Watch For These 5 Toxic Culture Red Flags During The Interview Process

Watch For These 5 Toxic Culture Red Flags During The Interview Process

By Dana Brownlee

Let’s face it—a job interview is all about selling. The candidate is “selling” their skills and talent. The interviewer is “selling” their organization as a great place to work, but no workplace is perfect, and more and more, candidates are searching for the best culture fit.

The challenge though is figuring out the truth about workplace culture before saying yes. Powerhouse review sites like Glassdoor have developed entire business models around helping candidates do just that, but perhaps candidates can play a more active role in uncovering the company’s true cultural identity instead of leaving it purely to outside sources or even worse….fate.

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While we typically think of the interview focusing on candidate evaluation, the process offers an invaluable opportunity to evaluate the company as well, and candidates preoccupied with simply impressing the interviewer like an awkward high schooler desperate to be asked to prom, do so at their own peril. Part of truly valuing your worth and talent is taking the time to thoroughly vet the organisation and its culture, and one effective barometer for doing just that is evaluating how they perform during the recruiting process.

In particular, as you’re interviewing with a new organization, keep an eye out for these five critical warning signs that the corporate culture may be one to avoid.

1. Disrespecting Your Time

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for recruiters or managers to keep a candidate holding in their personal Zoom room (or outside someone’s office) well past their interview start time or gabbing endlessly pushing the interview beyond the scheduled end time without any respectful acknowledgement of the time overage. Instead of reflexively brushing that type of behavior off, take careful note of how that person is valuing your time. Certainly, life happens to all of us, but it costs nothing to apologize if they can’t hold to the timetable they set themselves. What’s most important is the attitude. If it’s dismissive, that’s beyond concerning as it suggests that your time isn’t valued.

2. Requiring Extensive Interviews or Free Consulting

If a company needs to go through endless cycles of interviewing in order to assess your fit for a role, there’s something wrong with their decision-making processes (and that alone should be cause for concern). Perhaps even more troubling are those situations where companies seem to be using interviews as opportunities to get free consulting. Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask behavioural interview type questions like “How would you handle a direct report who constantly shows up to client meetings late but produces top-notch work?” It’s not, however, reasonable to ask you to help them brainstorm ideas for how to optimise their logistics process or request your feedback on proposed branding redesign efforts. And if they suggest giving you a competitive analysis spreadsheet to complete as homework “to better assess your level of fit for the role,” run in the other direction.

3. Lack of Transparency, Particularly About Compensation

Transparency is an area where companies tend to talk a good game but oftentimes don’t walk the talk. Many companies espouse transparency as a core value—until they’re asked something they don’t want to disclose no matter how relevant or benign. The most obvious example is pay. Does that topic lurk like the elephant in the room during your discussions with them as if you should feel ashamed for even caring what the compensation might be? Do they proactively share the pay rate or reasonable range, clearly explaining relevant benefits or perks or do they conspicuously ignore the topic altogether? Do they bristle when you raise the topic, provide a non-answer answer or pivot into other areas?

S. Anne Marie Archer describes herself as a recovering attorney and HR executive who teaches employees how to voluntarily exit discriminatory hostile work environments on their own terms. She advises candidates to take notice when “Questions about salary and the possibility of promotion and bonus awards make the interviewer visibly uncomfortable, or they dodge or side-step giving a direct answer.” She warns, “If the interviewer or recruiter is unable to clearly articulate the promotion and career progression process at the organization, that’s a red flag.”

A job at its core is a two-way exchange—talent for compensation—and there’s no reason why the interview process should focus almost exclusively on what they’re getting and completely ignore what they’re giving within the exchange. If they treat your compensation questions like a school yard game, don’t expect any real transparency once you sign on.

4. Low Energy Conversation and Demeanor

A great barometer of corporate culture is employee morale so take note whether the interviewer, managers or others you come in contact with seem upbeat, rested and excited about their work or stressed, overwhelmed and anxious. While we can’t know how someone honestly feels about their work environment (unless we ask which isn’t a bad idea), observing and noting their demeanour, energy level and general disposition can provide valuable insight. If they seem perfectly pleasant but not truly inspired when talking about corporate goals, priorities and initiatives, you may want to ask yourself if you’d be satisfied having that same energy about your work. Certainly, one person’s demeanour may not be an accurate representation of the tone of the overall organisation so make a note of trends or patterns as you engage with different people, and keep in mind that it’s perfectly natural to become excited (almost viscerally) when we’re talking about something that’s a true area of passion and excitement.

5. Discomfort With DEI

In 2023 every company should expect to actively discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)—what it means to the organization, how it shows up in corporate priorities and initiatives and what their specific goals are. If questions around DEI are met with awkward silence or conspicuously vague platitudes, that is cause for grave concern, particularly for applicants from historically marginalized communities.

Archer warns candidates to be wary if “Questions about DEI and active and intentional inclusion at their organization make the interviewer visibly uncomfortable. If the interviewer or recruiter dodges or side steps giving a direct answer about their DEI program, and they can’t provide concrete metrics to support the statements they make about DEI, that’s a red flag.” She also warns candidates to beware of “organizations who speak about DEI in purely aspirational terms and whose DEI programs sit in HR.”

While it’s important to actively notice these potential red flags throughout the interview process, there’s no substitute for directly asking about corporate culture as well. Remember that the interviewer will likely paint the most favorable and generous view of the company culture so it’s risky at best to take that at face value. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye out for red flags that may show up providing much more authentic insight into potentially dysfunctional or toxic cultures. Remember that in many ways the interview stage is the honeymoon period.

*Dana Brownlee is a keynote speaker/trainer and workplace antiracism thought leader.

*This article first appeared on the Forbes website

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