How can I prevent entering another toxic workplace environment?
June 3, 2015 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Just interviewed for a new position and most likely getting the official offer next week. I am feeling excited and joyful, but also very worried about entering another toxic working environment, like the one I am in currently. How can I identify the red flags in advance and prevent this from happening again? More inside.

First, some background. I have been at my current job – that I hate - for about a year. I took this job hastily but took the chance because it seemed like a decent, well-paying opportunity and I was going to be laid off. There were red flags initially during the interview process (the first interview was way too casual, they seemed to just want a warm body, interview process was too easy, the job itself seemed boring). Within a few days of being here, I realized I hated it. The tasks are menial, boring, and repetitive. I have 3 tasks that I do every day, over and over again. A monkey could do my job. I don’t feel any interest or passion in what we do here or what my job tasks are. In addition to that, my coworkers are extremely negative, and the general environment is very toxic. My boss is cold, manipulative, unappreciative, and doesn’t seem to give a damn about making human connections with his team. Although I do my job well and do everything that is asked of me, I can tell he does not value me as a team member. I also get a shady vibe from him and the rest of the team – he has come to me with several trivial verbal complaints, for example, “Someone has said that you don’t take very good notes.” “Someone has said that you expressed disinterest in attending this meeting.” Etc. I feel that a specific team member has it out for me and repeatedly goes behind my back with complaints about me to him, and he goes along with it, although everyone is well aware that this person is overly emotional and unreasonable. I also feel many times that I do not fit in with my coworkers, who have a tight bond and have bullied and conspired against previous coworkers, so much that they were forced to quit. I tried to stick it out, hoping my outlook would change if I gave it a chance, but it did not.

So here I am now, having just interviewed for a new position and most likely getting the official offer next week, as the recruiter let me know that they were planning to extend it. I am feeling excited and joyful, but also very worried. What if I get stuck in a similar environment, or an even WORSE environment? What if my coworkers are horrible again, or my boss hates me and tries to ruin my life? I tried to look for red flags, but it’s hard to see these things during the interview process where everyone is on their best behavior. Any tips on how I can prevent entering another horrible toxic working environment, or red flags I should look for? I don’t want a repeat of this, and I don’t know how common this kind of situation is.
posted by koolaidnovel to Work & Money (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What if I get stuck in a similar environment, or an even WORSE environment? What if my coworkers are horrible again, or my boss hates me and tries to ruin my life?

A work environment that bad isn't all that common, so try not to catastrophize it before you're even there! Two things to think about: one, you've now got experience with a horrible workplace and will know it when you see it happening in the future, and can cut your losses before it drags you down with it. Two, it's very likely that this job will be sufficiently better or at least different from your last one that you won't be able to restrain yourself from skipping in the hallways and grinning at nothing for a couple weeks. Go with that. For one, it's great to feel that relief. And presenting that kind of cheer when you start a new job really helps smooth the introductory phase. If your new coworkers complain, you can listen, and if asked, hey, it's just so much better than your last gig that it's hard for you to see the flaws -- so you don't get sucked into that.

But really: you know how this terrible work situation feels now. If you identify the same sort of interactions at your new job, you will be able to recognize them from the sick feeling in your gut. Trust your judgment, and remember that if you got this job after a year of being ground down, you can almost certainly get another, because you're strong like that.
posted by asperity at 12:03 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First off, forget your old job. Yes, there are toxic work environments all over the place, but they're really not everywhere.

Second, remember the parable of the guy at the gas station heading into a new town.
He asks the cashier, "Hey, I'm moving here. What are the people like in this town?"
The cashier says, "Well, what were the people like in your old town?"
"They were great. Really nice, always helpful. It was a great town."
"Well, that's what this town is like."
Another guy comes in the next day and says, "Hey, I'm moving here. What are the people like in this town?"
The cashier says, "Well, what were the people like in your old town?"
"They were horrible. Really mean, always gossiping. It was a crappy town."
"Well, that's what this town is like."
Life is ninety percent how you react to it.

