A job like you should wear a warning
December 14, 2010 3:17 AM   Subscribe

What are the questions that you should ask and signs that you should look for to find a good work environment and avoid a toxic one?

I am about ten years out of college and well into a career at this point, and it seems that despite my own best efforts to be pickier about my jobs, I still appear to not be very good at figuring this out.

In interviews, I've asked what the work environment and culture are like, and I've even taken the tour and talked to future colleagues in advance of accepting the job. Maybe I'm just too ready to make myself see a good impression of a potential job.

Yet it seems that I inevitably end up at companies with real, systematic problems, where they tend to be ones without clear decision making processes and authority, which then turns arbitrary decision making at the last minute, poor inter-office communication making gossip the most useful way of finding out important and much needed information, inter-office rivalries and generally a lack of professionalism.

Needless to say, this is stressful and exhausting. One day, I'd love to wake up and say to myself, "I'm really looking forward to going into the office today!" (This does happen, right?) How can I get better at avoiding the companies that I describe above?

(I'm asking about a working environment in the U.S., I'm currently in Beijing now but plan to move home next year. Even taking into account the depressing economy, I don't want to land into another toxic environment that will have me wide awake with work-related anxiety at 3 in the morning.)
posted by so much modern time to Work & Money (33 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm really looking forward to going into the office today!" (This does happen, right?)

posted by Patbon at 3:37 AM on December 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

A question I wish I would have asked my current employer: "Do you trust your employees?"
posted by hasna at 3:41 AM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

and Patbon, yes, it does happen. I've had many jobs that I've loved, where I have been thoroughly excited to go into work and do my job. They were decent paying jobs, too. Maybe I'm lucky, but I wouldn't say that it doesn't happen.
posted by hasna at 3:42 AM on December 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Stop answering job ads and start getting jobs by networking. This means you can pick the brains of your contact about how the company works before you apply.

Ask about the staff turnover. Of course, low turnover CAN mean that all the staff are too incompetent to find a better job and the company is too incompetent to get rid of them. But generally it's a good sign.

Ask questions about what your interviewer's job entails and how they run their department. Look for signs that the person has real authority over the things they are responsible for.

Ask about the company's strategic direction and how the department you're interviewing with contributes to that. It's a sign of a healthy company when all the staff (management or otherwise) understand this stuff and can explain it easily. If they sound enthusiastic about it, all the better.
posted by emilyw at 3:50 AM on December 14, 2010 [7 favorites]

I finally figured this out last time I was laid off from a job with practically nuclear waste level toxicity. At subsequent interviews I always asked the person who was to be my supervisor what the favorite part of their job was. Their answer frequently held a peek into how the place was run. If I felt enough rapport had been established I would ask for favorite/least favorite.
posted by hecho de la basura at 4:50 AM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Things to look for: employees being friendly toward you during the interview process, workers who seem comfortable around each other, people looking busy but not frazzled, no change in employee behavior when a manager walks by, desks/offices that are personalized, common areas that are cheerful and populated, people consulting with each other (and not gossiping).

Things to ask of your prospective coworkers: what do they like and dislike about working there, what do people get fired or penalized for, how are performance reviews handled, what does it take to get promoted, who really makes the decisions, what happens when someone really screws up, how do people find out what's going on, and would they answer these questions the same way if their boss were listening.

Then compare these things to what the interviewer(s) and your prospective boss told you.
posted by DrGail at 4:57 AM on December 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Why is this position open?" can get you an answer about turnover without putting the interviewer on the defensive as much as a direct question. Growing companies are probably good. "I've had a lot of trouble finding the right assistant" is probably bad.
posted by oreofuchi at 5:36 AM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Following on oreofuchi, above. If the answer is 'the previous person left for a different job,' how is it said? Are there overtones of discomfort, celebration, pragmatism? Did the person leave the organization, or move up or around inside? Do you get the feeling the parting was mutual or unpleasant? Do they use the person's name?

Think about how you would respond to the same questions about the workplaces you have not liked, keeping in mind that you'd have to be diplomatic.

