Some workplaces are toxic because of a few bad eggs — a micromanaging superior, an overdramatic troublemaker, an overbearing manager, and so on. Others, however, are simply rotten to their core. They’re not great places to work, and you’ll quickly regret accepting the job offer.
If you’re in the market for a new job, you should be scrutinizing more than just compensation and benefits packages. You should also take a careful look at the cultures of the places to which you’re applying. After all, you’re going to be spending 40 or more hours of every week at this place for the foreseeable future.
Understanding a company’s culture is about more than deciding whether or not you’re a fit for the business — it’s about determining whether the workplace will make you feel accomplished, appreciated, and fulfilled. You want a culture where you can grow and thrive, not a toxic cesspool where dreams go to die.
The worst company cultures tend to share a few common characteristics. Learning to recognize these red flags can help you avoid a toxic workplace. Here’s what to look for:
1. Competition Over Collaboration
A bit of healthy competition is fine, as long as everyone remembers they’re on the same team at the end of the day. However, a business’s culture becomes toxic when it rewards employees for using one another as stepping stones to get ahead.
People in hypercompetitive workplaces may frequently take credit for the accomplishments of others, sabotage one another, or simply refuse to cooperate with one another. Pay close attention to how employees relate to one another when you’re brought in for an interview. Do people seem like they’re willing to work together, or does every interaction you witness seem to have an air of thinly veiled hostility? Ask about what employees do with each other outside of work hours. Generally, employees who enjoy each other’s company are more collaborative.
In a hypercompetitive workplace, the people who rise to the top are those who don’t really care much about their coworkers. They’re looking out for No. 1. Managerial behavior that could indicate such a mindset includes noticeable arrogance, extreme micromanagement, and short fuses.
2. Company Reviews Don’t Paint a Glowing Picture
Sites like Indeed and Glassdoor are great places to learn what it’s like to work at a particular organization. Spend a bit of time reading through them, and pay attention to the common threads you notice in employees’ reviews of the company. Do employees frequently talk about how upper management disrespects them, for example? Or how they’re expected to work overtime without extra pay? Take a look at what customers say about the business as well. Companies with toxic cultures often have poor relations with their clients.
3. Nobody Actually Knows the Company’s Mission or Values
A company with a solid culture follows a clear set of definable values. The employees know why the company was founded and understand both its long-term and short-term goals.
In a toxic workplace, the business’s mission and values are little more than marketing tools. No one really understands them, and no one cares; they just show up for the money.
If you get the chance, ask about the company’s mission and values. Can employees clearly articulate these things? When you ask people why they work for the organization, what do they say? Are people’s answers to these questions consistent?
This is also a question you could direct to the recruiter: What makes this company a great place to work? If their answer is mainly monetary or muddled, that could be a red flag.
4. There Is No Transparency or Trust
Pay attention to how managers behave. Do they justify their decisions and treat their subordinates as people, or do they meet protest with “because I said so”?
It can be difficult to get a feel for whether a company prioritizes trust and transparency internally without working there, but there are a few steps you can take. During the interview, ask about how the company’s last big decision was made. Were all employees involved? How was the information communicated?
You should also look at how the business behaves on social media. Do most of the organization’s interactions with customers seem insincere? Do accusations of false advertising pop up frequently in online discussions?
5. Nobody Seems Happy to Be There
If no one at the company you’re checking out seems to have any seniority, that’s a red flag (unless it’s a startup). When people love a company, they will remain loyal as long as possible. If turnover is consistently high, that suggests people are eager to get out.
Pay attention to the mood of the office when you go in for an interview. Do people seem tense, or are they relaxed, focused, and cheerful? Do coworkers act friendly toward one another, or do you get the feeling they absolutely loathe each other?
No one wants to work in a toxic culture. Fortunately, there are almost always warning signs, so you don’t have to be caught by surprise. Learn to recognize the red flags of toxic workplaces, and you can ensure you only work with companies that treat both their employees and customers with the utmost respect.
Brad Wayland is the chief strategy officer at BlueCotton.