Interview Advice: How to Sniff out a Toxic Work Environment

Angelique H. Caffrey

Job seekers, beware. While you may be raring to ditch a demeaning employer, make sure you aren't trading one problem workplace for another. There's no crystal ball to tell you with certainty whether a prospective employer is toxic or terrific, but you do have the power to sniff out signs of negativity before you join a soul-crushing team. You can spot red flags to avoid joining a dreary workplace by using these simple investigative techniques and observational skills.

Learn to Speed Read

A picture is worth a thousand words and so are facial expressions. Arrive early to your interview and watch people coming and going from the office. Notice how visitors, yourself included, are announced. ("Mr. Jordan, your nine o'clock is here," versus, "Sam! Get out here right now!") The tone of the greeting can tell you a little about a company's general personality. Don't be shy; strike up a quick dialogue with company chatterboxes during your wait. Look for telltale signs of unhappiness or resentment, such as employees who refuse to answer questions clearly, avoid direct eye contact or blow you off completely. Although some might simply be having a bad day, this could be the kind of daily treatment you'll receive here. Be wary if you see a number of people who seem overworked or stressed. You might witness hunched shoulders, tired faces and sluggish gaits. These traits probably signal discontent. You could become a cubicle zombie if you accept a job with this company.

Request a Tour

Ask for a tour of the facility. (If the prospective employer refuses your request without offering a good reason, run for the hills.) The common areas of any office are ripe with information for the job seeker. Pause at the water cooler, elevators and courtyard while you scrutinize body language and conversations. Are employees happily chatting about their families and hobbies? Are they mired in serious work discussions? Are they complaining about fellow coworkers? Are they marching solo without interaction? During your walk through the office, look for telltale signs of mutiny such as people surfing the Internet, worried looks on the faces of employees, or less-than-cordial greetings to you. After all, if these workers can't pretend to be happy for a few moments, imagine what they'll be like when you work with them all day, every day.

Drab or Fab

While you're walking the halls, note whether the place seems like one where you'll become inspired or depressed. After all, the personality of a company is often reflected in its visual elements. For example, walls barren of artwork could signify the place is run by penny pinchers who are either unwilling or unable to pay for simple decorations. Observe the décor of cubicles and offices. Does every cube look pretty much the same, or are they personalized with photos, awards and mementoes? If you see a lot of pictures of kids and you have a brood of your own, it could indicate that you'll have a great deal in common with your coworkers. Conversely, very few personal touches might indicate a general expectation of conformity.

On the Clock More Than Not?

If the timing seems appropriate, ask specific questions of employees based on the items on their desks, such as, "I see your son plays soccer. Do you get to many games?" If the answer is a dejected, "No, I'm usually at work," think twice. This workplace might foster a sweatshop labor mentality. If your interview is scheduled after business hours or during lunch, be conscious of how many people are sticking around the office. If everyone is working through lunch or way beyond official closing time, ask your interviewer if this represents a typical workday.

Pure and Wholesome Environs

Finally, note the cleanliness of the facility. Be especially cautious if the president or executive team has an updated suite of plush, decorated offices while the rest of the business resembles a run-down tenement. Check out the lavatory before or after your interview. Take a moment in the stall to listen for hot gossip. While you're at it, note how clean it is; if the taps drip and the place appears dingy, the health and wellbeing of the employees might be undervalued.

Seek out Former Employees

When you're considering making a move to another employer, ask around about the company. Chances are you'll uncover useful information via friends or acquaintances. If you're really fortunate, you may even be able to connect with someone who is a current or former employee. Set up a telephone call or lunch date with that person and find out all there is to know before you accept the job. During your conversation, ask the person to describe the company culture and a characteristic day on the job. Don't forget to ask the most important question: is it worth quitting my job to come work for this company?

Never Settle

Once your reconnaissance mission is complete, evaluate your data with your head and gut. Ask yourself the basic question, "Does this seem like a place where I will be happy working?" If the answer is an obvious negative, stop wasting your time. Go in search of a company where mutual respect and satisfaction are everyday fundamentals.

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