And keep in mind that much of that underground reality can't come through in a regular interview of just an hour or two. You might get more hints in an all-day academic marathon interview, but there are no guarantees.
posted by ES Mom at 6:19 AM on December 14, 2010

Look for Dilbert cartoons posted in people's work space. If there are a few, it's probably a fair place to work. If there are lots, there may be problems. If there are none, management are a bunch of fascists.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:45 AM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can ask as many questions as you want.....but you also have to be able to read people in a fairly good manner.......because the job market is bad at the moment many hiring managers let their guard down and absolutely do not care about trying to sell you the job, ask yourself if that is a person you want to work for?

Also, at least for my current position, I asked all the right questions and once I got hired I found that most of his answers were not honest.. (I had asked for growth opportunities, he said there were "plenty", his answer should have been more like "zero").

Also please note that no matter how an organization works the most important person is your boss...if you get along with him more likely things will be fine, if you dont like him or her much most likely that is the attitude you will have towards your job....
posted by The1andonly at 6:56 AM on December 14, 2010

Use linkedin to seek out people who formerly worked there. Some may be local enough to your network that you can reach out to them with a connection request seeking some candid input on their experience working for the company. The the info with a grain of salt, but it is about as unvarnished as you can get it.

Expect that any company will conduct a background check on you before hiring you. This is reasonable, so turn the tables and look into their background as well. You are interviewing them too.
posted by dgran at 7:03 AM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I'm really looking forward to going into the office today!" (This does happen, right?)

Yes, it does. But all the people who I know that say it 1) really love the purpose or of the work that they do (public defenders, state's attorneys, a guy I know who works at the White House, teachers, folks who create tangible products) or 2) don't go to the office every day. Looking forward to going into the office today is less about the people there and more about personal satisfaction, although no amount of personal satisfaction will make up for hateful work environments.

In my experience, the only way to suss out a toxic environment before you are submerged in it is talking to people who have left. You can ask during an interview how often the support staff turns over, but you may not get a straight answer and there may be reasons other than bad work environment. You can try to observe how the office functions, but you won't be able to do it unescorted and the folks who yell or belittle their colleagues or subordinates won't do it while you're there. You can ask to talk to the people who will be your co-workers and you might get a sense of their personalities or how congenial the place is.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2010

Chat with the receptionist while you're waiting for your interview - ask how she* likes the place. Obviously she isn't going to say anything _negative_ about the company, but if she goes into significant detail about what she likes about it, rather than just "yeah I like it here fine," that's a good sign (I am all about judging a workplace on whether it treats its receptionists well).

*Yes, it could be a he. But it's probably not.
posted by naoko at 7:40 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can ask to talk to the people who will be your co-workers and you might get a sense of their personalities or how congenial the place is.

Even this is far from foolproof. One place I worked introduced me to my coworkers during the interview, and they were very sweet, welcoming and friendly. One of the women turned out to be really territorial, passive-aggressive and manipulative; another decided to start a nasty running snark-fight over who was supposed to clean the coffee pot (not that I have a problem cleaning the coffee pot if it's my job, but this chick didn't have any authority to be assigning me tasks.)

It's hard to tell stuff like this because people are generally on their best behavior (or at least running a watered-down version of their crazy or assholery) on the first meeting. On the other hand, if someone is not nice to you on the first meeting it is safe to assume that's as nice as he/she ever gets, and factor that in to your decision.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:56 AM on December 14, 2010

One day, I'd love to wake up and say to myself, "I'm really looking forward to going into the office today!" (This does happen, right?)

Sure. That said the people I know who are the happiest at their jobs often have an ability to not sweat the small stuff and ignore some of the crappier aspects of office work. That is, I think most offices have a toxic personality or two, but not letting that person ruin the entire workplace environment is something that some people are able to do and some aren't. I'm fairly bad at it. That said, here are some things I've tried.

