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How To Identify A Toxic Culture Before Accepting A Job Offer

With everyone touting their “amazing” culture it can be hard to tell who is telling the truth. Here are a few red flags to look for.

How To Identify A Toxic Culture Before Accepting A Job Offer
[Photo: Flickr user Joseph Morris]

Many recent graduates have indicated that they would accept a significant pay cut in order to work for a company that they felt had great values, culture, and leadership. With such a high premium on these traits, employers have been repositioning their recruiting materials to put them front and center, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell which are really living these values, and which are only paying lip service.

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Instead, candidates need to identify certain red flags and warning signs to make sure that culture they find themselves in is the one they signed up for before it’s too late.

Look Past The Superficial Perks

One pitfall that leads many candidates to believe in a culture that may not actually exist are superficial perks like ping-pong tables in the break room and free lunches.

“A lot of people consider perks as culture. Perks is just stuff,” explains Piyush Patel, founder of Oklahoma-based online training company Digital-Tutors and author of the forthcoming book Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work. “We used to have a big cereal bar, and everybody who took a tour would say ‘oh my gosh, you have a cereal bar, that is the coolest thing, your culture is amazing,’ and I’m thinking ‘no, it’s just food.”

Snoop Around A Bit During Your Interview

Instead, Patel says candidates should look out for some very subtle clues during their initial tour of the workplace. First and foremost is the layout of the office, as some may prefer to work in an open concept while others thrive when given their own cubicle or office. Candidates should also keep an eye out for how employees interact with each other; whether things seem very rigid and regimented or freer flowing and laid-back, and consider which would be the best fit for them.

But it’s not only about what’s visible in plain sight, according to Patel, who suggests that a lot can be learned using your other senses as well. “What does it sound like?” he asks. “Do you hear panic? Do you hear fear in people’s voices? Do you hear excitement?”

Patel even believes that much can be learned about a company’s culture based on the smell of the office; specifically whether or not it smells like food.

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“I know it sounds crazy, but if you have a culture where you need to eat meals at your desk, that’s a leadership problem,” he says. “I use that as a litmus test in my own leadership, because if people are eating at their desks we either don’t have a good plan or we’re scrambling when we should be scaling.”

Check The Bathroom

Another place many wouldn’t consider looking for clues on corporate culture is the bathroom, but Patel says a lot can be learned from its upkeep. He explains that restaurant inspectors and reviewers often use the condition of the bathroom as a likely indicator of the cleanliness of the kitchen, and he believes job candidates should do the same.

“Here was the rule in my office; if I walk into the bathroom behind you, and you didn’t change the toilet paper, I don’t care who you are, today’s your last day,” he says.

Though it may sound extreme Patel explains that the bathroom is where coworkers are at their most vulnerable. “If the person who you rely on to work next to you everyday didn’t care enough about you to just change out the toilet paper, what does that say about how we work together?” he says, adding that an empty toilet paper roll can indicate a culture of passing the buck and not taking responsibility for each other’s wellbeing.

Consider The Pace Of The Recruiting Process

High-growth startups often scale up quickly, and while some take the time and energy to carefully assess each candidate, some may be only paying lip service to their values and culture in a rush to fill seats.

“If someone is too quick to hire you, they’re just using a body to fill a role,” said Aaron Harvey, founding partner of Ready Set Rocket, a New York City-based Digital Agency and winner of Ad Age’s best place to work award. Harvey adds that a lack of due diligence is the number one red flag candidates should watch out for. “That just proves to me that they got a new account or they’re expanding something and they just need bodies, and I’m not going somewhere to be a body.”

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While a rushed recruiting process reflects poorly on the company, Harvey believes that an overly time-consuming one may be just as bad. “What would be an immediate deal breaker for me is if I did a qualifying phone interview, which I understand is just to check a bunch of boxes, but if the next meeting I had did not have the decision maker in the room, I would think that’s a waste of my time,” he said.

Ask Genuinely Tough Questions

As someone who oversees hiring for his firm, Harvey says he appreciates when candidates ask truly difficult questions about their culture and values. Rather than asking questions that allow the interviewer to regurgitate information from their recruiting materials, however, Harvey wants to see candidates that ask for specific examples that demonstrate how the organization truly lives those values everyday. Some of those tough questions include:

  • How much of your business is concentrated in a few major accounts or clients?
  • Can you describe the last time you pursued a bold new idea as an organization?
  • When was the last time something detrimental happened–like losing a major client or a round of layoffs–and how did management handle it?
  • Is mental health an open topic at this company?
  • Where will I have the final say in my work and what needs approval from a superior?
  • How has your approach evolved in recent years, and how did you go about implementing those changes?

Harvey adds that candidates should also ask specific questions about the company’s workflow process to get a sense of where there is room for experimentation and innovation, and what processes are bound by rigid guidelines or bureaucracy.

Consider Different Things Depending On The Size Of The Company

According to research recently conducted by Great Place to Work, a consulting firm that focuses on culture and values, employees are more likely to succeed for different reasons based on the size of the company.

“A friendly atmosphere is extremely important at a small company, and as it gets larger being friendly is still a factor but even more important is the ability [for the individual] to make a difference,” says Kim Peters, the executive vice president for certification and partnerships at Great Place to Work.

As a result Peters recommends that candidates for positions at smaller companies ask questions specific to workplace atmosphere and friendliness. “What you’re listening for in their answer is things that describe how employees care about each other, how managers care about their staff, how communicative the CEO or owner is, generally a positive ‘family type’ atmosphere; those types of adjectives are a good sign,” she says.

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Candidates applying for positions at larger organizations, on the other hand, should ask interviewers questions about the impact individual employees are able to make on the overall direction of the company, and where they would have a chance to make a difference.

“You’re trying to hear about the work you’d actually be doing and ways you have a chance to make a difference,” she said. “Maybe they’ll tell you about conversations that senior leadership has with all employees; maybe there’s community service opportunities you want to participate in.”

Trust Your Gut

Finally, Peters, Harvey and Patel all agree that there is no better indicator of potential cultural fit than your instincts.

“If your survival instincts are saying ‘this isn’t good, I shouldn’t be here,’ I’d listen to that,” said Patel. “Your second brain is in your gut. If you walk in and you don’t have a good feeling, it’s probably not going to get better.”

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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