Use these questions to spot a toxic work culture during your interview

Earlier this year, a viral article on Fast Company gained attention around the world. In the piece, entitled ‘How to spot a toxic culture by reading between the lines of a job ad’, writer Stephanie Vozza discussed how to interpret some of the key phrases company’s use to get down to what the work culture is really like.

For example, if a job advertises free snacks, meals and drinks, could that mean that you’ll be expected to work long hours and not leave the office during lunchtime? Or, if a business says they have a small “tight-knit team” could you be dealing with a cliquey group who are suspicious of outsiders?

Of course, free snacks could just mean they’ve got an assortment of chips and cookies to munch on (nice).

This piece got us thinking, how can you use your interview to validate or toss out your assumptions about a company’s culture?

If you’ve been burned too many times by glittering job ads that turn out to be toxic work culture nightmares, we’ve got a few suggestions to help you spot the red flags ahead of time:

They post: “The ideal candidate will be able to take initiative and work independently”

What it could mean: You’re going to spend a lot of time on your own.

How to tackle it: It’s pretty normal for a job description to list initiative as a key trait, but if working independently is over emphasized throughout the description, this could be a warning that you won’t have a collaborative team.

If you’re someone who likes to work with other people, you need to find out what the team structure is like ASAP. You can do this by asking;

– How important is collaboration on your team?
– Can you tell me about a recent project your team completed and how?
– What strategies do you use to motivate your team?

They post: “Applicant must enjoy working in a fast-paced environment”

What it could mean: You’re likely to burnout within the first year.

How to tackle it: Listen, we know that everyone wants to work in an exciting job that keeps them motivated and constantly learning. However, in our experience, companies that advertise a “fast-paced environment” are usually understaffed and set unrealistic expectations for their employees.

The truth is, if you’re constantly burning the candle at both ends, you’re going to end up hating your job. We all need a bit of rest and relaxation every now and then. Here are some questions you can ask to figure out if a company is going to work you to the bone.

– How would you describe the work environment?
– How is the workload spread out over the course of the year e.g. are there particularly busy times?
-How does the company support employee wellness and work-life balance?
– What supports are in place to help employees?
– How often do people in this role need to work overtime?

They post: “We’re looking for an ambitious self-starter”

What it could mean: You’re going to be thrown in the deep end.

How to tackle it: When you start a new job, you will need a little bit of help. Whether you’re learning how to set up your laptop or simply figuring out the company’s processes, settling into a new role takes time.

When a job post says that they’re looking for a “self-starter” this basically means that they want someone to hit the ground running with no proper training or onboarding. Usually this leads to high turnover as staff members feel overwhelmed and undervalued.

-What is the onboarding process like?
– What would the first 90 days in the job look like?
– Will I have weekly check-ins?/six month reviews?
– Are there career progression opportunities?

They post: “We’re like one big family”

What it could mean: Run away screaming.

How to tackle it: Let’s be clear, your colleagues are not your family, they are professionals that you work with. While it’s important that you get along and respect each other, it’s also important that there are clear professional boundaries in place.

Thankfully, most companies are moving away from this false narrative, but it still crops up in job specs from time to time. Here are the questions you should ask in a job interview to find out more:

– How would you describe the office politics at the company?
– How are decisions made when there’s a disagreement?
– What causes conflict and how is it resolved?

The next time you go into a job interview, subtly inquiring about the red flags on the job spec could save you a lot of hassle down the line.



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