How to spot a toxic work environment when job hunting

“Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”

Anyone who has been on LinkedIn or Twitter in the last week will have seen the allegations levelled against a certain unconventional craft beer brand by a number of its former employees. The claims that this company fostered an atmosphere of “toxic attitudes” and a “residual feeling of fear” amongst employees are quite damning, and drastically at odds with the public image they portray – openly saying for years that they aimed to be the “best employer in the world”.

So, when searching for a new role, how do you – as a job seeker – filter through the PR spin and figure out if a company’s promises on how they treat their staff are just too good to be true?

Leverage your contacts

Do you know anyone who currently works for the organisation, or who worked there previously? Do you know anyone who works within the same industry, or whose company has close dealings with this business?

Claims of a toxic work environment are usually an “open secret” within industry circles, and often people will have heard rumours or murmurings of unhappy staff, micromanaging and bullying – so if your brother’s girlfriend’s cousin works at the company, use that connection and try and get an inside read on the business!

Check out their reviews

Now, sometimes reviews by former employees need to be taken with a pinch of salt – people are always far more likely to leave a negative review than a positive one – and sometimes there are genuinely disgruntled former employees with an axe to grind.

However, if their Glassdoor or Indeed reviews are overwhelmingly negative and talk about poor leadership, non-existent communication, a lack of work-life balance and constant pressure or overworking of employees – take it as a very big red flag!

On the flip side, if there are lots of reviews from current employees that are overwhelmingly positive, seem to all address the same talking points or all refute specific allegations from a former employee – this could also be a sign that management are putting pressure on its current employees to write positive reviews to bolster their ratings.

What can the job advert tell you?

One thing this organisation said when addressing the allegations against them, was that “this type of fast-paced and intense environment isn’t for everyone” – if job adverts really hammer home the point of a “high performance culture”, “demanding role” and needing “dedication to the role” – these could be some red flags that they will be expecting to work you into the ground and you’ll have little work-life balance.

Whilst not all companies with a “fast-paced environment” will be a bad organisation to work for and it doesn’t always signify a toxic workplace, if there are a lot of synonyms for this and not much more information on the company, approach with caution!

If they also seem to be recruiting quite often and there is no mention of significant growth and newly-created positions within the business – this could be a sign of high staff turnover.

The interview process

Is your application considered within a reasonable time frame? Does the hiring manager/HR reply promptly to your messages and ensure you’re kept in the loop throughout the process? Do they take weeks to come back to you with interview feedback?

We’re all busy at the moment – but if they cannot take 5 mins out of their day to treat you with respect throughout the process – before you’ve even started a role – this should be a major red flag! Sometimes, there are unforeseen delays to the process and things outside of their control – but as long as they keep lines of communication open and explain the reasonings for the delay, I wouldn’t be as concerned about this.

Time to interview them

If you should proceed to interview stage, remember this is a two-way street – you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. You should feel comfortable and confident asking them questions to get to the heart of the culture, leadership and expectations of the role – if you’re not even given the opportunity to address these or are rebuffed, this is a major warning sign that your concerns when you are in the role would not be taken seriously.

Here are a few questions that should help you gain more insight and see if all their promises are just talk:

  • What are the core values of the company? (Does the hiring manager know, and does this align with your research of the company?)
  • What steps have you taken to ensure a positive work-life balance for all employees? (If they look at you blankly – run!)
  • Why do you enjoy working here/why should I choose to work for you over a competitor? (Can they talk with genuine passion about their company and what makes it a great place to work?)
  • How would you describe your leadership style and how would you support and motivate me within this position? What would be the progression plan for someone in this role?
  • Why did the person who previously held this role move on?
  • How would you measure success in this role?

Make the most of your recruiter!

Lastly, I may be biased, but working with a reputable recruiter can be invaluable. Yes, some recruiters just chase a placement at all costs – but we aren’t all like that I swear! My top priority is to find the best fit for both the client and the candidate – the last thing I want is for my candidate to be unhappy and leave their role within a few months. That ruins a relationship with both a client and a candidate.

Find a recruiter who really knows the company well, who genuinely asks you in-depth questions about what you are looking for in a role and what company culture suits you best. Not all companies will be a match for all candidates – and that’s ok! It’s better to have someone honestly say “this one might not be for you” and find you the perfect match 😊

It can be such a minefield when searching for a new role, there’s so much to consider and nobody wants to take that leap only to find themselves worked into the ground and absolutely miserable. But taking the extra time to read beyond the “Pool table! Bean bags! Free drinks!” and to really see if this company values the employees, will make all the difference and will help you make that next step, the right one for you.

Anything major red flags we’ve missed? Leave the biggest red flags you’ve ever experienced below!

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