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The easiest time to escape a “nightmare job” is before you ever take it. Let’s look at how to avoid toxic workplaces in your job search.

What is a toxic workplace?

An organization may be toxic in various ways. Difficult personalities, poor communication, lack of clarity about goals and procedures, cliques and turf wars, inequity, exclusion or harassment can make for a miserable job.

The word “toxic” is apt. Workplaces like these can result in so much stress that employees’ health is damaged.

The key is: due diligence in researching the company, before and during the interview process.

Read between the lines in the job posting.

Hectic language like “constantly changing deadlines” and “high tolerance for ambiguity” may be a clue that the organization is inefficient and chaotic. If they’re seeking a “superstar” or “wizard,” maybe it takes a wizard to get anything done there. Another red flag is vagueness about job duties, as in a posting that mentions “wearing many hats” with little explanation; it can be hard to meet expectations that aren’t clearly defined. Listen to your gut: does anything in the description make you uneasy? If so, look more closely. It may just be a poorly written posting, but maybe it’s truly a toxic workplace.

How can you research the workplace for issues before applying/interviewing?

Word of mouth is the best way. Reach out to employees via personal introductions, LinkedIn or other social media. Better yet, talk to former employees, who may be more frank. The best time to have these conversations is before you apply. People may be less guarded in talking with someone who’s not already in the interviewing process at their company. This is only one reason, among many, why it’s a good idea to focus your job search on talking with people in companies of interest before an opening occurs.

Notice how long the job has been open. If they’re taking a long time to fill the position, that could be a red flag. Maybe other candidates know something you don’t, and are dropping out partway through the interview process. Maybe the role was filled for a short time, but the new hire was unhappy and left. On the other hands, it may just mean they’re looking for a hard-to-find combination of qualifications.

Direct observation is another way to spot potential problems.

How to spot a toxic workplace through direct observation:

While you’re on site for an interview or an informational meeting, observe the body language of any employees you see. Do you see smiles? Do they look relaxed, yet engaged? What about their tone of voice–do you hear pleasant voices, or secretive mutters? When you’re introduced, do people responded in an open and friendly way, or do they seem overly cautious?

If you receive an offer from a company you’re worried about, and you haven’t had enough opportunities to talk with team members, consider asking for such meetings. You might say, “I’m very interested in this role, and I’d like to get a better sense of the team environment. Would it be possible to arrange for me to meet (mention specific team members, or just ‘members of the team’)?”

Interview questions to help you spot a toxic workplace:

(Some of the questions below can be helpful in your informational meetings as well.)

Most of the following questions are fairly indirect, and the answers may be equally subtle. Listen carefully to the responses you receive, noticing both what the person is saying and not saying. Watch their body language. For example, if they say, “As a manager, Mike has very particular expectations” while looking closely into your eyes, raising their eyebrows slightly and offering a small, tight smile—they may be inviting you to read between the lines! Probe with follow-up questions. But be tactful and pleasant–being perceived as suspicious and paranoid isn’t going to win you any offers. Keep your attitude positive and your tone friendly as you ask questions like the following.

“What are this company’s core values?” Or better yet, “I like the four core values mentioned on the website—Customer Satisfaction, Drive for Excellence, Transparency and Teamwork. Which of those do you think the company most embodies in everyday life?” And then, “Which one does the company struggle to live by?”
“What do you (the hiring manager) enjoy most about your role here?” And then, “And if you could change one thing about this workplace, what would it be?”
“How would you describe the culture in this department/team?”
“Will it be possible for me to meet my prospective co-workers during the interview process?” (Present this as a way to flesh out your understanding of the company culture and the work. If they don’t want you to meet the team, that may be a red flag.)
“How does this company promote inclusivity so all employees can succeed?”
“How would you describe your management style?”
“What recognition have your team members received in the past year?”
“What’s the best idea you’ve heard from a team member recently, and what was done with it?”
“How did this position come open?” (If the previous incumbent left, ask whether they moved up within the company or took a position elsewhere. How long were they in this role before they left? What has the turnover been like in this role—for example, how many people have held this role in the past 5 years or 10 years?)
“What is the most difficult or stressful part of this role?”

Sometimes it’s obvious.

One job seeker spoke with an employee and was told, “The main question you need to ask yourself is whether you really want to work here.” She took the job, but soon found the environment was bogged down with office politics and many disengaged workers. Another was openly told at the interview, “This is a very stressful place to work.” He finished the interview, just in case he might discover a reason why the job might be worth the stress. He didn’t find such a reason, and later sent a polite email declining further consideration.

Knowing how to avoid a toxic workplace can save you a lot of pain, suffering and possibly career stagnation as well. Know when to say “No, thanks”! And if you find yourself in a toxic job, know how to quit your job the smart way. (This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.)