Hindsight is 20/20. When you leave a toxic job, you can clearly see all the red flags that you either downplayed or ignored. It’s easy to replay those situations in your head and imagine what you would have done differently. As much as you may have learned and grown from the experience, your time is valuable. In the future, I want to show you what job search red flags to look out for and what you should do when you encounter one.
In the aftermath of “The Great Resignation,” you’re currently seeing people who have drawn a line in the sand and said, “enough is enough!” By highlighting job search red flags, we can educate people everywhere, so nobody falls for them ever again. And by standing your ground, you may help to change these toxic traits for the generation of women who follow us.
You can start to look for red flags as soon as you read a job description. At this stage, it’s early enough to do something about them. The important thing is to not get so blinded by the salary or title that you overlook something that could blow up in the future. Remember that in a job search you should be interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you.
Red Flags in the Job Description
Red Flag #1: When you read a job description and see the statement “We’re like a family.”
“We’re like a family” translates to “We don’t respect boundaries.” While a family-style culture seems nice in theory, remember that you already have a family. The problem with this type of culture is that companies often want you to spend all your free time at work and/or with the people you work with. If you don’t fully embrace this new lifestyle, it’s implied that you don’t fit in with the rest of the group. A family culture won’t respect any of your boundaries, remember you’re helping out your “family” so hours don’t really count.
Working in a “family” makes it difficult to quantify your performance. In this type of culture, more emphasis is placed on your internal relationships versus the work you’ve accomplished. Unfortunately, this can lead to uncomfortable situations when it’s time to negotiate promotions and raises. And at the end of the day, even if you consider your coworkers “family” the company can fire you at any time.
If you even see the word “family” in a job description, I recommend that you keep looking. This type of culture is hard to break out of and you don’t want to get trapped in a job for years due to a sense of “family loyalty.” Psychologist Adam Grant writes about this family culture phenomenon and why it doesn’t work.
Red Flag #2: Are you able to multi-task in a fast-paced environment?
There are a number of phrases that should make you pause. Things like “fast-paced environment, wear many hats, ability to multi-task, energetic self-starter, works well under pressure,” etc. tell you a lot about how overworked you will be in this position. These types of phrases mean that they are short-staffed and will want you to do the work of 2-3 people. The environment will be out of control. Sayings like “work hard, play hard” translates to impossible demands, lots of overtime, and you’re going to burn out fast.
Proceed with caution on these job search red flags. If you decide to move forward with an interview, you want to get a clear job description and expectations. What does the turnover rate look like? Are you the next in a long line of employees who worked their butts off for little recognition?
Red Flag #3: Unrealistic Expectations
Let’s say you’re looking for a marketing manager position, but when you read the job description and the company has listed the qualifications of multiple disciplines. They want you to do sales, manage projects, manage the company’s social media and digital assets, public relations, advertising, and more. They are essentially looking for a team of people, but they’re only hiring one person. You’ll start the job thinking you’re doing one thing and a few months in be completely underwater and unable to keep up.
In this case, it’s up to you to be a savvy negotiator. They are interested in you because you’re an expert in your field and an expert can say that they have unrealistic expectations for the position. If you move forward, you can stand your ground and create a job that makes sense for one person to manage. You could even help put a plan in place to hire a marketing team in the future. But if the company isn’t willing to compromise, you have to walk away. Don’t set yourself up for failure before you’ve even started.
Red Flags in the Interview
If you’ve decided to move forward to the interview phase, keep in mind that this isn’t just an opportunity for the company to interview you, but it’s an opportunity for you to interview the company. If there are too many red flags in the interview process, it’s okay for you to walk away.
Red Flag #4: Too Many Tests/Asked to Work for Free
If a prospective company has asked you to do a free trial period before they hire you, I highly advise you to walk away. In order to do a trial, you’re taking a big risk. You might have to quit your job and burn bridges with your current employer to make this happen – with no promise of a job on the other side. You also don’t ever want to work for free – your time is valuable! This sometimes happens in academia where they ask you to teach a free lesson to students to see how you perform.
In positions where you produce a service, you might be asked to provide sample work such as a marketing plan or writing example. If you have previous work samples in your portfolio that should suffice. You should NEVER provide hours of work for free like full marketing plans or a report. IF you decide to move forward in this situation you should get paid for your work. You can charge an hourly or project rate for the company. There’s no guarantee that they won’t take your plan and use it without hiring you. It’s extremely unethical and a huge red flag that you don’t want to work for that company. Medium wrote a helpful article with a number of ways you can address this type of ask, read more here.