And specifically, make sure that you don't complain about anything for your first two weeks. Not your old workplace, not the fact that the printer at this place is too far away from your desk, not even that the Starbucks by your house makes worse coffee than the place near your office. First impressions matter, and if you get one as a complainer (even about the most trivial things), it will color your interactions with everyone forever.
posted by Etrigan at 12:05 PM on June 3, 2015 [20 favorites]

Ask things about the mission and culture of the organization and how your specific job tasks relate to that in the interview.

I've been doing a lot of interviews lately. One of the first things I say is, this is a two-way interview. I don't want to get you into a job you wouldn't like, so feel absolutely free to interview me about what it's like.

Some people seem taken aback by that a bit, or think it's a trick. I'm truly not evaluating people on "asking good questions." In fact, I hate it when people are clearly trying to impress me with the questions they ask, while clearly also not caring what my answer is.

I LOVE it when people are truly interested in finding a good job for them and ask questions accordingly.
posted by ctmf at 12:12 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

The more upbeat and confident and (this is key) NEUTRAL you are about any of the "office environment" stuff going on around you, especially negativity and politics, the better your experience will be. Falling into the trap of being angry and stressed out and hating everyone and everything (which is something that builds strength as more and more people participate) will create a terrible work environment for you.

I don't always succeed, but I try to remember to always try to find the positive in whoever I'm dealing with, and reflect that positivity back at them. I thank my coworkers profusely, and try to make them look better and try never to rip on someone's job, because they may turn around and do the same to me. It's worked out pretty well for my sanity.
posted by xingcat at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

How did the people talk to each other during your interview? Were they friendly and cheerful? Did they seem to enjoy spending time with each other?
posted by MsMolly at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's hard to comment since you already had the interview, but a few things I always look for to get a sense of the general mood of the office:
- Did they take you around to meet everyone? Did people seem interested in meeting you, or did they have slightly pained expressions? How did workers talk to each other - was there good camaraderie? Or were they all in bad/stressed moods? Do they have a sense of humor?
- Do people seem to decorate their offices with individual style -- or do they have empty-looking cubicles? Is the office itself warmly decorated, or are there empty walls? If they haven't nested at all, they don't want to be there.
- One question I always ask my interviewer is: "What do you like best about working here?" You can tell a lot from the answers, especially since they generally won't have prepared a question. You could easily work this one into the conversation when the job offer is extended.
posted by veery at 12:17 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: it’s hard to see these things during the interview process where everyone is on their best behavior.

It's not as hard as it might look. Next time:

1. When you made the move to come here, what was the most compelling reason?
2. What keeps you here?
3. What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were new here?
4. What are the important pieces of the history of this organization?
5. Who are the people "in the know" here?
6. What has been your biggest surprise? Disappointment?
7. What advice would you give me about being successful in this organization?
8. Who really does what around here?
posted by John Borrowman at 12:42 PM on June 3, 2015 [15 favorites]

Oh, this is a big question for me too. I left a job that I enjoyed because of a terrible boss (who was so bad everyone who once worked under him is getting together next month to celebrate him finally leaving). Ask about why the position is open, how long they were there for, why did the person before that one leave if they weren't in the position long. You can also ask about other members of the team and how long they've been there. If everyone else is new or there's a high turnover, that could be a bad sign.
posted by betsybetsy at 12:58 PM on June 3, 2015

Best answer: Be aware of what you're bringing into the environment too. If your coworkers are correctly reading your opinion of the position ("The tasks are menial, boring, and repetitive. ... A monkey could do my job. I don’t feel any interest or passion in what we do here or what my job tasks are."), it's not surprising that they might not be getting along with you or might be complaining that you seem disengaged from attending meetings. A lot of jobs are kind of boring and menial, but that's why they're jobs rather than play. Find ways to keep yourself positive and enjoyable to be around, and that will help keep toxic forces at bay.
posted by Candleman at 1:02 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Glassdoor and Indeed have company reviews. They're usually spot-on.

If you're passionate about the work, it's easier to see past a crappy/vindictive co-worker or an incompetent boss. If you hate the work and end up hating the people, then you're setting yourself up for failure, because you can only control what type of work you're applying for, not who you share a cubicle wall with. In my experience, as long as this new potential role is a better fit for your professional interests, you'll be better off.

