15 Red Flags That You’re Interviewing at a Toxic Company
Interview red flags you shouldn’t ignore
Sometimes, in our quest to change careers or leave a job we dislike, we tend to gloss over a few things that we really shouldn’t during the interview process. This can be doubly true if you’ve been interviewing a lot recently and haven’t been getting hired. And hey, maybe the pay is really good … even though the company dynamic seems a little off. Or you love the idea of what you’ll be doing … despite the fact that the hiring manager hasn’t been all that clear on the specifics of your day-to-day responsibilities. We hate to break the news to you, but those are interview red flags, and they can turn a potential dream job into a nightmare.
“If you’re getting bad vibes now, when employers are trying to put their best foot forward, trust me: Odds are you won’t feel more comfortable down the road,” says David Thomas, an entrepreneur and the author of the career guide Fun at Work. It could be that this is a toxic company, or it just might not be the right one for you. “Every organization has a personality of sorts, known as its ‘corporate culture,’” Thomas explains, “and your on-the-job experience will often be defined by how well it meshes with your own values and personality.”
To help you find the right position, it’s essential not to ignore the proverbial writing on the wall and to remember that when you’re interviewing with a company, you should be interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you. Here’s what you need to look for during the interview process—from how a hiring manager asks certain interview questions to how they discuss salary and vacation days—to ensure your decision is a good one.
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The interviewer plays up bonuses or raises over salary
News flash: A company that pays a low salary but says it makes up for shortfalls with performance-based bonuses or raises is unlikely to be generous with either. After all, a firm that struggles to pay competitive wages in a crowded job environment is often one that’s strapped for operating cash or undervalues the contributions of its workers. And employers generally won’t put formalized commitments and numbers like this on paper, leaving them lots of wiggle room to not pay you what should be coming your way.
Still considering the job? “Your decision here often becomes much easier when you start to think in terms of risk appetite,” says entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, co-author of The Startup of You. “The concept of risk is very personal, and taking these chances becomes a lot harder to accept and justify if, say, you have a mortgage and kids to support.” In other words, that dangling carrot may stay out of your reach, and you have to be OK with that if you take the job.
Employee reviews aren’t kind to the company
It’s always a good idea to scan job-review sites and see what current and past employees have to say about both the company and the overall experience of working there. A consistent pattern of low review scores and negative feedback on sites like Glassdoor, CareerBliss or Blind, where workers can rate and review companies they’ve worked for, may point to signs of a toxic work environment.
While it’s important to take concerns that have been raised with a grain of salt, as every individual’s experience with a firm differs, numbers generally don’t lie. The more issues you see raised and the more frequently they pop up, the higher the likelihood that there’s a serious problem there. “While you won’t always have the same experience on the job as others, and management teams and strategies can change over time, there’s something to be said for the wisdom of the crowd,” notes Thomas.
Hiring managers ask how flexible your schedule is
When companies say they want your schedule to be “flexible,” what they’re really saying is that they expect you to work nights, weekends and, overall, very long hours. Certainly, it’s good to be dedicated to your work and committed to serving your customers. At the same time, it’s important to remember that stress and burnout are real, and not every company is concerned with work-life balance. So if a company says workers aren’t prone to working “9-to-5 hours” or that it operates like a startup (aka where everyone tends to scramble and wear multiple hats), it’s an interview red flag and your ears should immediately perk up.
Effort and energy, like your time and finances, are finite and valuable resources. As an HR futurist and keynote speaker who discusses careers, that’s something I often remind prospective job seekers. You can only give employers so much before you need to recharge, or you’ll run out of what you have to give friends, family and yourself.
They tell you how lucky you are to be a job candidate
Recruiters who overly praise the company and tell you how “fortunate” you are to be interviewing with them may be inadvertently sending a concerning message—specifically, that the firm thinks it’s doing you a favor by considering your job application and expects to be negotiating from a position of power. Plus, firms that overvalue their self-worth generally don’t provide the most welcoming or appreciative work environments.
