Teaching students and postdocs how to use an interview to assess if a workplace is toxic. Yep, we did that.

We rolled out a new workshop designed to teach our graduate and health professional students and postdocs how to use an interview to determine if a workplace is toxic.

Our students and postdocs apply for internships, postdocs, residencies, fellowships, and jobs with an eye on selecting an opportunity that will further their training and position them for their career goals. Selecting the wrong prospect has a high cost because they cannot easily leave a residency, postdoc or first job post-graduation that isn’t a good fit.

Our office offers interview workshops and mock interviews to support them, and we’ve noticed three troublesome issues that we’d like to tackle. Though there is a lot of interview advice out there that boils down to, “Remember, you’re interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you,” some of our trainees were:

  • More preoccupied with learning how to make a good impression than they were about assessing if an environment was toxic/bad fit.
  • So impressed by the pedigree of an institution and what doors they thought the opportunity would open, that they missed or dismissed red flags during an interview.
  • Unable to define what factors would be considered red flags.

As a result, some students and postdocs we talked to accepted postdocs, residencies and jobs that were toxic/not a good fit for them (or in some cases, for anyone), and their choice delayed or derailed their career progress and/or adversely affected their self confidence and general sense of well being.

We always tell students and postdocs that as hard as it is to turn down an opportunity that what seems to you or to others to be amazing;  it’s harder to explain to future employers why you left or were asked to leave that ‘amazing’ opportunity within 12 months. It’s harder still to leave entirely unscathed from the effects of the daily grind of a toxic/bad fit environment, even if one moves on.

So, we figured a useful intervention would be to teach our students and postdoc how to use the interview to assess, recognize and accept that an opportunity is unhealthy or not a good fit for them.

This workshop is different from our Ace Your Interview workshops, which focus on topics such as the structure of an interview, how to handle behavioral questions, how to address weaknesses in their application, and what to say in a thank you note.

This workshop is an interactive strategy session to help students and postdocs:

  1. Define what a ‘toxic work environment’ is
  2. Identify steps to research the environment of a lab, residency or job opportunity before the interview
  3. Use questions during an interview to determine whether an organization values a healthy environment
  4. Articulate strategies and practice language to frame questions, considering that current staff will probably not be candid with candidates if their environment is unhealthy
  5. Describe examples of verbal and non-verbal red flags during an interview
  6. Describe factors that can make it difficult to recognize and weigh the potential impact of red flags during and after an interview (for example – very few employees will candidly tell you that an environment is unhealthy during an interview)
  7. Utilize their professional community and social media to vet various institutions and opportunities

This workshop is part a new cluster of skill development programs to help our students and postdocs proactively get in front of situations that could adversely affect their careers. Our strategy is to use 1:1 counseling appointments with students, postdocs, and alumni to identify common and potentially difficult situations that our trainees face, and target developing their ability to recognize, avoid and/or navigate these pitfalls in their careers.