- "How does this department get along with this other department" I'm a librarian who works with technology and understanding how the library staff work with their technology staff is key for me in understanding how someone in a bridge role like mine would be received and dealt with. Nearly always the answer to this question is some sort of complaint about how IT operates which usually reveals more about how library staff don't get technology than how the IT people work.
- "What's the last big change you made here and how did it work out?" Again this can turn into some sort of "we tried to do this and got a ton of resistance and it was a mess" to "We steamrolled everyone to do a thing they didn't want to do and they've grudgingly accepted it" to "CHANGE??!" and again it's not so much what they did but how they deal with changes in the workplace
- troubleshooting and magical thinking - I have a pretty rigid approach to problem-solving because I feel that having a rigorous approach to solving technology-related problems needs to be thorough much more than it needs to be creative [though I can be creative if need be] and so when I ask about their technology setup, I don't want to hear that a computer has "issues" I want to hear what's not working. I don't want to hear "sometimes it just doesn't work" I want to hear when and possibly why it doesn't work. I try to clue in to whether people see their workplace problems as random things that just happen for no reason [in which case they see my role as more of a wizard than an actual skilled professional, this is not helpful for me] or things that happen with cause and effect [in which case they see me as someone who is good at detangling and solving problems]. Not sure exactly what the questions are that you'd ask in this case, but trying to figure out what they think causes the problems they are having can be eye-opening
posted by jessamyn at 8:12 AM on December 14, 2010 [9 favorites]

I've come to believe that a good 80% of your happiness at any job will depend on your coworkers. So do the best you can during the interview to assess how well they get along. This works especially well if you are interviewed by a committee: watch how they interact with each other. Are they relaxed around each other? Do they joke around? Do they genuinely seem to enjoy spending time together? This can become really obvious if your interview involves a meal. If people are struggling to come up with topics to talk to each other about, not just with questions to ask you, be very worried.
posted by MsMolly at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't worked at a ton of places, but there are notes that I use.

If the interviewer talks about "politics" in the workplace then it means there's general unhappiness either from the interviewer or from the company culture.

If you sense that the manager (during the interview) has a sort of inferiority complex about his position or work and he seems like he would be angry about it or while communicating his own background or work has sort of an inflection that sounds argumentative/defensive, then there's potential for trouble.

I once worked as a freelancer at a nonprofit where my manager has sort of a wolfish smile and seemed too camera ready (again, I don't know if it makes sense, but at first, her beauty was actually very charming, like she had a bright smile and was really lovely and seemed sweet) in her facial expressions and also in her movements (instead of saying, "Hey anniecat?" or "Excuse me, anniecat?" when I was in the office, she'd stop in front of my desk while looking down at some sheaf of papers and sort of sway in a way that was analogous to clearing your throat. I realized later that she had been a drama major in college and despite her being 12 years out of college and in a different field, she was still prone to moving around like she was following some predetermined choreography, and it was weird.) She was intensely focused on me and made me generally uncomfortable because I felt like she was trying to get something out of me that was not actually work-related. It still feels weird to me after six years or so. I had idealized this place after being recommended by an old friend (who had limited contact with the manager).

These are mostly "I wish I'd seen it beforehand and I probably should have seen it right off the bat."
posted by anniecat at 8:25 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Be careful also of overly friendly clique-ish environments where you're forced to go out with people from work on the weekends and like make actual plans with them every night in order to fit in at work.

And I guess tweak all the advice depending on the industry you're in. Some of the most awkward people I interviewed with were actually the colleagues I remember most fondly.
posted by anniecat at 8:30 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would also pay attention to what they ask in the interview--if they ask a ton of questions about your experiences dealing with toxic colleagues or insane deadlines, for example, that's a warning sign.
posted by phoenixy at 8:44 AM on December 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Adding somehing that I saw a former coworker do in a previous job, which I thought was sharp in terms of finding out about the enrvironment (and I don't see it listed above).

Before she went on the interview, she plugged the name of the company into google plus terms like "layoffs" "bad" etc and sure enough she found that m yformer company had gone through 2 recent rounds of layofs.

She also went to the next level (although I think the info alone is useful) and when she knew that she was likely to get the job and met with the VP, president, etc, she told them "I need a job and evaluating a few work places/jobs right now. Can you tell me about the recent round of layoffs? Is it likely to affect this department?" She watched how they answered the question, but she already knew part of the answer. She got the job, by the way.
posted by Wolfster at 9:32 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I inevitably end up at companies with real, systematic problems

If you were to go into, let's say, an MBA seminar where there are many people from many different organizations, and ask them to raise their hand if they think that basically their organization is pretty screwed up, the chances are 70-80% would raise their hand.

There are a few things going on in that.

First, organizations are messy and complicated, because humans in large groups are messy and complicated.

Second, people compare the reality of what they see in their own company versus a hypothetical "well functioning org" which they imagine exists somewhere, but they have not actually seen. And they don't know how rare that is because they've never done the kind of reality check of asking a large group of people about what their orgs are like.