Red Flag #5: Constant Rescheduling and Disorganization
You may notice a theme at this point – which is not wasting your time. If you’re in an extremely long and disorganized interview process it can tell you a lot about the company. If it’s difficult to get an interview scheduled with a manager, how involved will they be on a day-to-day basis? If hiring is a priority for them, why haven’t they made time in their schedule? This also tells you that they are too busy to mentor you. How they treat you during the interview process is a big indication of how you’ll be treated as an employee.
The same ambiguity that you hate in the dating world also applies to the hiring process. If the company isn’t transparent on their hiring timeline, they don’t call you back for weeks, or they don’t communicate next steps, are all signs that they “just aren’t that into you” or they don’t have approval to hire from leadership. This could also mean that every decision is micromanaged and the person you’ve interviewed with doesn’t have decision-making power. This shines a light on what the culture might look like.
In this situation, you want to take charge and set your own expectations. You also don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket – always aim to interview with multiple companies and keep the process moving along. You want to negotiate from a place of power versus only investing one job at a time.
Red Flag #6: Invasive Personal Questions
It is illegal for a company to discriminate against you and asking invasive personal questions is a big red flag that they are doing this. Questions about race, color, gender, religion, disability, etc. are illegal for a company to ask. This article details everything that is specifically illegal and the opportunities where you should file a complaint.
For example, as women, many companies are trying to decide if you’re planning to have a family so they don’t have to invest in someone who will be taking maternity leave in the future. So questions about marital status, if you have children, or intend to have children are illegal. Companies sometimes create questions to get around these legalities that should raise concerns. Things like “Do you need a flexible schedule?” or “Many of our employees work 12–14-hour days – would that be a problem for you?” You don’t have to provide personal details here and just remember that if you complete the interview you don’t have to accept an offer.
Red Flags on the Job
You might have been working for a company for years and all of a sudden, the culture starts to change. It’s hard to notice when this happens, but these are some red flags to watch out for.
Red Flag #7: Multi-Tasking During Meetings
Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone was on their laptops doing other things and not engaged in the meeting? This is a big sign that you’re in a toxic work environment. The expectation might be to spend your days in meetings and do the actual work after hours. Employees will adapt and try to get as much done as they can during the meeting so they can keep up. This is a preview of the amount of stress you’ll be under trying to keep up with the status quo. Multi-tasking kills productivity and lets you know that your leaders aren’t really engaged with you or your work.
Red Flag #8: Human Resources is Non-Existent
Once you’ve accepted a position, you’ll get a good sense of how involved the company’s human resources department is. What kind of onboarding process do they have? Did you receive an employee handbook? If you’re working for a small business, there might be one person that does some human resources functions but isn’t an official HR department. The key in this situation is to determine how respected the HR function is. Do they set policy that is enforced? Or do people hear the information and then do the opposite?
At a larger company, HR should be involved in hiring, firing, personnel issues, and company culture. You can tell how integrated HR is in the culture by who is making and enforcing the decisions. Is HR just making sure people sign relevant forms and providing insurance options? Or is HR involved in team building and communication exercises?
Red Flag #9: Continual Promises that are Never Delivered On
This red flag is a little more nuanced but is designed to string you along and keep you stuck. Dangling promises of a promotion, raise, more help, and changes in the office or culture can keep you in a job for longer than you need to be. Imagine a scenario where you have a great annual review and you get ready to hear your boss tell you about a promotion or a raise, but instead, they tell you that they want to offer you a promotion or raise, but they can’t at the moment. They will revisit it in a few months when they are more financially stable or when things have changed. This is the number one sign that you’re not valuable enough to the company. Anyone who says this to you knows that by doing this you might leave the company and are okay with it. So if you hear this, it’s time to start looking.
On the flip side, you might be receiving promotions and raises to keep you happy while you are begging for more team members to help manage the workload. These are tactics to keep you placated and buy them time. The question is how much time are you willing to spend waiting on a change?
If you’re experiencing any of these job search red flags and are unsure of how to move forward, let me know. I’ve seen it all and I can help you work through it and decide how to handle it. That being said, sometimes you just have to move on, and that’s okay. It’s a candidate’s market at the moment and you don’t have to settle for less!