Photo of a danger sign

How to use the interview to tell if a work environment is toxic.

Short and sweet: Look for consistency, not candor, in the questions, responses and demeanor from the staff who interview you.

I’ve been chatting recently with a number of professional friends who have landed in or narrowly avoided taking, positions where they were well qualified for the tasks, but the environment would have been toxic to them. One friend asked me how to assess if a work environment is toxic during a day-long interview. It comes down to three things, really:

1.Develop your short list of the type of environment you want to work in before you interview:
The word ‘job’ is just shorthand for saying, “These are the 47 things I do all day“. But rather than focus on what the tasks are, focus on the environment you want to do these tasks in and the team you are going to do it with and for. What needs to be in place for you to be able to do these tasks? How does the team need to act? What type of support do you need from your boss? You need to find out whether the organization is a good fit for you.

Moreover, no matter how impressive the pedigree of the organization, don’t assume that you don’t need to ask the questions about the cultural norms or what is considered ‘normal’ behavior at the organization. Just because an institution is well regarded or very productive, doesn’t mean it’s also healthy. They can also be just as rife with overwork and difficult bosses and colleagues as every other organization. Though I always recommend it, one client I worked with was reluctant to ask questions like what type of support she could expect to get from her boss, because she thought she was flagging one of her hang-ups, and that it would say something about the toxic environments she had worked in previously.

But have you ever worked in a high functioning, healthy environment, or talked to someone who has? These people are often proud not just of what they do, but where they do it. I have one friend who switched from a startup where he felt isolated to a leading company in his field, and every time I ask him about his work – every time – he enthusiastically talks about people who are committed to good work, liking his colleagues, and how great it is to be at a place were his achievements are rewarded by his bosses.  And don’t get me started on his Facebook feed that features a stream of colleagues ‘working hard and playing hard’.

So what’s important to you? Is an environment that recognizes and rewards competition between teams in the organizations feel inspiring or demotivating to you? What type of day to day relationship do you want with your boss? What are the values of the organization you want to work for? Is yelling off limits, or is it acceptable during an off day? In short  – if what you do is as important as where you are doing it, then you need to identify those factors before an interview, look for those factors during the interview and assess for those factors after the interview.

2. Look for consistency, not candor, in interview responses from employees.
Look, if a work environment is toxic, it would be an exceptionally risky move for any employee to tell you all of the soul-crushing things going on during your interview. A candid employee telling you to run from the place and never look back has no way to ensure that you wouldn’t refuse the job, and tell your boss what they said, or worse, take the job and then tell their boss what they said. Also, they may not define the environment as toxic to them or their workstyle. It may be the perfect environment for them. But what matters here is what is a healthy environment for you. That’s why it’s important to stop looking for an individual employee to give you candid answers to your questions during an interview. That’s why it’s necessary to look for consistency in those answers across all the employees you meet that day, and then cross-reference their answers with your personal values.

In my workplace, I prioritize professional development with staff. We talk about professional development in annual reviews and regularly in 1:1s, staff report back about their professional development, and we have professional development funds not just in our office, but our overall until has additional funding that any staff person can apply for. In short – we definitely have a culture of professional development. (We’re the Office of Career & Professional Development. How could we not?)

So, say you valued professional development, were interviewing at my office, and were trying to assess what type of support you’d get to support your professional development?  During an interview, if you asked any staff person on my team any variation of, “What type of professional development have you taken part in in the last 6 months and how does your boss support your development?”, I’m pretty confident that you’d get a slew of answers throughout the day from those who would mention completing a training or planning to attend a conference, to those who have their professional association dues paid for or have a Harvard Business Review subscription. In short, what they would say would be different, but you’d get detailed, enthusiastic answers that demonstrated consistently that this office values professional development. That’s how you’d know that you were interviewing at an organization that values professional development.

