Landing a job interview is exciting, especially if you’re eager to pay back your student loans. But even if you’re a good fit for the position, the company might not be a good fit for you. Piyush Patel, corporate culture expert and author of “Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work,” believes you can spot a company’s toxic culture before accepting an offer.
In his 20 years of experience, he’s figured out what questions to ask during an interview to get a feel for a company’s culture, why you should take an office tour, and why it’s important to use the restroom during an interview.
Here’s how to identify signs of a toxic company culture during a job interview.
1. Ask certain questions
It’s hard to get a feel for a company’s culture during a job interview. Everyone’s dressed to impress and ready with a list of questions, and answers are prepared ahead of time to try to avoid ruining the first impression. But there are ways you can figure out if a company is a good fit for you.
“During the interview, stay away from aspirational questions in favor of more realistic ones,” said Patel. “Instead of asking your interviewer an aspirational question like ‘What have you enjoyed most about working here?’ … ask about something more practical, like their onboarding program. Do they have one? How long does it last? What does success look like to them?”
According to Patel, if all a company offers is a two-week orientation class with other new hires, that’s a red flag. After those two weeks, do you get thrown into a job where they expect you to figure out how to fit into the culture on your own? “Oversights by leadership like this are a sign they don’t focus on integrating people into an existing culture,” he said.
Another practical question to ask is “Who can help me get adjusted to the culture here in my first month?” No one walks into a new job with a new office, new colleagues, and new projects without an adjustment period, according to Patel. If leadership expects you to figure it out on your own, that’s a red flag.
2. Use your senses
Go beyond the literal spoken word to get a real feel for the work environment.
“When the interviewer asks questions, does it sound like they’re reciting questions, or do they genuinely care who they’re bringing on to the team?” asked Patel. “This is important to keep in mind beyond the interview itself.”
If you get the chance to take a tour of the office, use your senses to identify any potential red flags, Patel advised. Is there a sense of panic in people’s voices? Do you see locked cabinets at desks? A clean-desk policy is a sign there’s a lack of trust among co-workers. “If you can’t trust your co-workers to leave your stuff alone on your desk, will you trust them to do the right thing in a major project?” he asked.
Your sense of smell can even come in handy. “If you smell someone’s lunch at their desk, that’s a good indicator that people don’t have enough time to take a break,” said Patel. “This usually means leadership doesn’t have a good process in place for scaling, leaving people scrambling.”
3. Visit the bathroom
A great way to get a peek into what a company’s culture is like is by visiting the one place where people have the chance to do the right thing for their colleagues when no one else is looking: the bathroom.
You’ve been there — reaching for the toilet paper but all you see is cardboard. For Patel, that’s a warning sign.
“When I see an empty toilet paper holder, I see disrespect,” he said. “If someone isn’t willing to take the five seconds out of their day to replace the roll for the next person, are they likely to spend significant time to make sure they hand off projects without issues? It’s at moments like these when you can see how genuine your culture is.”
It might seem silly, but rock band Van Halen used the same basic principle. Its productions were so massive that they could be deadly if the crew didn’t pay attention to the details. So, to test the crew’s diligence, Van Halen requested no brown M&M’s in the dressing room.
It wasn’t about the chocolate; it was a safety issue. If the band discovered brown M&M’s, it knew someone wasn’t pay attention to the technical details, which meant it might not be safe to step on stage. It all comes down to the details and the dedication of your team members.
4. Do your research
The great thing about the internet is that current and former employees likely have already expressed their views of a company somewhere online. Use them to help you make a decision.
“A great place to start is by looking at websites like Glassdoor and Indeed to look up the anonymous reviews from people already working there and see if there are any patterns,” said Patel. “Are there a lot of reviews from former employees or employees with less than a year of experience? That could be an indicator of high turnover. Do you see a lot of negative reviews followed by an influx of positive reviews? That might be someone from HR or marketing trying to cover up the negative reviews by posting some of their own.”
Depending on the company, you might be able to find some people who work there to connect with on social. They might not be able to share many details with you, and that’s all right. Ask about their typical day or use one of Patel’s favorite questions: “Why do you come to work each day?”
“The goal is to add to your notes on the company to help you make a more informed decision should you get a job offer,” he said. “You’re looking for indicators of … a culture that goes beyond the paycheck. You can tell when someone’s passionate about what they do compared to someone who’s only working for the weekend.”
Use your job interview strategically
Unfortunately, there’s not a magical list of questions to ask in an interview that’ll give you an accurate picture of a company’s culture. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all checklist of things to look for to help you spot a toxic workplace during an interview. But there are red flags to watch out for.
After your interview, take some time to reflect on what you noticed. “One or two flags, you might chalk that up to misinterpreting scenarios in the few limited moments you have in an interview or office tour,” said Patel. “When there are enough flags piling up that you’re losing count, that’s not a good sign.”
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