5 Ways to Spot a Toxic Workplace Before You Take the Job

5 Ways to Spot a Toxic Workplace Before You Take the Job

Most people aren’t thinking of avoiding a toxic workplace when they’re offered a job interview. Why would we? Interviews make us hopeful. Job searching is already a difficult job all by itself, but once you’re hired it’s a different situation.

As Robert Glazer, author of “Performance Partnerships” wrote, “No matter how great the title, the pay, or the role, if a company’s culture is toxic, you will regret taking the job.”  We completely agree. This is why finding out if the workplace is toxic before you accept the job can be just as important, if not more, than the job interview itself.


5 Ways to Spot a Toxic Workplace Before You Take the Job

We have put together the top five steps of a toxic workplace that you can spot during the interview process, either in-person or online.

  1. Analyze the Job Description for Vague Wording
  2. Research the Company Online for Reviews and Longevity
  3. Notice the Timing of Their Communication and Frequency
  4. Watch for Disrespectful Behavior or Questions
  5. Questions You Can Ask in an Interview To Find Out if The Workplace is Toxic and Why



Analyze the Job Description for Vague Wording

You can learn a lot about what a company says when they advertise a job opening. If it’s vague but catchy, you may want to cut-and-paste those couple of lines and Google them, to see how many times the company has used that exact phrase. If they’re putting this on every job description then that’s not a great indicator of what you’re going to be personally responsible for once you start.

Also, have they confused physical things for company culture? If the job ad tells you all about the new pool table and company dog but doesn’t say anything about the actual culture, watch out! Those perks and shiny new coffeemaker or ping-pong table aren’t going to matter to you if you end up burning out.


Red Flag Signs:

  • They talk about physical things more than benefits or actual culture
  • Phrases like “fast-paced environment” or “work hard, play hard” show what the company really values. 
  • Instead of giving you details about the culture, they compare the company to a family


Research the Company Online for Reviews and Longevity

You’re doing your research on the company before your interview (good job!), but if all you find is either terrible reviews or no information at all beyond their website, it might be a red flag. If this company is brand new or the website is under construction, then not having much of an online presence shouldn’t be a problem. Other than that, there should be reviews on sites such as Glassdoor, Indeed, or the Better Business Bureau, and an active social media presence.

One terrible review shouldn’t put you off, because no one can please everyone all the time. After all, one unhappy person doesn’t mean it’s a toxic workplace. What should put anyone off is when it’s more negative reviews than positive. Pay close attention particularly when the same topic gets brought up over and over again. That indicates a real problem that one person can’t solve alone.

Another red flag is high turnover. Much like the reviews, it’s not surprising that one or two people would leave a company for a new opportunity. Leaving in droves, however, says that there is no fixing the company and you’d better stay away. If you’re not sure if that’s what is happening, try using LinkedIn to contact someone who has left the company and doesn’t have any reason to sugarcoat it for you.


Red Flag Signs:

  • Any positive review online that also directly criticizes a negative review that is already posted. Those two shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. 
  • More negative reviews than positive, often repeating the same problems
  • High turnover of employees


Notice the Timing of Their Communication and Frequency

How people in a company communicate when hiring can also reveal how the company works internally. If there is any confusion about who you’re meeting, what position you’re interviewing for, or what time of day it’s at, then you’re guaranteed to have a hard time getting anything done once you’re hired. If that is how the management goes through the straightforward interviewing process, how would they handle a crisis?

No communication at all can feel worse. After applying to multiple jobs and probably hearing nothing back, getting any response can feel like a good sign. Keep in mind that they need to keep up that level of communication, though! It needs to be clearly communicated if there will be more than one interview as well. Any situation where someone in the position of hiring manager appears unorganized is a red flag.


Red Flag Signs:

  • Their person wasn’t ready on time.
  • It takes much longer than usual to schedule an interview
  • Anyone interviewing you dodges answering your questions
  • Any extreme behavior from the person interviewing you, whether that’s nervousness, anger, aggression, distrust, or extremely cheerful and nice. (Being excessively and truly over-the-top nice is a common bait-and-switch ploy when that person is anything but.)


Watch for Disrespectful Behavior or Questions

Anna Maravelas, president of TheraRising.com and author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, says “Don’t overlook unprofessional behavior, such as emails that aren’t returned or disregard for stop and start times for the interview without apology. These mini-moments are microcosms of your potential supervisor’s style.”

Disrespectful behavior of any kind shouldn’t ever take place in a job interview. That can look like emails that aren’t returned, vague wording, a lack of details about the interview, or using words or body language that sounds just a little too aggressive. These could be illegal or extremely personal questions, such as anything about ethnicity, religion, or personal life. Interviews are when everyone is on their best behavior. If this is their best, what will they say or do on a bad day?


Red Flag Signs:

  • Do they appear to be in a bad mood?
  • It doesn’t have to be disrespectful behavior to you. Speaking poorly about someone who isn’t there is also a red flag. 
  • Did they ask any specific questions about your skills or were they generic questions?
  • Did it take a long time to schedule an interview?


Questions You Can Ask in an Interview To Find Out if The Workplace is Toxic

If you’re in the interview process and are on the fence, try asking some of these questions and listen carefully to their response.

  • What happened to the previous person in this role and why did they leave?
  • How do you deliver feedback?
  • What’s the career journey for this position?
  • What would be the best quality to have to succeed in this position?
  • How would you describe the company culture?
  • What are the next steps in this process?

The important thing here is that the hiring manager knows the situation, the process going forward, and that you get more information so you make the best decision for you.

If you’d like more options, we have them here: 67 Great Interview Questions to Ask a Potential Employer


While looking for a job can feel like a whole new career by itself, you can avoid a bad situation by employing these tactics during your job search. There’s no reason to jeopardize your time and career if you don’t have to. These five steps save you from getting stuck in a toxic workplace and free you to find your dream job instead. Just because they recognize your skills doesn’t mean you need to accept the job.

Are you curious about the green flags? We have those, too! Check out what to look for instead: 5 Signs That a Company is a Great Place to Work


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