Early Signs of a Bad Place to Work

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It’s generally agreed that a job interview goes both ways. The company is interviewing a potential employee, getting a sense of the person behind the resume and determining whether or not the individual will fit into the company culture. At the same time, the potential employee is taking the measure of the company itself, trying to decide if the culture will be a good fit for them. After all, if we’re going to spend forty hours (and more) at a place, we want to at least enjoy ourselves.

A comprehensive company culture assessment for potential employees is crucial in determining if the workplace aligns with your values. Company culture encompasses the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by members of an organization. It shapes the work environment and influences how employees interact with each other and approach their work.

A thorough workplace environment evaluation can reveal much about the company’s core values and operational style. So what are some signs that potential employees should look for to determine if the company will be a horrible place to work?

1. All the employees look miserable

If you can, get your potential employer to take you on a tour through the office, if not, see how many people you can see as you go to the room where you’re being interviewed. Employees represent their companies, whether they realize it or not. How many people look happy to be at their desks, and how many look completely miserable? In a good work environment, people will seem, at the bare minimum, neutral. Employee engagement metrics are often reflected in the energy and collaboration levels observed in the workplace.

In addition to noting employee expressions, pay attention to their interactions. Are colleagues collaborating or isolated? Do managers engage with their teams in a supportive manner? The quality of these interactions often reveals more than facial expressions alone. Recent studies indicate that positive employee interactions are linked to higher job satisfaction and productivity, making this a critical aspect to observe.

2. The office is a mess

Sometimes things happen; an office is being renovated or the company is in the midst of a big transition. But if you walk into the building and there are boxes piled up against walls, chairs are stuffed into empty offices, and everything just seems cluttered and disorganized, the culture is likely to be just as lackadaisical, which isn’t going to be a good sign.

While assessing the physical environment, also observe the technology and tools provided to employees. Are they modern and efficient, or outdated and cumbersome? The investment a company makes in its infrastructure and tools is often a direct reflection of its commitment to employee efficiency and satisfaction. A well-equipped workspace not only improves productivity but also demonstrates a company’s dedication to fostering a positive work environment.

3. Everyone’s still at work at 5pm

When it’s possible, schedule your interview towards the end of the day. Take a look through the office. How many people still have their heads buried in their paperwork with no sign of emerging anytime soon? Sure, a few people might need to stay a little late on any given day, but if the end of the work day comes and goes without any sign of people actually leaving, you should be worried. The expectation in this job will be endless overtime.

Consider inquiring about the company’s policies on flexible working hours and remote work options. In the era of digital transformation, a company’s approach to work flexibility can be a telling sign of its adaptability and respect for employee needs. A 2023 survey revealed that companies offering flexible work arrangements saw a 25% lower employee turnover rate.

4. The interviewer keeps talking about some random accommodation they’ve made

The Keurig machine or the ping-pong table or the newly renovated break room. Whatever it might be, if you ask about workplace culture, and they keep bringing up some new fancy toy that they bought for the office, be cautious. Look for employee well-being indicators like flexible hours and mental health support during your visit. Yes, having a place for employees to get up and get some refreshments is a good idea that can promote a healthy and pleasant workplace. But if this is the only answer an interviewer has for their business culture, then it’s a good guess that they don’t actually understand what culture is, or why they should have a good one.

While amenities like coffee machines and game rooms are pleasant, delve deeper into the company’s initiatives for employee development and well-being. Does the company offer continuous learning opportunities, career advancement programs, or mental health support? These elements are integral to a nurturing work environment, going beyond surface-level perks to ensure long-term employee growth and satisfaction.

5. Reluctance to answer questions

A good rule of thumb for an interview is that the interviewer should be talking less than 25% of the time. Some of that is going to be asking the potential employee questions, but a good chunk of that time should also be spent answering any questions that the interviewee has about the company. If the interviewer seems reluctant to give that time, or if they answer questions with abrupt, unclear answers, you should be concerned.

Observe the transparency and openness in communication. A culture of open communication is often indicative of a healthy work environment. Inquire about the company’s policy on feedback and how it handles employee suggestions and grievances. A company that values and acts on employee feedback typically fosters a more inclusive and positive workplace.

6. Red flags during the Interview process

One red flag is the use of excessive corporate jargon. When an interviewer leans heavily on buzzwords or industry-specific lingo, it can mask a lack of substance in the company’s culture or values. For example, if you ask about team dynamics and the response is a string of vague terms like “synergy” and “paradigm shifts” without concrete examples, this could indicate a superficial approach to team management.

Another subtle yet telling sign is evasive answers. If you pose a direct question about challenges the team has faced and receive a generic or sidestepping response, this might suggest a lack of transparency or openness within the organization. To uncover these nuances, consider asking specific questions like, “Can you describe a recent challenge the team encountered and how it was resolved?” or “How does the company support professional development and handle setbacks?” These inquiries not only provide insight into the company’s problem-solving approaches but also test the interviewer’s willingness to engage in candid discussions

7. Concerning answers to questions

Some great questions to ask about a company include:

  • Why did the last person leave this position? How long had they been here? Why did they leave? If the answer is an accusation or blaming them, be concerned.
  • How many hours a week, realistically, does it take to do this job? If they swear it’s going to take every minute of your forty hours, expect that it’ll take longer than they’re saying.
  • How often do you see people after 5 p.m.? Good answers might include that they go out occasionally for a beer or play on the softball team. Bad answers would include endless stories about projects that extend into nights and weekends.

Ultimately, in a weak economy, people often find that they need to take the job they can get. We certainly understand that no company is perfect. You also might go in for an interview and see one or two of these signs, and feel like company culture is just fine. But if you see several of them, be concerned.

As an employer, if you’re reading this list and thinking that many of these things describe your company, it’s time to look around and see what you can do to detoxify your culture. Start by talking to your employees and finding out what matters the most to them. Create a targeted list to improve your company culture. And while you do it, be honest with potential employees about where you are, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there.

What do you think are the most important factors feeding into company culture?


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