It’s horribly easy to look past interview red flags and move right past the warning signs of a difficult, potentially toxic workplace. You could end up moving into a role that’s a terrible fit for you, at a company that doesn’t respect you as an employee, with no viable option but to quit, build a new resume, and start searching again.
Most of the time, when you’re job-searching, you’re not looking for the perfect fit. You’re looking for a job that will further your career goals without burning you out. Sometimes a great paycheck or an amazing career opportunity means you have to compromise a little – that’s normal, and it’s safe to say we’ve all been in that position. But do you know how to tell a compromise from a genuine red flag?
While there are no foolproof ways to avoid a nightmare scenario like that one, it can help to be aware of some potential red flags in an interview! In this article, we’ll cover the following points:
It’s always smart to pay close attention in an interview setting. How interviewers behave, what they tell you, and what they don’t tell you can all be indicators of whether a job is right for you. To give you a head start, we’ve put together a list of some common red flags to watch out for at the interview stage.
Keep in mind that none of these are automatic dealbreakers in their own right. Listen to your gut, and don’t panic at the first potential problem!
How many interviews have you attended so far? Are you expecting any more? What about tests – are you being asked to do more than an hour’s worth of unpaid work on your own time?
In the US, research suggests that the average hiring process takes less than a month. While there are exceptions – government jobs can take longer to hire a new employee, while jobs in the service industry move a lot more quickly – that’s a good ballpark figure to keep in mind. If your prospective employer is dragging out the process, asking too much of you before you’re anywhere near receiving an offer, that could be a sign that they don’t respect your time.
However, the inverse can also be true! If they’re clearly rushing through the hiring process, that could be a sign that the company is desperate to take on anyone. That can be reflective of high staff turnover, which means a chaotic and inconsistent work environment – not exactly a great look, either.
This infographic describes the four core stages of hiring a new employee. If you've been put through more than these stages, or if these stages feel overly complicated, it might be a sign that something's amiss with the company. When in doubt, ask colleagues or the interviewer directly. While it's always possible something unavoidable is complicating the process, it's a good idea to see how the company reacts to the situation.
Do you have a clear idea of what the role will involve? What about your schedule? Do you know what your responsibilities will be, and what will be handled by other members of the team?
If your interviewer isn’t prepared to tell you these things, it might be time to worry. Obviously interviewers have to walk a fine line; they need to balance telling you what you need to know with protecting confidential information about the company. But these are fairly standard questions, and you should be able to expect clear answers.
If you’re getting vague answers to any of your questions, it isn’t necessarily a great sign. But if your interviewers can’t give you a clear sense of your prospective role, that’s particularly questionable. An interview is as much for your benefit as it is for theirs, and you deserve to be able to understand a potential new role before you reach the offer stage.
It can be a good idea to ask your interviewers about their experience of the workplace. Do they like working there? What are their favorite things about working for this particular company?
If they struggle to muster any enthusiasm for their workplace, that’s a potential red flag. As we’ve said, an interview is a two-way street – they’re supposed to be pitching their workplace to you honestly. If they can’t talk about it with anything more than ambivalence, that could be a reason to worry about staff morale.
Remember, low morale in a work environment can be toxic and draining – and it’s usually a real response to serious structural problems. It isn’t worth committing yourself to a workplace that will make you miserable.
If you’ve ever worked in HR, you’ll know that the hiring process can be a little chaotic. However, a professional workplace will make every effort to ensure that candidates don’t have to deal with that chaos themselves.
So if your interviewers are asking you questions that don’t seem relevant to the role you applied for, or even calling you by the wrong name, that’s a bad sign about the internal state of the company. Likewise, if an interviewer is very late without a clear reason (a previous interview overrunning by five or ten minutes is a clear reason, and usually a good one), it could be cause for alarm.
Look for an employer that treats you professionally even before you’ve received an offer. If they don’t, they are unlikely to treat you any more professionally once you’re on the team.
Is your interviewer actually paying attention to what you say? Do they have comments or follow-up questions, to give you the opportunity to expand further on what you are saying?
It may seem like a low bar to clear, but it’s an important one. If your interviewer isn’t responding to the points you make or the things you tell them about yourself, it could show that they aren’t actually interested in you, either as a candidate or as a person. They’re just looking for someone to tick boxes and fill the role.
That could mean a number of things, from high turnover and low morale to personal apathy on the interviewer’s part. Needless to say, it’s never exactly a good omen.
The shift to remote working during the pandemic means that in-person interviews are no longer a guarantee. However, you will usually have at least one opportunity to see the office environment in person during the hiring process – and it can be a golden opportunity to get a feel for your potential workplace.
Here are some red flags to watch out for when you’re getting your first look at a prospective work environment. As before, none of these are instant dealbreakers – just things that can be a bad sign, particularly if they start to add up.
