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How to spot a toxic culture by reading between the lines of a job ad

These ads are meant to target the types of people companies want to attract, but they can also reveal something about a company’s culture.

How to spot a toxic culture by reading between the lines of a job ad
[Photos: fizkes/iStock; Arash Asghari/Unsplash]

“Tight-knit workplace.”

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“Foster collaboration.”

“Free meals, snacks, and drinks.”

Job ads are meant to target the types of people companies want to attract, but they can also provide potential candidates with some clues to a company’s culture. By reading between the lines, you may be able to discern whether you’d thrive.

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“Interpreting job ads is a bit like reading real estate ads; ‘cozy’ equals tiny and ‘needs TLC’ means major fixer-upper,” says Michelle Robin, founder of Brand Your Career, a career branding consultant.

For example, when companies describe themselves as having a “tight-knit workplace” or a “setting where collaboration and teamwork are fostered,” it might indicate that they have a small company culture vibe, says Hari Kolam, CEO of Findem, a people intelligence company. “[They may have] more of a flat structure where colleagues are encouraged to work closely and learn from each other,” he says.

Companies that advertise that they’re growing fast, scrappy and that employees wear a lot of hats are likely just starting up or in an early stage, says Kolam. “Some candidates may love the adventure that comes with riding along with a startup, but it might not be right for others looking for stability and something they can count on long-term,” he says.

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Sometimes ads sound positive, but Robin suggests digging deeper, sharing this line is from a Fortune 500 company’s ad: “a culture of openness, collaboration, and trust—where everyone has a voice.”

“It could mean nothing gets done because everyone has an opinion that needs to be heard,” she says. “It’s important to not only look at the words but also the type of company to interpret culture more accurately.”

And when a post says, “free meals, snacks, and drinks,” it could indicate that long work hours are expected because they are trying to keep you happy at your desk, says Robin. “I see this often when companies are trying to appeal to younger workers,” she says.

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Look at the Structure, too

How a job ad is structure can also provide clues, says Jodi L. Standke, CEO of Talon Performance Group, Inc., recruiting agency.

“Look at the general structure of the ad itself,” she says. “Is it a formal descriptor with all of the traditional HR sections ending with lifting capacity for an office job? If you see qualifications, skills, education, responsibilities, reporting structure, you can tell the business most likely has rules, guidelines, processes that they follow.”

If the ad uses active language, talks about opportunity, the future, the values, Standke says the company likely pays attention to their people. “They might be looser on the hard lines for advancement,” she says. “They might be more inclined to move people along the responsibility ladder based on an individual’s learning.”

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Job ads give a sense of the energy in the words, says Standke. “You get a feeling— trust that feeling,” she says. “The energy around us does try to lead and guide us if we pay attention.”

But Go Beyond the Ad

Before you start reading ads, Samantha Clarke, author of Love It or Leave It: How to Be Happy at Work, suggests getting clear on what you want.

“Know the types of companies you’re interested in and why,” she says. “Maybe you’re interested in working for startups that have teams of maybe up to 50 people because you’re interested in the fast pace. Then you can be very specific when you’re looking at job ads.”

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But don’t take the ads at face value; Clarke also recommends finding people who work in these places asking them what their job is like. “Find out how much of the job description they’re actually doing across a week,” she suggests.

Well-being of the employees is paramount, and you want to see how the company is walking the talk, says Clarke. “A company will have their employer brands they might present one way, but as you start to speak to people on LinkedIn or do your Glassdoor research, you may find out that things are not what they seem.”

Regardless of what clues you pick up in a job description about a company’s culture, you have a responsibility as a candidate to dig in and learn more.

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“As a job applicant, you want to find a culture that resonates with your values,” says Sasa Ferrari, vice president of talent acquisition for Momentive, an AI-powered management platform. “The only way you can really assess this is to do your research by reading reviews on Glassdoor and following companies on social media. The person on the other end who is writing the job description might not be aware of how their choice of words is landing with job applicants, so you really need to do your research.”

Remember, at the end of the day, the job ad is a marketing piece, says Robin. “Organizations are trying to sell you, the job seeker,” she says.

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