If you get stuck in a worse environment, then you jump. Keep looking at jobs and keep applying. I've worked at two back-to-back toxic jobs, and the overarching issue was that I didn't leave soon enough. I didn't have the guts to leave before a year (what about my resume?!), or leave before Project A, or leave so soon after Sally Sue left, or... You get the idea. Don't fall into that trap. Take care of yourself more than you take care of the company.

Lastly, red flags are usually immune to best behavior, IME. In hindsight, I wasn't surprised by the toxic things that made my last two jobs pure misery. I just didn't listen to the warning bells.
posted by coast99 at 1:34 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Even a workplace that's great today can turn toxic in a surprisingly short time, so whether it already is and you can't tell or it becomes so in the future, the important part is to be proactive.

I have one single metric, and I ask myself every Sunday night: do I dread going to work tomorrow?

If the answer is no, or at worst "I'm not happy about getting up/putting on pants, but that's not work's fault", then everything's okay.

If the answer is yes, I ask myself these questions:
- Is it because of a temporary situation that absolutely has a real end?

Maybe I feel bad because I didn't get some stuff done last week I should have, but I would have if I hadn't gotten distracted or really managed my time badly. Every once in a while, that's going to happen. But being chronically unable to get all my work done every week is a warning sign. A difficult project that just has to be gotten through is one thing, but if every project is difficult or things go downhill in this way every time? Flag.

- Is there someone there I specifically dread dealing with?

If it's a temporary interaction, or maybe a situation you can reasonably improve all by yourself even if the other person does not participate, because you don't get to control other human beings, okay. If not, flag.

- Are the people I work with also probably miserable right now?

Again, if it's month-end or right before product release day and everybody's kind of hustling right now, but it's not always like that, okay. But if you suspect or know that lots of people are going to bed miserable or crying before work, that's a flag.

Count your flags and mark them on a calendar. If you can look at a single month and it's all F'ed up, you need to polish your resume and bump it back up on your search sites, so that you are at least making yourself available to be found for better opportunities. Two months, start bumping it weekly. Three, freshen up the search agents you should have running all the time, and read them closely, following up on anything that looks interesting.

Don't be a frog in a pot trying to convince yourself that the steam rising from the top is sweet perfume. Don't look back on three years of misery and talking yourself into staying because you have Stockholm Syndrome or abuse-related stress disorder. After a while, things get so bad you start believing you're too worthless to find anything else, or that "they" can't possibly live without you and so you have no choice but to suffer.

My final questions, if there are flags over and over again and I am crying before work and I have indigestion every fucking Sunday night, is this: am I a pediatric oncologist? Am I putting humans into space? Even those people leave their jobs, but there's at least a payoff bigger than a paycheck for the stress they endure. If you don't do that kind of job, leave if you're unhappy.

You are likely to work for 15+ employers in your lifetime. One or two of five of them are going to suck, that's a given, you can't prevent it all. You just need to learn how to go when it's time to go.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2015 [27 favorites]

Honestly I don't know if you can really tell just from an interview how much you will like working there, even by covering your basis with solid interview questions

I took a job last year which sounded *amazing* with cool people and a fast work environment, and they really liked me in the interview. I went to multiple interviews, we thoroughly vetted each other. And it turned out to be a pretty bad fit - things were different than advertised. I felt *heavily* pressured to get involved, to fit in, to stay fully billable with work (not within my control), and to generally stay valuable. And I was hired at an intermediate level engineer, but I'm pretty sure they considered me a cheap substitute for a senior, with all the expectations that went with it, because they were running low on seniors. I got laid off within my probation period for not fitting in, and I wasn't heartbroken about it.

And then I got a job in a different place, which also projected cool people, a fast work environment, and they too really liked me in the interview. I was worried, because the last one played out like this... and actually, these folks were way more intense in the interview, they were selling it hard - also worrying. But this one has worked out great. I'm relaxed here. I feel like I can be myself, like I fit in and I "get it", my bosses are experienced, supportive, and encourage growth, I'm actually being kept busy and I'm really good at the job. I fit in with the culture very well.

The only sure-fire way of knowing is to take the job and try it out. You will know within the first two months if it's a fit or not. Keep your eye out for jobs to apply for in the meantime, just in case.
posted by lizbunny at 5:20 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

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