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How To Spot A Toxic Workplace

Written by: Jeff Altman, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In a job interview, you won’t immediately know if the company is toxic or not. After all, it’s just an interview. There are no second chances to scope out the workplace with your senses. An interviewer might ask you if you have any questions before ending the interview. You can use this opportunity to ask them about their company culture and working conditions. If they respond positively and make their workplace sound like a dream come true, there are usually other things they aren’t telling you. Here are some red flags that indicate whether an organization’s culture is toxic or not:

A High-Pressure Interview Process

If you get the feeling that your interviewer is rushing through the process, or maybe rushing you through a particular question, then that’s a red flag. They should be interested in your answers and be asking follow-up questions or clarifying points to ensure that they get what they need from the conversation. A toxic workplace will put a lot of pressure on new hires and on people, they interview – either to hit unrealistic quotas or to “perform” once they’ve started. While the latter is understandable to some extent, the former is completely unreasonable. If the interviewer is putting pressure on you, you may have to dig deep and remind yourself that you’re not at fault. They are because they are distracting you with pressure so you don’t notice that they have a bad environment or culture.

Constant Turnover

If you notice a lot of people leaving the company, that’s a huge red flag. It’s even more concerning if the people leaving are people who have been there a while and are more knowledgeable about their roles. If the turnover rate is high, it could mean that people are being mistreated and/or don’t feel like they have a future with the company. If the reason for the high turnover is due to the employees being too ambitious and leaving for bigger and better things, then it’s a different story. If you notice that a lot of people are leaving the company, ask why. Consider it your good fortune if you are rejected because you asked the question. After all, if you can notice a trendline of people leaving, there is a problem that the interviewer isn’t explaining to you. After all, high turnover is bad for any organization. Executive Resume Writer and Korn Ferry Leadership Architect, Donna Svei points out that if the previous person was in the role for a short period of time, you need to understand why. Ask, “How many people have held this position in the past 5 years,” she suggests.

Lack of Transparency

Employees who don’t feel trusted are bound to feel stressed out and unfulfilled. If the hiring manager or their staff is being vague about certain things or is being overly secretive about their organization, that’s a huge red flag. Interviewers should be selling you on the job, the opportunity, and the company culture. If they’re vague or secretive about certain things, it can affect the quality of your work and your morale. If the interviewer is vague during the interview, ask if they can give you specifics instead of generalizations. If they continue to give vague answers, they are doing it for a reason and that reason isn’t good for you.

Poor Communication

Poor communication on the part of the hiring manager could mean they don’t care about your concerns or they are toxic. At the end of the day, an interviewer has to care about their employees and want to make their work lives better. If they don’t, then it’s a red flag. If you notice that your interviewer isn’t really listening to you and doesn’t care about your concerns, then your BS detector should go off alert you to a potential problem. If the interviewer is bad overall at communicating with you, there’s a chance that the employees who work for them are in a similarly toxic situation. It won’t be any different with you.

No Growth Opportunities

If an interviewer is promising you the world in terms of benefits, salary, and other perks, but there are no growth opportunities, then something might be wrong. Growth opportunities are important because they show that the company wants to invest in its employees and that they want to keep its people happy. Without any growth opportunities, you don’t have much of a reason to stay at a company very long. Career advancement is important. After all, if there are no advancement opportunities, then you will be expected to do the same work for them FOREVER. That isn’t what most people want. Remember, career advancement opportunities don’t have to be management-related, either. They can be opportunities to learn new things and use that training in your work.

Unhealthy Workplace Culture

Toxic workplace culture can be seen in some of the previous red flags but is worthy of its own section. An interviewer who is toxic may want you to sign a non-disclosure agreement before you begin interviewing without providing an explanation as to why. Prematurely having to sign an NDA, they are hiding something negative. If the interviewer is trying to convince you to sign an NDA, don’t do it. You are interviewing for a job, not joining a cult.

Excessive Micromanagement

Excessive micromanagement can lead to poor work quality, low morale, high turnover, and a toxic workplace. But, what does excessive micromanagement look like? How can you spot it during an interview? Excessive micromanagement is when your interviewer is overly specific in what you should do and how you should do it. You’re not given any freedom to make your own decisions and to problem-solve. Excessive micromanagement robs people of their creativity and freedom to make their own decisions. When hiring managers are being too specific, ask if you can make decisions on your own without their permission.

Unreasonable Expectations

When an interviewer is promising you the world, but they also has unreasonable expectations of you, you need to run. Expectations are important because they let you know what your employer expects of you. Some expectations are more reasonable than others. If your interviewer is promising you the world, but they also has unreasonable expectations for you, then your work life will be a living hell. It’s important that you find out what the expectations are before accepting the job. If your interviewer is promising you the world but also has unreasonable expectations for you, ask what the expectations are. Ask them, “Let’s say you hire me and I come on board, what would your expectations of me be for the first 30, 60, 90 days?” Almost every hiring manager can answer that question. Follow it up with, “Let’s say I come on board, it’s a year later and you are thrilled with the decision you made to hire me. What will I have accomplished that will make you think that way?” The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about their expectations.

Use LinkedIn to Test What You Are Told

Lisa Rangel of Chameleon Resumes suggests searching on LinkedIn and Googling the title and company to see how many people have held that position before. See what jobs they went to after holding that role. Consider reaching out to them and learn what they liked and found most intolerable. Assess what’s tolerable and what’s intolerable. Notice how long they held the position to see if it was a lengthy employment opportunity or not. Many people turning over in a short period of time should be a signal to you. After all, why should it be any different for you?

The Bottom line

If you notice any of these red flags during your interview, it’s a good idea to walk away. Yet Terrence Seamon of Smart Moves Coaching points out, “How dysfunctional an organization may be is in the eye of the beholder. We each have our own threshold for what we will put up with. When talking with people who work there, keep a grain of salt handy. Talk to recruiters who are knowledgeable about the industry in question.“ There are plenty of other companies out there that won’t abuse you because that is what happens in toxic environments.

When changing jobs, unlike what mutual funds use as a disclaimer, past performance does indicate future behavior. Environments will win and grind you down. They will not change because one person joined who does not possess the institutional authority to make changes. Very few of you will join at a level to affect the change needed. They think this way is good. They are not prepared to change, even if they tell you they are. That’s because institutional friction has interfered with your predecessors’ making changes. It won’t be any different for you.

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Jeff Altman, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter, is a career and leadership coach who helps people with their careers, including a job search, hiring more effectively, managing and leading, and resolving workplace-related issues while being the person they want to be in life. He has written 9 books and guides to job search and hiring, including "The Ultimate Job Interview Framework" and "The Right Answers to Tough Interview Questions." He is the host of No BS Job Search Advice Radio, the #1 podcast in Apple Podcasts for job search with more than 2100 episodes, as well as on YouTube, Amazon, Roku, Apple TV, and 90+ smart sets. Jeff works with clients worldwide and is a popular speaker.


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