships.
It's very hard to read the corporate culture of a company unless you're already working there and have been there for awhile. I always believed one year at a company will give you a full picture since you're able to observe when the company experiences down time in the summer or has insane deadlines during periods of peak productivity. Only time will tell is the correct adage in this case.
I have noticed three criteria of a good company during my years as a staff member and freelancer/contractor before getting hire, while working there, and upon finishing a contract job.
1) Good companies ask you to meet with as many people as possible during the interview process.
I've had a few interviews where not only did I meet with 3-4 people from HR, but also met with 4-5 colleagues. For each of those groups, I interviewed with people of all levels of seniority from my peers to the the most senior executive. Sometimes I'll meet each person individually or have group interview sessions where I have to field questions from a couple people.
I've always noticed that the best teams and companies do this because they have such a positive and encouraging work environment with very good work chemistry that they are always cautious who to admit in case it ruins the group dynamic. It's also a good way to see how applicants can interact in group settings or one-on-one. Sometimes, if you meet with people on an individual basis, the last person will most often tell you that it's just a mere formality to meet because everyone else already gave the thumbs up. I've also heard of companies making an entire day of interviewing you by having you meet people one-on-one with a group lunch, then the tour of the grounds and meeting a couple more people before they wrap up the day.
2) Good companies will offer to give you an annual review even if you're a contract worker with a very short contract.
When I was first asked if I wanted one, I said yes immediately even though I wasn't sure what there would be to discuss seeing how new I was to the company. However, I agreed to it as a way to open the doors of communication and to set a precedence in case I ended up being there longer or was given another contract with them in the future. It never hurts to sit down with people and do a status update. At the very least, I would get to know my boss more and vice versa. At the very best, we could discuss better working strategies or bounce around suggestions for the next time they would need to hire someone by getting my opinion of being an outsider.
(On a related note, I did learn outsiders can have an advantage. I've interviewed for jobs where they specifically wanted someone qualified, but not from within the company to bring in new ideas, suggestions, and provide a objective eye on the company and its innerworkings to enhance any possible outdated ways of conducting business.)
3) Good companies hire people that are gracious, helpful, and happy.
Whenever I finish a job, I send out thank you cards to everyone I've met and interacted with. I've written up to 300 cards by hand for a single position on more than one occassion. The interesting thing is noting between the different companies I've worked at, how many people either tell me they got the card and really liked it and ask to keep in touch or if they even say anything at all. I've worked at places where maybe 10% say something and I've worked at places where 30% of the people follow up with me and acknowledge my thank you card. Even more surprising are the people who on their own accord offer to pass on my resume to others and to help me out. I've even been on job interviews where I wasn't the right fit, but they would connect me with their friends at other companies that might have something for me.
While I understand most people are very busy, I do think it speaks well for the companies where 30% of them let me know they got my card and really appreciated it. It was very kind of them to take the 30 secs to email me and say thank you back. It's the little things that matter!
As I job hunt for the RIGHT position, I'm always curious how I can make sure I end up at another company where the people are happy, positive, and fun to work with. Please share!