Interviewing for a job is such a tricky proposition, isn’t it?
There is no shortage of uncertainty, as both parties do all they can to present themselves in the best light – not unlike dating, but with a salary and a job title on the line. And, just as in dating, it can be difficult to see the true colors of the situation, particularly if you desperately want to like the new opportunity. Getting seduced is the easy and fun part. However, accepting a job at a company that is not a good fit for you, or is a downright terrible place to work, is a sure recipe for misery.
So, what’s a job candidate to do? My advice is to pay attention to all things, big and small, in every single interaction with your prospective employer. Think of your interviews, emails, phone calls and office visits as a glimpse behind the veil – and use it to your advantage. After visiting an office, your gut will be able to tell you if there are signs of it being a bad company.
The reality is that no one enjoys turning down an opportunity, but it is preferable to taking a job at a company that you won’t be happy with. Here are some early red flags to pay attention to.
1. You are not given an opportunity to interview with your future manager.
Believe it or not, this has actually happened to me! I was interviewing for an accounting team leader position at a large company, and was surprised that the interview schedule did not include the accounting manager – the very person I would be reporting to. My request to get an introduction and a quick conversation with him was turned down, ostensibly because he was not the decision maker.
That set off my radar as a sign of a bad company. Did I really want to work at a company where my boss would not get a say in selecting the person who reported to him? Did I want to accept a position in a department where my direct manager was not trusted to make a hiring decision? Will I be trusted to make any decisions at all? That may be a sign of a bad company culture.
Needless to say, I turned down that opportunity after the first round of interviews. If you are ever in a similar situation, I strongly recommend you think through what’s actually going on. A personality and working style fit with your manager is a key factor for job satisfaction. Personal autonomy is also critical for being happy at work. If you are not given the chance to interview with your future manager, beware of the overall potential for a bad company culture.
2. The job responsibilities are unclear.
If the job description is vague, and no one can explain what success in your role will look like, run in the other direction. Accepting a position without clear responsibilities and expectations is like stepping off a ledge and hoping there are cushions and ice-cream at the bottom of the canyon. Even for those of us who are comfortable going with the flow, a position that is this open-ended can spell frustration, endless fire drills, and poor performance reviews. It can also signal a difficult place to grow personally and professionally – how can you expect meaningful and actionable feedback if no one knows what you’re supposed to be doing?
3. The company is disrespectful or unprofessional.
In my experience, most companies do their best to come across as professional and pleasant, at least in the interviews (think first date). It is that much more of a shock when you come across one that endorses disrespectful behavior. From interviews cancelled at the last moment without apology, to hiring managers texting during the interview, you don’t have to tolerate unprofessional antics. The same goes for racist or sexist jokes and slurs. Those are very clear signs of a bad company you don't want to work for.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as allowing long stretches of time to pass between communications and updates can be an early sign of an unprofessional outfit. My advice is to treat the interview process as a preview of what it will be like to work at this company. Unprofessional behavior is a sign of a bad company, and do you really want to work there?
Sure, it’s easy to make excuses, especially if you really want to like the position (“They have dozens of candidates to interview!” and “They must be busy this week”). Having other candidates to consider and being busy are not valid reasons to leave you hanging. All it takes is some consideration and one minute to send a quick “We did not forget about you, here is the status of the interview process” email. It is OK to hold a company to a professional standard.
4. The company has a bad reputation.
The Internet makes a reputation check easier than ever. Check sites like Glassdoor for reviews and you'll get a great idea of signs of a bad company or not. Be sure to read all of them and pay attention to details mentioned. What trends do you pick up on? If you know someone who worked at this company (or is currently there), consider reaching out with a few open-ended questions. Ask what it was like to work there, what was most appreciated or most frustrating, and listen well to learn as much as you can.
5. There is a pattern of people leaving the department.
If you observe a pattern of people jumping ship, take it as a red flag and a reason to ask more questions. I like to ask everyone I come in contact with how long they have been with the company. If you notice that virtually everyone is new, it could be a sign of a bad company. In that case, the situation warrants a closer look, unless you are interviewing at a startup.
6. People are talking behind each other’s back.
If the hiring manager is gossiping or complaining about interactions with employees or other departments in an unprofessional manner, it’s a bad sign. Negative talk about people as a cultural norm spells a low level of trust and collaboration. It's also a sign of an overall bad company culture.
7. The initial impression is one of distrust.
On the subject of trust, if you feel that the interactions with you as a candidate are fueled by distrust, pay attention. Background and reference checks are normal – in fact, I would be suspicious of any company that is quick to extend an offer without going through due diligence. However, all checks must be done in a neutral, non-accusatory manner. If you feel like you need to explain or defend yourself without having done anything wrong, start looking at your other options.
8. The office feels depressing or unhappy.
I know this is a touchy-feely one, but do trust your gut on this. It can signal a bad company culture. Your brain notices and connects more than just logical facts and numbers, and a sense of unease and dread may be your early warning sign that something is off. Pay attention to the tone of the posted signs, the expressions on people’s faces, and snippets of interactions you overhear. Imagine yourself working in the office every day, and pay attention to how it makes you feel.
Overall, use the interview as a test-drive of what it will be like to work there. As the progress moves along, consider a visit to the area in the morning to test out your daily commute. Check out lunch places and coffee shops. Remember that this is your chance to learn everything you can to make an informed decision. Finally, pay attention to your gut - that will give you all the signs of a bad company you need. If you are not enjoying dating, chances are you won’t like a long-term arrangement either!
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