Ultimately, you want to work for a company that values its people and their contributions every bit as highly as its own mission and values. Like I explain in The Future Is Yours, a career and skills training game I created, you need to know your worth as an employee and choose opportunities that best align with your long-term career goals. People are a company’s most valuable asset, and if the company you’re interviewing with doesn’t recognize that, remember: There are dozens of others that will.
The organization doesn’t embrace time off
If you’re feeling tired and overworked, join the club: According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, just 48% of U.S. workers use all their vacation days in any given year. Want to get a better sense of whether a prospective employer values its staff’s mental health and well-being? Ask your interviewers a simple question, says Thomas: “‘When was the last time you took a vacation, where to and for how long?’ You might also ask: ‘How frequently do you take vacations?’ The answers may be revealing.”
Keep in mind that you can’t give your best efforts on the clock if you don’t feel comfortable taking time to unwind during off-hours or aren’t given the option to decompress and recharge while out of the office. A firm that doesn’t recognize or value the importance of downtime is one best avoided, as you can only push people so hard before they get resentful or burn out.
The company doesn’t have a sense of dynamism or personality
Make small talk with employees you encounter on site, such as receptionists or staffers strolling the halls. If they don’t have much (or much of interest) to say, shrug off the exchange or can’t be bothered to engage with you, take note. It may be an indicator that the firm isn’t exactly a hotbed of creativity or one that prizes teamwork; it could also be a sign of an unhealthy work culture. The first habit of successful organizations is that they foster a culture of trust and encourage employees to speak up at every turn. So if staffers are unwilling to do so, even when managers aren’t around? It’s a pretty big potential red flag.
Mid-career workers are missing in action
When you’re in the office, take a good look around you. If you’re interviewing with a firm with an established track record but most of the employees (apart from senior staff) are new or young hires, it should set off alarm bells. That’s because the lack of longstanding employees may be a sign of high turnover, low pay or lack of organizational commitment and investment to professional development. It could also hint at ageism.
A healthy firm is one in which workers want to stick around, enjoy opportunities to grow and progress in their careers and exhibit loyalty to their employer. In other words, if a company doesn’t appear to value experience and effort, it’s not a good sign for your future prospects with them. “You should be able to see a future for yourself at an employer,” says Thomas, “and they should be able to see a future in investing in you.”
There’s a lack of diversity
One CNBC survey shows that four out of five workers want to work for a firm that actively prizes values like diversity, equity and inclusion, and another from Glassdoor found that three-quarters of job seekers consider a diverse workforce to be an important factor when evaluating prospective employers. Beyond personal preferences, when you don’t see diversity in a company, it’s a red flag. That’s because the more perspectives, insights and approaches you can bring to the table, the stronger a company becomes. Without it, the opposite is true.
“It’s hard to think differently when we’re all thinking the same, and in a world of constant change and disruption, it always helps to bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table,” says Thomas. So, if you look around and see a sea of similar faces and outfits, odds are you’re not looking at a firm that values disparate approaches and opinions … and you may want to consider heading for the door.
Workers aren’t exactly effusive with praise
Here’s a key question to ask your interviewers and others who work for the firm: What do you like best about your job and working for the company? If you get generic answers or ones that aren’t concrete (e.g., they praise perks like free lunch, or love the office building or location), they’re not telling you much. These types of answers may indicate that workers are incentivized to stick around not out of passion for their work, respect for their co-workers or appreciation for their employer, but rather financial incentives or perks. Yes, money and perks are great, but there’s more to consider if you want to be truly happy with your job.
Overall, it’s important to do your homework and get feedback on potential roles, responsibilities and the employer. “Making decisions about which jobs to pursue are frequently best analyzed by tapping resources inside your professional network,” says Casnocha. “That’s why it’s important to build up your network of contacts and get good about asking them the right questions.” This is also a good way to career cushion so you’re always in a good position in case of unexpected layoffs.
