October 17, 2023

How to Spot a Toxic Workplace Before You Accept a Job

A few years ago a member of my team got her dream job. After years of volunteering for a large non-profit organization she was offered a full-time job. She believed deeply in the mission and was over the moon. But two weeks after she started, she quit. Despite the seduction of a powerful mission, the organization’s culture was toxic.

Toxic culture is the number one reason people quit. In fact, it drove the Great Resignation in 2022. Culture is also the biggest reason people stay–in one global poll, 77% of job seekers said it’s even more important than pay and benefits.

The problem is, it’s really hard to spot a toxic culture before you’re in it– leading to expensive, miserable career mistakes. You certainly can’t rely on the “culture” a company markets. And job interviews are like first dates – of course they’re going to put their best foot forward. Here are five red flags you can look for to avoid making a toxic leap.

  1. Fake Flexibility

    The role is marketed as flexible, but the rules are not. Certain days are mandatory and they count your key swipes to make you comply. Your job’s requirements don't matter: the rules apply to everyone, except the most senior leaders.

    Despite the post-pandemic fervor about RTW, 98% of employees want workplace flexibility. True flexibility enables you to match where and how you work with your strengths, needs, energy, and performance goals. Done thoughtfully, it’s a win-win: it drives innovation and productivity that values your unique contribution. But mandated arbitrarily, it’s no more than lip service.

    To assess flexibility, ask prospective colleagues how much freedom they have to balance their work and their lives. Are there ample opportunities for colleagues with different schedules to join a critical workstream and advance their careers? In a truly flexible workplace, all colleagues have access to the tech resources, opportunities and mentorship they need to thrive, whether they work from home or the office.
  2. Poisonous Politeness

    My colleague once worked with a large company that prided itself on its kindness and camaraderie. In fact, they were so unfailingly polite they never talked about risks or problems for fear of insulting someone or creating conflict. Their perennially sunny dispositions cost them dearly: by the time the issues finally came to a head, the company was too far gone to survive.

    Disagreement is uncomfortable. But without it, teams fall into group think, unable to learn and grow when they need to. People have mixed feelings about psychological safety, but it's critical to any healthy culture. It’s about creating an atmosphere where trust and respect are strong, where colleagues give each other the benefit of the doubt, and appropriate risk-taking is appreciated, not feared.

    If your potential employer focuses on their “kind” and “polite” culture, dig in. Don’t just ask whether it’s accepted or safe for people to disagree. Instead, borrow a technique from social scientists and ask several people to tell you about a time–a specific time–where someone openly disagreed with a group or directive. What happened? The strongest leaders welcome dissent and encourage perspectives from every corner of the company.
  3. Cosmetic Diversity

    If the front lines are diverse but the leadership is not, pause immediately and investigate. True inclusion isn’t about populating a workforce to make the stats look good on paper, it’s about equitable advancement, promotion and impact. For many companies, the executive suite is still a white male clubhouse. Even though researchclearly demonstrates that companies with gender and ethnic diversity at the top of the house significantly outperform those without.

    The most inclusive teams not only balance diverse perspectives, they put them to work. All voices have an active share in the team’s impact and decision making, not just the more traditional dominant voices. And the definition of job success–who gets promoted–must reflect the reality of different work experiences. A job where promotion requires extended travel, dinner meetings and lots of golf will not be easy for a working mom.

    To gauge a meaningful commitment to inclusion, ask who has been promoted in the last year. Are there women and people of color in leadership positions? Unless success is as diverse as hiring, it’s cosmetic diversity, not true inclusion.
  4. Bad Managers

    I used to work for a law firm that talked about culture before the word was popular. “We're a family,” they would say. But I worked directly for a partner who was cut-throat and competitive. She would assign several associates the same work to see who got to the answer she liked best. Making her happy was exhausting and demoralizing.

    We tend to think of culture as a company trait, but your direct manager is the filter for your experience. Google’sGOOG +1.4% Project Oxygen found that managers have a more significant impact on how employees feel about their job than any other factor. A bad manager makes for a bad experience. And, rather alarmingly, research shows that 82% of managers are bad.

    So, when you consider joining a team, talk to your potential manager as much as you can. Ask about her management style and what she expects of her direct reports. Then ask prospective colleagues about the manager. What’s the turnover on her teams? A bad manager will hold you back and make you miserable – so you need to find a great one who will help your career soar.
  5. Ghost Colleagues

    Someone recently told me about two men who worked side by side (literally) for years and never once talked long enough to find out they had both emigrated from the same country. Sadly, stories like this are increasingly common. Employees describe “ghost” colleagues they will never know or even see. It’s no wonder burnout and isolation are rampant. We aren’t meant to work in silos: loneliness is a number one killer of wellbeing and productivity.

    On the flip side, connected colleagues are 2.5 times more likely to feel engaged at work and they’re more productive. Look for a workplace that prioritizes connection–even in remote and flexible environments– and especially during busy times. Pay close attention to the way people interact during your hiring process. Do they seem to know each other? Are any of them friends? Ask if the company makes time and space for people to build community, deepen relationships and strengthen teams?

Finding a new job is challenging. The last thing you want to do is to pick one with a toxic culture that makes you miserable. Since we spend a third of our lives at work, we have the right to be happy and fulfilled. So take more time, look beyond salary and benefits and dig deep to understand the culture. Ask questions, do extra research and if you see red flags–run! You deserve an employer who cares about your wellbeing, and creates a healthy culture of trust, transparency and respect.

First Published in Forbes.com.

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