Third, human psychology being what it is, people tend to go from being idealistic about what they've got involved with at first, and then later become disillusioned or cynical. And then they also suffer confirmation bias in which they notice the dysfunctions all the time, while the things that work well get taken for granted. That goes whether we're talking about companies, marriages or enthusiasm for a politician.

So overall, part of your issue may be that you simply have too high expectations of what real world organizations are like, and also once having formed a dim view of the work culture tend to accentuate the negative and tune out the positive.

When it comes to questions you could ask to avoid the worst problems, my suggestion would be to ask open-ended questions to a number of different people in settings that are likely to elicit honest answers. For example, talking to friends or friends-of-friends who've worked there, and talking to your potential future coworkers over a coffee, away from management.

In asking questions, try not to ask leading questions or focus on only one area.

Questions like: "What's it like working here?", "What do you like about working here?", "Are there any downsides to working here I should know about?" will be useful. Then depending on the answers you get, you can home in for more specifics.

And listen to the body language and what is not said as well as the actual answers.

Overall, if you meet a few people in the org and you get the vibe that "these are my kind of people", you probably can't get any better than that. Not that the organization you join will be perfect, but it will be as good a fit as you are likely to find in the real world.
posted by philipy at 10:45 AM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

A real red flag for me has been people repeatedly making it a point to say how certain things are going to be "much better soon."

"Oh, we're moving to a much nicer place soon."
"We'll be upgrading our systems soon."
"We're offering more benefits soon."

One or two of these is an indicator of a company going through change.

But several of these mentioned in a single interview is a strong indicator of a company that has been floundering, knows there is a problem but lacks the will/capacity to fix it, and are just feeding you lies to get you to join.

The keyword is "soon". Get specifics, either a date or other details.
posted by Wossname at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm with philipy - if you haven't ever worked for / seen the inside workings of an organization that you think works well, your expectations are probably too high. If the things you list happen sometimes, that's normal. If they happen every time and no one tries to change these patterns, that's where there's a problem.

If you have the sort of job where temporary assignments are possible, I suggest that. I've found most of my permanent jobs through starting as a temp, and it will give you good perspective on what's normal / what sort of company you fit well with.
posted by momus_window at 11:42 AM on December 14, 2010

If at any point someone says "We're like one big family!" RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.
posted by cyndigo at 12:40 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I could have posted this very question. I think the answer you're looking for is contingent on a lot of factors: the local culture, type of business, size of business, your expectations, etc. So it's tough to offer one-size-fits-all thoughts. That said:

- Does the job description make sense? Was it composed in a way that makes you think there is someone in the organization who actually understands what the business needs? Does the HR person grasp what your skills are vis a vis the job opening?

- Are they able to tell you who you report to directly? Can they tell you how the business is organized (the org chart)? If there's no structure to the organization then petty politics will come into play more often because everyone is scrambling for incremental gains every day.

- Is the interview process really a process or does it seem ambiguous? For example, has your contact at the company articulated where you are in the process or are they just randomly bringing you in to talk with people? One indicates organization; the other means everything is a free-for-all and some people in the business are benefiting from that chaos.

- Do different people in the business offer roughly the same answer to the question of where the business is going? At a bare minimum, the employees should be on the same page about the mission of the business.

- Ask them what their internal process is (the tactics) for reaching the business goals. Don't be seduced by the results successful projects produced by the business. Those could be coincidental or an accident. Ask them to outline how their process works because that's what you'll be working in every day.

- Where have the people who have started in the same position ended up in the organization? Are they still with the business or did they mysteriously 'move on'?

- Is the business run by a family? Expect a whole other set of personal (not business) issues there.

So much more but that's all I've got for you off the top of my head.
posted by quadog at 2:01 PM on December 14, 2010

hasna: "A question I wish I would have asked my current employer: "Do you trust your employees?""

Yes, it was very demoralizing when I had to shake out my coat in front of my (retail) manager at the end of each shift. It was company policy.