Imagine the next day you went to an organization that doesn’t support the professional development of their staff – or perhaps only a few favorites get access to that development. If you asked the exact same question of every staff person you met during their interview day, and then cross-referenced it by asking the boss, “What professional development have your staff participated in the last six months, and what has your role been in supporting them?” you can probably imagine what answers you’d get. You probably wouldn’t get answers at all, and when you reviewed all of the answers at the end of the day, you’d probably find that you don’t have a consistent picture of an organization that values professional development.

When a workplace is healthy for you, – you usually get consistent, detailed answers about things that are important to you from multiple sources. When it’s unhealthy, you get:

  • Answers that don’t align with your values. For example, if work-life integration is a professional value, but no one mentions it during the entire interview day – that is the organization telling you about itself. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good organization – it says it’s not a good fit – and possibly toxic – for you. Moreover, when an employee’s answers to questions like, “What does this organization find important?”, or “What qualities does a person need to succeed here”, don’t align with what you think is important or how you define success – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is toxic – but it does mean that in the long term, it’s probably going to be hard for you to succeed.
  • You don’t get detailed answers. For example, imagine during an interview you ask, “What do you find most supportive about your boss?” People who have supportive bosses can usually point to specific qualities, and give examples of a situation that clarify what their boss did that they appreciated. On the other hand, people who don’t really have supportive bosses will rarely say, “Actually my boss isn’t supportive at all, and I find that frustrating!” but they will give a short, or garbled answer, or one that lacks details. Get more than 2-3 of these answers from different staff throughout the day, and what develops is an overall consistent picture of a boss who either isn’t supportive or staff that really can’t recognize or appreciate that support. Neither is a positive outcome.
  • You get the ‘reframe’ that suggests that it’s your responsibility: One person I know who interviewed asked everyone she met, “When there is an unusual or complicated situation – how does your boss (who would also be her boss), help you problem solve?”  What she got was a little bit of the #2 “no detailed answers” situation, with one employee saying their boss was supportive, but couldn’t give any examples,  to another employee just sort of gave a longwinded but unsatisfying answer.  But it was the boss – the boss – who put the nail in the coffin for the candidate. Her boss responded with a reframe, “Well, we expect people here to solve their own problems. To be problem solvers. Would you describe yourself as a problem solver?” My friend was applying for a senior level position, and had a ridiculously strong track record as a consultant of problem-solving, troubleshooting and turning around both projects and teams. But she also knew that at times, every staff person gets stuck, and in those moments knowing that her boss was available, either by providing information or insight about how to handle a complicated or sensitive situation effectively. What my friend was looking for was some type of response that that included language like “for complicated issues, I can be a sounding board. Here’s what I expect from employees… What my friend she got from the day was a not any clear answers, but a consistent picture of a boss that didn’t really support her staff, and she could expect little support if the took the job.

3. Assume that what you hear, think and feel during and after an interview is true.
One curious thing that happens after an interview is how hard it to accept the red flags waving in front of us. Perhaps we have a bad feeling after the interview, we’ve assessed the situation like a job where overwork is rife, we aren’t connecting with the staff, etc., and we talk ourselves out of those feelings or the evidence we have in front of us. For one client I worked with, he did this because he needed a job, and he thought that if he acknowledged what he saw, he’d have to refuse the position. But as most job candidates have bills and responsibilities, and there is enough data showing that being long-term unemployed is actually viewed negatively by employers, turning down a job because it isn’t perfect isn’t a reasonable response.

If you interview in a work environment that you define as toxic, the answer can’t always be, ‘don’t take the job.’ But in those cases, it should be, ‘take the job, do your best while you’re there, and keep looking  In short – hedge your bets.  If a particular job really is as bad as you fear, then continuing your search helps you keep your options open. If you’re wrong, or something like the organizational leadership changes, then you can always stay.  But it takes time to ramp up a job search, so don’t lose momentum in the name of ‘giving a place a chance.’ Because what’s really hard (but not impossible), is to re-kickstart a job search when you’re at a new job and coping with a toxic work environment. But that’s a post for another day.

photo credit: Danger & Skull, Legoland via photopin (license)