It’s practically a cliche, at this point, to describe your colleagues as one big happy family. It’s also inaccurate at best, and a red flag at worst.
If your interviewers talk about the office culture in these terms, it might be a sign that the company doesn’t enforce clear boundaries between work and life at home. Many people have actual families, and everyone has a life outside of the office. Blurring the line between work and family, even as a joke, can indicate cultural problems that will impact your work-life balance later on.
You should be able to take time for yourself (and potentially your real family) without feeling guilty, stressed, or disrespected. While “one big happy family” jokes aren’t always proof of an issue, they can be an indicator that you might have trouble setting and enforcing boundaries around your work.
During your time in the office, can you find anyone who has been at the company for more than two years?
If you can’t, you might have found a company with high staff turnover. This can be a sign of high-stress, low-morale work environments. A succession of staff departures isn’t necessarily unusual, but if you’re struggling to find staff with any kind of tenure, there is usually a reason behind it – and it isn’t usually good.
You might be dealing with a run of bad luck, or you might be dealing with a toxic work environment. Either way, it’s worth asking your interviewers about staff turnover in the company. If that's not an option, checking out online resources like Linkedin and Glassdoor could give you hints about the company's turnover and general office morale.
This Glassdoor page, for exmaple, demonstrates that a majority of this company's employees would recommend the company to a friend and approve of the CEO. This could be a good indicator that morale is, generally speaking, quite good throughout the company.
This is the main thing you can assess just by looking around an office. It’s also extremely context-dependent – what feels weird and out-of-place in one company might feel totally comfortable and normal in another.
Here are some things you might want to pay attention to as you visit a new office:
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: trust your gut. If the atmosphere in the workplace feels fraught, tense, or uneasy, try asking some questions about staff morale before you get too much further in the process.
So you’ve left your interview, and you have some concerns. What do you do next? Here are some ways you can respond to potential red flags.
Preparation is always your friend, when it comes to job interviews. If at any stage in the hiring process you get a bad feeling about a company, take a moment to investigate the company further.
Sites like Glassdoor allow workers to review their former workplaces, and can contain a wealth of information for potential new hires. A company’s own website can be a good place to verify anything your interviewers told you, if you’re having doubts about their accuracy or sincerity.
And in the very worst cases, though it may seem extreme, an especially toxic workplace might even have made the local news.
If you’re under pressure to accept an offer, and you still have concerns, wait! Don’t be pushed into accepting a job you aren’t sure about. You have every right to ask for more time to think.
Any hiring manager whose response to a request for more time is to push you harder is raising a pretty serious red flag. If the job were right for you, they wouldn’t need to hurry you into taking it. Trust your instincts, and take what time you need.
While it can feel unthinkable in the moment, we promise it’s true: you are allowed to turn down a job offer for any reason.
“I don’t think we’d be a good fit” is a complete answer, and a hiring manager who can’t respect it is not someone you want managing you. Be polite, and thank the company for the opportunity – but if you’re having doubts, it is perfectly acceptable to turn down an offer and look elsewhere.
Don’t underestimate how debilitating it can be to live with a bad job.
When you take a job, you’re making a commitment that involves a significant chunk of your time, effort and attention. Like it or not, it makes up a sizeable part of your life. You don’t need to spend any of that time becoming well-adjusted to a badly-adjusted work environment.
And ultimately, you will adjust to it. People are amazingly adaptable – we’re capable of changing our behaviors to an amazing extent. If you allow yourself to normalize the behaviors that might be expected of you in a toxic or ill-fitting workplace, it could cause you problems when you move into better roles elsewhere.
The things you adjust to in a challenging environment aren’t the norm everywhere else, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you are immersed in a difficult workplace five days a week. Say you spend two years working for a manager who expects hour-by-hour breakdowns of how you spend your time on the clock. How will you adjust when you start a new, better role, and you can’t shake the fear that every minute you can’t account for will count against you at your performance review?
Don’t jeopardize your mental health or your long-term well-being for the sake of an easy win. There will be other jobs, and you are capable of finding one that will treat you with the respect you deserve.
You deserve a workplace that suits you as well as possible. While no job is perfect, you shouldn’t have to put up with a work environment that makes you unhappy. That’s why it’s important not to rush your job search, no matter how stressful it is to be on the job market.
Take your time, think carefully, and make sure you have a sense of your prospective new workplace before you accept a job offer. You will thank yourself for your patience in the long term!
Content Writer + Resume Expert
Waverly is a freelance writer, former HR officer and current international traveller. They believe in doing your research, showing up prepared, and bringing your passions with you to work. They've helped countless job seekers create better resumes and cover letters to improve and grow their careers.
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Community Success Manager & CV Writing Expert