At one job interview it was a small tech support company with about 5 employees, and after I met the boss, he called the rest of them in to see how they felt about me. I'm grateful I didn't get that job, because that just seems very clique-y to me. I mean, sure it's important to get along with your co-workers, but to the point that they have say in if you get hired or not? That makes me wary.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:21 PM on December 14, 2010

I find going with your gut helps a lot. I started up a job where, starting out, I felt like the people working there were frustrated by their work environment and serious but not at all excited about their work. I stayed there for a month or two but eventually we agreed mutually that it wasn't a great fit.

Granted, not all jobs are easy to get worked up about. But people are the main factor that make a work environment toxic. Pay close attention to who you would be working directly with. Do they seem happy to see you, or bitter? Do they come across as energized or dismayed by your presence?

I have to say, I love, love working in environments where the people enjoy what they do, where they get excited on the phone. Where a meeting goes a little over schedule because everyone in on the conversation is bursting with a hundred new ideas.

You're not always going to get that. But if you don't sense that at all at the very beginning, it's probably not going to develop.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:55 PM on December 14, 2010

"I'm really looking forward to going into the office today!" (This does happen, right?)

Yes. My boss is the kindest person I have ever known. Working for him is a joy. My coworkers are pretty cool, too, probably because the boss has cultivated an atmosphere of kindness, respect, and collaboration.

So, I recommend finding out as much as you can about what the boss(es) are like, since they set the tone for the rest of the team/organization.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:22 PM on December 14, 2010

Late answer, but for what it's worth:

1) Do your interviewers offer you a chance to ask them questions? If not, that's not good.

2) If they do, one question I ask (leave it open ended, and listen very intently to the answer) is - "we've talked about what this role/team/company is supposed to do - what's currently standing in the way?" Every part of the answer they give here is huge, and is, unfortunately, situation specific. For example, a long bit here about internal process or department conflict might be a warning sign, but it could also mean the place is self-aware enough to realize they can always do better.

3) To extend emilyw's point above: ask your interviewers how they wound up at the place. If they were brought in by people they worked with in successful circumstances before or knew socially outside of work - that's very, very good. If that's true for multiple interviewers across multiple networks (more than one set of friends or through multiple company alumni networks) - that's great.

4) I completely disagree about not having co-workers involved in the hiring decision (as opposed to hiring manager, only). In fact, I'm often involved in the hiring decision for managers in other parts of my department. I won't report to these people, but I will definitely work closely with them, and it matters that I sign off on them.

For what it's worth, I'm coming from the perspective of a very high functioning silicon valley company (my 5th). We can always do better, but I've never worked in a place run as well, and I'd be very surprised to find one as good in the future, unless I were to follow a current co-worker to someplace new. YMMV, and good luck.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 5:42 AM on December 15, 2010

Some of these are hard to ask of management, but easier to ask if you know someone who works there. If you have a wide enough network of friends and acquaintances, it's almost always best to just work through them, instead of blindly applying.

Do people typically refer friends for positions here? Do people have friends at work?

Do many of the employees have families at home?

Is it acceptable for people with families to leave - assuming there's no emergency here - if they need to take their kids to soccer practice after school?

What's the churn rate? That is, how long do new people usually stay with the company, on average?

Super question that's always pretty easy to ask; what's the last thing you did here you were proud of? The answer is always telling, whether you're asking as an interviewer or interviewee.
posted by talldean at 5:51 AM on December 15, 2010

These are all so good! I started marking a lot of these as best answers, but these are all worthy of being best answers. Thanks, I'll be armed with these questions for my next interview(s).
posted by so much modern time at 7:24 AM on December 15, 2010

tl;dr all the other responses *ahem*:

Question I always ask: "Does the team eat lunch together?" At the 2-3 jobs I've enjoyed working at the most, we always ate lunch together. I've always found that remarkable.

Also - it's extremely rare, and I'm extremely lucky, but I *love* going to work every day. I'm a software developer at a very well-known company in the Bay Area. I've been passionate about computers since I was a little kid, so I get to do my hobby as my professional job.
posted by blahtsk at 10:31 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Question I always ask: "Does the team eat lunch together?" At the 2-3 jobs I've enjoyed working at the most, we always ate lunch together. I've always found that remarkable."

Yes, this. That is another great thing about my job, and the boss often treats. Although we only do it once a week because if we did it more often the extreme introverts on our team would probably lose their minds -- they generally like to use their lunch breaks as an opportunity to hide from people and decompress. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 5:47 PM on December 15, 2010

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