Being in a toxic work environment is the top reason people say they are quitting their jobs during the pandemic, new research shows.
A toxic work culture is a whopping 10 times more important than compensation when it comes to predicting turnover, according to a new analysis of more than 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews of 500 of the largest U.S. companies between last April and September. The researchers defined a toxic culture as an environment where unethical behavior runs rampant, workers feel disrespected and diversity, equity and inclusion work is dismissed.
Clearly, a toxic job involves more than just having a bad day. It’s a living nightmare in which you can’t stop thinking about your tyrannical boss when you are supposed to be relaxing at home. It’s when you go to work each day filled with dread about dealing with belittling, backstabbing co-workers.
For the sake of your well-being, a toxic job should be avoided at all costs. But is it possible to suss out a toxic job before you get hired?
The truth is, sometimes you may not realize that the role you were excited about is actually a big mistake until after you get hired. But often, you can pick up on red flags during the job interview. Here’s what to watch out for:
1. Interviewers bad-mouth the person who had your job previously or the people you’ll be working with.
How someone treats a person when they are not in the room says a lot about how they may one day treat you.
One way to find out if this could be a problem is to ask what happened to the person who previously held your job, according to Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment attorney and author of “Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.”
“If they bad-mouth the person or hem and haw, then that’s probably a bad sign. If they bad-mouth current employees, run,” Ballman told HuffPost. “If you are going to supervise employees, find out how many are on the team, how they are performing, and ask questions about their duties. If they bad-mouth your team, get out of there.”
E. Kevin Kelloway, research chair in occupational health psychology at St. Mary’s University, said ostracism is a sign of a toxic workplace that you can watch out for during the interview process.
“Look for individuals who seem to be on the ‘outside’ in the workplace — so the person who does not go to breaks with the others or who seems to be the butt of jokes,” he said. “[These are] classic signs of bullying and ostracism that might suggest that there are some really inappropriate behaviors going on in the workplace.”
2. The hiring manager doesn’t want you to talk to anyone else on the team.
In a healthy work environment, employees are free to be honest about what it’s like to work there. But in a toxic workplace, bosses tightly control how employees communicate, even to potential new hires.
If a hiring manager is hesitant or unwilling to connect you to anyone else on the team you’d be working with, that signals a toxic workplace, said Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist at the consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
“This is a sign that they do not trust their employees, which can create an exhausting work environment,” she told HuffPost. “If leaders don’t trust their people, they tend to micromanage, create rigid policies and stifle input.”
Gallaher said it can also suggest that there’s an unhealthy power dynamic between the manager and the other employees.
“If they perceive the whole interview process as a one-way street — ‘I’m hiring, so I have all the say here’ — they will behave similarly in the leader-employee dynamic,” she said. “In a healthy workplace, ‘because I’m the boss’ is not a phrase that is used.”
3. Interviewers refuse to admit to any of the company’s shortcomings.
No job is perfect. But in a toxic workplace, managers are unwilling to acknowledge any areas of improvement for their team or the company.
If your interviewers are unwilling to be honest about any weaknesses of the team or organization, that is a red flag, Gallaher said.
“A healthy workplace has enough psychological safety that it is OK to be vulnerable. If leaders put out a vibe that everything is ‘perfect,’ it creates beliefs that others are meant to do the same,” she said. “Then people start hiding mistakes, pretending to understand things when they don’t, and blaming others when things go wrong. These behaviors are toxic and will drain the life and energy out of people.“
4. The way they talk about success is cutthroat.
Manuela Priesemuth, a management professor at Villanova University who researches toxic workplaces, pointed out that since recruiters tend to paint a more positive picture of the company, the clues of toxicity are likely to subtle.
That’s why she recommends reading between the lines to understand what the company’s values are. Phrases like “This is how we do things” or “That’s how it is in this industry” tell you what the organization’s norms and standards are, Priesemuth said. So if those phrases are used in reference to worrying behaviors such as micromanaging or only caring about the bottom line, that’s a potential red flag.
“If there’s anything that you find offensive or feels like it does not conform with the values you share, then it might not be the right workplace. It might not be that good of a culture,” Priesemuth told HuffPost.
For example, asking about the organization’s rewards structure can be revealing. If rewards are merely ”monetarily oriented and not people-oriented or not purpose-oriented or not other-oriented,” that could suggest employees are incentivized to get bonuses over being collaborative, she said.
“If leaders don’t trust their people, they tend to micromanage, create rigid policies and stifle input.”
Prioritizing bonuses as the primary way of being rewarded could also be a sign you’ll encounter unethical corporate behavior. Research shows that when someone’s livelihood is based on a bonus, they are more likely to risk looking the other way. Past U.S. banking scandals have been linked to organizations that incentivize employees to engage in inappropriate behavior, such as bribery and creating fake accounts to meet sales targets when wages are tied mostly to bonuses.
How management talks about success can also reveal a lot about how employees advance. “Does the prospective employer talk about rewards as if it is a fixed pie ― there will be winners and losers in terms of securing desired outcomes?” asked Rebecca Greenbaum, a professor in Rutgers University’s school of management and labor relations. “This may suggest that employees are pitted against one another as they try to stand out for advancement and reward purposes.”
5. Recruiters are cagey about employment agreements you will need to sign when you start.
Job interviews are the time to get clarity on the expectations of the job. If a hiring manager or recruiter refuses to answer questions about employment agreements, that’s a red flag, Ballman said.
She said job candidates should ask during the interview process whether they will be required to sign any agreements at the start of employment.
“If they say yes, ask to get a copy so you can review before you start. If they decline, they are probably hiding an obnoxious noncompete agreement that will limit your ability to work after you leave,” Ballman said. “Some states, but not a majority, require that noncompetes be disclosed before the person starts the job. Many toxic workplaces have them as an attempt to force employees to stay in a terrible work situation.”
Ballman also recommended running a search of lawsuits in state and federal court involving the employer, and reading Glassdoor complaints.
6. Everyone who works there seems like they are in terrible mood.
One of the more subtle hints of a toxic workplace is the vibe. Ballman recommended closely observing how staff members interact with each other.
“How are you greeted? Do the people working there look happy? Or are they avoiding eye contact with you? Is there yelling? Are people chatting in the break room, or are they scurrying in and out quickly?” she said. “The atmosphere there can give you clues about the workplace.”
It can be painful to waste time and energy on interviews that ultimately don’t lead to a new job. But it’s better to follow your gut and say good riddance than to be stuck in a toxic job you hate.