Employees “work hard, play hard”
Translation: Your employer expects you to work overtime, put in long hours and then blow off steam by engaging in potentially unhealthy stress-relieving behaviors, says Thomas. This phrase also means you’ll likely feel constant pressure to perform, routinely be held to tight deadlines and lofty goals, and find it frowned upon if you prioritize anything (including family or vacation days) over work.
In short, an organization that promotes this type of culture is one that embraces a high-pressure environment … often at the expense of employees’ mental health and happiness. You’d be far better served working for an employer that instead embraces a “work smart, play smart” ethos.
You’re asked to do free work
Sure, some job-interview processes may require you to engage in brief bits of writing or to produce snippets of software code to prove your skills and abilities. But if you’re asked to do any substantial amount of work—basically, work for which you’d expect to be compensated if you were a freelancer—you should be wary.
While these requests are typically pitched as a “test” of your abilities, you can determine whether they’re acceptable by how extensive they are and how long they take to complete, as well as if there’s any ultimate value to be ascertained from them. Ideally, these projects should take you less than an hour or so to knock out, and you shouldn’t be asked to produce any work that the employer will use in a commercial capacity. I’d argue that if the product is in excess of 300 to 400 words or takes more than 30 minutes to complete, it could be a sign of a larger problem.
You notice a number of interview red flags
Perhaps the interview process itself is overly long and drawn out. Maybe the employee turnover rate at the firm is noticeably high, or individuals who work there don’t tend to stick around for longer than a year. Then again, the job description could be vague, or the interviewer’s not particularly clear about what the role or responsibilities will entail. Whatever the case, keep your professional antenna up at all times, say our industry experts. After all, anything that strikes you as odd during the interviewing process (a time during which employers should generally be putting their best foot forward) will likely be problematic down the road.
On the flip side, make sure you’re not accidentally exhibiting any interview red flags. These are the “polite” habits job interviewers actually dislike.
Interviewers are a little too candid in their commentary
If HR reps don’t have anything good to say about the individual whose position you’re filling or slyly throw shade their way, it’s not a good sign. Nor is it a positive indicator when they’re too upfront about the types of challenges the company may be facing with regard to current or former employees. A good employer is one that is respectful of its hires, appreciative of everyone’s contributions and takes an objective and practical (aka professional) approach to doing business. “In general, they should keep discussions poised and professional,” reminds Thomas.
They focus discussions on technical skills vs. creative or entrepreneurial talents
Successful businesses aren’t just those that get the work done by having employees keep their heads down, with their noses to the grindstone—they’re ones that encourage creativity and leadership at every level. Yes, even in positions where “leadership” isn’t in the official job description. So if an interviewer focuses purely on academics or experience and doesn’t make an effort to see if you have any new ideas or suggestions for the firm, it could be a warning sign that they expect you to play a predefined role and stay in your lane. You won’t be encouraged to grow, and your efforts to expand your skill set might even be discouraged.
“[These days], careers need to be in a state of ‘permanent beta,’ like software products,” says Casnocha. “If you’re not always investing in yourself, playing it forward and identifying concerns or gaps in your skills or experience, then striving to improve them, you will be passed by in this economy. This has to be a conscious behavior and practice that you embrace—it’s not something that happens by default.” That’s why you want to work for a company that will support you and, ultimately, want to hold onto you.
The hiring manager doesn’t answer your questions directly
This is a biggie when it comes to interview red flags. If you receive brief or vague answers to important questions, like how many months of funding a startup has before it will need to raise more capital or how long you might need to spend working in a role before getting a promotion, consider it a warning sign.
“Healthy organizational cultures are ones in which everyone trusts one another and feels comfortable speaking up,” Thomas says. “Unhealthier ones tend to dance around important topics, speak in broad or vague terms without committing to an answer and avoid hard conversations. As a prospective job seeker, it’s reasonable to expect meaningful and real answers from a job interviewer—just like they expect them from you.”
About the experts
- Ben Casnocha is an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist and the co-author of The Startup of You. He often speaks about talent management, innovation and the future of work.
- David Thomas, PhD, is the author of the career guide Fun at Work. He is also the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver, an Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver and a former video-game journalist.