Toxic work environments, with unreasonable deadlines and abusive colleagues, can leave a permanent mark on your psyche. Once you’re in a toxic job, you sleep less, stress more and may even lose the energy and willpower to escape the terrible environment.
Unfortunately, people often don’t recognize the red flags of a toxic job until the interview process or after they are hired. But before you even officially apply for a job, there can be signs that the company you want to work for may be bad news.
Here are some red flags to watch out for, and strategies for how to suss out these warning signs before you waste time applying:
1. People who work there are quick to trash colleagues and share concerning anecdotes.
Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group, suggests reaching out to past or current employees through your personal network or by cold-contacting them on LinkedIn. “Getting firsthand inside scoop on the company is the best way” to spot red flags, she said.
In these conversations, you don’t need to come right out and say you’re trying to figure out if the job will be toxic. Abbajay suggested simply saying: “I’m thinking about applying for a job at so-and-so. I would love to get your insights into the culture of the company.”
If someone is willing to share, ask them what are the hours are like, what the leadership is like, if people seem happy to work there and whatever other concerns you have. To suss out toxicity, listen for signs that people are treated less than humanely.
“Is leadership condescending or is leadership supportive? Do they make [them] feel less than competent? Do they rule with an iron fist where everyone has to walk in lockstep?” Abbajay said. “Those things that dehumanize us or make it hard to bring your full self to work, those can be toxic.”
Ideally, you would talk to more than one employee to get a more holistic sense of the culture, Abbajay said. That’s why she suggests making one of your questions “Is there anyone else I should talk to?”
Jocelyn Lai, global head of talent acquisition at Duolingo, said it can be eye-opening to see how willing employees are to speak critically of their leadership to an outsider.
“If you have people who are OK with badmouthing leadership, that is probably a sign of the culture,” she said. “There are some people who can be critical of the organization, but it’s not finger-pointing. And that probably gives you a signal of shared responsibility when there’s a fail.”
2. There’s a pattern of bad reviews that mention a troubled culture.
Outside of talking to people directly, reading about an organization on job review sites like Glassdoor can give you a clue as to what keeps employees at the company ― and what drives them away.
“If it’s too much work, that’s one thing. If it’s bosses that scream and yell, that’s another,” Abbajay said. “If you see recurring themes, then that is something to really pay attention to.”
Keep in mind that you should take reviews with a grain of salt, as one person’s tirade may not be representative of what it’s like to work at a company. And “if they don’t really say anything, they just give it one star, that is not going to help you,” Abbajay said.
But consistent mentions of bad managers or inhumane treatment are something to watch out for.
3. There’s video proof of leadership behaving badly.
How people talk about their jobs and how they talk about their colleagues can inadvertently reveal a lot about the company’s culture.
One way to see what your possible future colleagues and leadership teams are like, especially outside of rehearsed settings, is to look at live interviews, Lai said. If people are not polite when cameras are rolling, they are likely to be mean-spirited in their day-to-day conduct too.
Lai recalled a time when she was job-hunting and watched a video interview where the CEO of a potential employer was not polite to the interviewer.
“I remember being like, ‘Well, maybe he was put in a weird position, so let me watch a few other videos.’ And the other videos confirmed the exact same thing,” Lai said. “I still went through the interview process out of curiosity, and when I met the CEO, it confirmed again that his personality was exactly how I viewed it on the video.”
“I probably could have saved three hours just not even interviewing and trusting my gut on the video,” Lai said.
Beyond video, clues may also come in the form of unsavory comments on social media, said Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment attorney. “Are they saying negative things about employees? Or denying claims made by employees?”
4. The organizational structure suggests you may be set up to fail.
Lai suggests looking at the organization’s structure for clues that you could be stepping into a toxic, overburdened work culture.
“For me, it comes down to how are you valued as an employee and as a human. There are a lot of aspects to toxicity,” she said. “There is one of ‘Is your job valued?’ If it’s not, you are never going to be successful, and that can contribute to toxicity.“
One way you can screen for this, as an outsider, is to deduce what you can about the company’s structure and resources from checking LinkedIn, staff bios and other sources. When there are not enough people dedicated to a role to align with a company’s size, it can be a sign that getting everything you need to be successful will be an uphill battle, Lai explained.
“There have been instances where I was considering applying to a job and I’m like, ‘Oh, so there is only one person in this role? That doesn’t make sense from an operational perspective,’” Lai said. “If there are 1,000 people [in the company], and there is only one person for this role, that probably means the person is going to burn out.”
5. Lawsuits have been filed, alleging discrimination or unfair labor practices.
Look up the company’s name in local court records. Ballman said this may reveal how employers really treat employees behind positive public relations.
“Have ex-employees sued the company? Has the company sued ex-employees?” she said. “If so, it might be worth spending some money pulling those records.”
One free thing you can do is see whether there has been any news coverage of lawsuits involving the company. Such articles will likely give you basic information about alleged discrimination or unfair labor practices.
Ultimately, the goal of this legal research is to save yourself time.
“Some due diligence before applying, and certainly some due diligence before accepting an offer, can save you a lot of heartache down the road,” Ballman said.