My past two jobs have been at incredibly unhealthy organizations with high turnover, and I’m starting to lose faith that there are any workplaces out there that are healthy. How do I make sure I don’t end up in a toxic work environment again?
Based on my past experiences, some companies are really good at hiding their toxicity during the interview process. When I was interviewing for my current job, they emphasized that this was a new role. What I didn’t find out until after I had worked there for a few months was that while my title was new, two people before me had done very similar work. Those two people each left after only a few months, without other positions lined up. This is obviously a huge red flag, and I wouldn’t have taken the job had I known this. But it didn’t occur to me to ask why the previous person left, because I didn’t think there was a previous person.
The main reason people on my team keep leaving so quickly is the manager, whom we’ll call Susan. Susan is incredibly inappropriate and has commented that I’m “lucky to make such a good salary” (I’m on the cusp of qualifying for Section 8 housing, whereas she makes six figures), complained that I wasn’t online at midnight when she needed help with something, and has told me, “I’d be crying if I were you” after giving me negative feedback. I ended up connecting with one of the people who left the team before me, and she told me that the director of HR asked her point-blank, “Are you quitting because of Susan?” The HR director told her that they’ve gotten a lot of complaints about Susan but can’t do anything about it because people won’t go on the record.
In addition to the high turnover on my team, the turnover rate for our office as a whole was 52 percent last year. I read rumblings on Glassdoor that there was high turnover, but that amount seems astronomical.
How am I supposed to know that a work environment is like this if I’m not given the full story during the interview process (and when HR knows about issues but isn’t addressing them)? During my interview, I asked a lot of questions about culture, but Susan is the type of person who can put on a nice act when meeting someone for the first time. Is this kind of behavior normal? Is there anything I can do on my end to ensure that what I’m being told is true so that I can avoid this in the future?
Some employers do indeed misrepresent the job and their work culture in remarkable ways.
Some interviewers genuinely believe what they’re telling you but are oblivious to what things are really like. For example, a manager who tells you she gives people a lot of autonomy might really believe that about herself, even though her staff knows her to be an overbearing micromanager.
Other interviewers intentionally shade the truth because to do otherwise would feel like badmouthing their own company, or because they worry no one will take the job if they don’t. Of course, this is a terrible way to hire! Not only is it unfair to mislead candidates, but it’s not even in the interviewer’s own interest. If new hires feel they were lied to, they’re not going to be happy and engaged; they’re going to be bitter and demoralized, and they’re probably not going to stick around for long.
It’s hard to say which of these was the case with your current employer. It’s possible that your job really was a “new role” to them. It sounds like the work you’re doing isn’t identical to that of your predecessors, even aside from the title change, so who knows — maybe they legitimately made changes to the job that they thought would help and that’s why they emphasized “new role” in the hiring process. Or yes, maybe they were deliberately trying to cover up the short tenures of the previous employees.
The key for you as a candidate is not to rely so heavily on what employers tell you about themselves. Interviewers, like anyone else, can have serious blind spots and/or be tempted to bend the truth in flattering ways. Your interviewers are one source of data about what you’re signing up for, but they shouldn’t be your only one. It’s crucial to seek out your own sources of information about the employer.
The best way to do that is to find people outside the formal interview process to talk with. And the easiest way to do that is with LinkedIn, where you can see who in your network is connected to someone who has worked for the company or manager. These don’t need to be direct connections — it could be someone connected to your former co-worker’s friend’s sister, as long as you have a path to them. Ask the closer connection to make the introduction, and you’ll be much more likely to get candid, firsthand info about what it’s really like to work there. (I recently coached someone through doing this, and she ended up turning down an offer she’d been on the verge of accepting after people she found through her network told her horror stories about the toxic management culture there.)
If you can’t find anyone in your network — or your network’s network — who can give you the inside scoop on the job, your next
-best option is to ask the employer if you can talk with some of their current employees. Smart employers will have already set this up for you as part of the interview process, but if they haven’t and you’ve reached the finalist or offer stage, it’s reasonable to ask if they’d be willing to connect you with one or two employees who can help flesh out your understanding of the work culture. (You should wait until you’re at the finalist stage before you make this request, though.) Current employees whose manager asks them to speak with you might not be as candid as the people you find on your own, but if you pay attention to wording and even body language, you should still be able to pick up a lot.
Beyond that, you can often gather a lot of information from what you see during the hiring process: How does your potential manager treat you during the interview? Is she polite, respectful of your time, and actively interested in you, or does she seem distracted, skeptical, or dismissive? Does she answer direct questions head-on or give you vague or evasive responses? Is she genuinely interested in answering your questions, or does she make you feel rushed or like an inconvenience? How up-front is she about the downsides of the job or company culture? Do you feel like you’re having an honest conversation about the work and culture, or like someone is trying to sell you something?
It’s also worth paying some attention to how the manager talks about her management style, although you shouldn’t take it as the final word. You probably won’t get a ton of useful info by directly asking a manager what their management style is; managers can be notoriously bad at self-assessing this. But you can often get useful information by asking questions like, “What type of person works best with you, and what type of person doesn’t do as well?” and, “What differentiates people who are pretty good in this role from the ones who are really great at it?”
None of this is foolproof against a company that’s deliberately misrepresenting itself. But it’ll significantly increase your chances of avoiding unpleasant surprises after you start.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.